10 days and counting.
That’s how long is left for the Leafs to make a decision on Morgan Rielly’s World Junior Championship spot. Dave Nonis has been ambiguous so far, saying that it’s unlikely but not impossible that the 19 year old will make his way to Malmo for the tournament.
Should Rielly be allowed to go? Some say the experience that Rielly will get in Sweden outweighs a temporary loss of the puck mover, others (it would appear Randy Carlyle and Dave Nonis are among this category) feel that Rielly is a Leaf through and through, and do not want him missing games he could potentially help them win. For a bubble playoff team that could enter or miss the playoffs by only a few points, the latter view isn’t without merit.
As far as positives go, the above-mentioned experience Rielly would gain as a part of Team Canada cannot be overlooked. He would be the most seasoned and talented defender on the team, and probably play on the top pairing. This would be Rielly’s first taste of being a number one defenseman since his junior days, he’ll be relied upon to play in all situations and likely against the top opposition lines. This could work wonders for Rielly’s development, being relied upon to play 25+ minutes of two-way high-pressure hockey is something the Leafs hope he’ll one day do for them, giving him experience in that role on Team Canada could help him along on that path. Having him as a regular healthy scratch on the other hand, does not.
The biggest obstacle for Rielly going to the tournament is the Leafs’ depth on the blueline, can they handle losing him for a few weeks? Losing Rielly would leave the Leafs with seven NHL defensemen on the roster (including Fraser, who is a borderline NHLer at best right now). That figure assumes that there will be no injuries, something the Leafs probably shouldn’t be counting on given this season’s track record. Another factor to take into consideration is Dion Phaneuf’s possible suspension. His hit from behind on Kevan Miller has garnered him a phone hearing with Brendan Shanahan, meaning his suspension cannot exceed five games.
In terms of depth, I think the Leafs can handle losing Rielly. It doesn’t appear that Carlyle values his talents over that of Mark Fraser or Paul Ranger, evidenced by his consistently playing those two over Rielly. Mistake or not, that makes losing Rielly a far easier pill to swallow, as the team is already quite used to playing without him in the lineup.
With regards to a Phaneuf suspension, I don’t think it can really be the reason Rielly doesn’t go to the tournament. Assuming the worst happens and Phaneuf sits for five games, the Leafs will still have the opportunity to send Rielly as the five-game stretch ends before the cut-off date of the 29th, meaning the Phaneuf suspension will at worst delay Rielly’s WJC journey, but not make it an impossibility.
To conclude, I think the Leafs would be wise to send Rielly to the tournament if Carlyle continues to scratch Rielly as the team’s seventh defenseman. But if he re-enters the team’s regular lineup before the cut-off date comes, he should stay on the task of helping bring the Leafs to the playoffs.