At 19, is defenceman Morgan Rielly ready to play in the NHL?
That’s the magic question for the Maple Leafs to ponder at this week’s prospect camp.
The answer…who knows?
There’s no doubt that ideally, Rielly, the Leafs first-round pick in the 2012 draft and fifth overall, would play for the Marlies where he could continue to compete against men. Then, if the Leafs deemed him ready, Rielly could be recalled at the team’s convenience.
It doesn’t work that way.
Players drafted in 2012 are allowed to play only nine games before being either sent down or put on the NHL roster. What that effectively means is the Leafs have nine games to decide whether Rielly is NHL-ready. Problem is his body of work -exhibition games and that handful of NHL contests- is a thin sample size.
Called up from his Moose Jaw Warriors once the WHL team was knocked out of the playoffs, Rielly played 14 regular season games for the Marlies and another eight in the playoffs. Over the 22 games he scored twice and added a pair of assists. As a 19-year-old those numbers weren’t really indicative of his performance.
“Having a chance to play pro hockey was exciting and I think it’s going to help me a lot as I go into training camp,” Rielly said. “I think I got a bit more comfortable trying to chip in offensively. It went well.”
If the Leafs return Rielly to junior, they risk stalling his development. He was runner-up for WHL defenceman of the year last season and recorded 54 points in 60 games with the Warriors. But if Rielly is overmatched in the NHL his development could come to a grinding halt.
“I think he’s at the crossroads where it’s the NHL or back to junior,” said Jim Hughes, the Leafs Director of Player Development.
“I think there has to be a lot of thought in terms of him playing against 16 or 17 year-old kids. Will that benefit him? We’re not sure.”
The World Juniors in Sweden would be an excellent experience but a fourth season with the Warriors would do little to advance Rielly’s game.
“He’s physically strong and he’s crystal clear in where he wants to go,” Hughes said. “His skating is good, his vision is good, his skill sets are good. His maturity is good. It’s just a matter of time.”
The Leafs, of course, already have bona-fide puck carrying defenceman in Jake Gardiner and John-Michael Liles. Returnees Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson and Mark Fraser seem assured of spots.
Whether Rielly’s time is now will be one of the most interesting elements of training camp when the Leafs reconvene in September.