The first portion of the NHL season is highly experimental for many clubs. Coaches try out new players, assess their talent, and decide which group of twenty will lead them comfortably into the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the time is drawing near to make a decision on the immediate future of 19-year old defenceman Morgan Rielly, ultimately deciding if Rielly remains a Leaf for the duration of the 2013-14 season.
According to Hockey Night in Canada‘s iconic voice, Don Cherry, Rielly should stay with the big club this season. On an episode of Coaches Corner that aired October 12, Cherry proclaimed, “Everybody’s asking me about Morgan Rielly; should they send him back? Here’s the problem: This kid is dynamite. He is the best defenceman they’ve got. Now, if they send him back – and they might, I’m not saying they won’t – they can’t send him back.”
In the end, Cherry doesn’t really have a say in the matter, but as you can see, he thinks Rielly should stay, as do many others in Leaf Nation who have taken a liking to the promising young puck moving defenceman.
The day of decision is October 25. On that day, which happens to be this coming Friday, TML’s upper brass will be forced to choose between a season with Morgan Rielly patrolling the Blue & White blue line, or one without.
Leafs GM Dave Nonis has been quiet about Rielly’s immediate future with the Leafs. When he does discuss the situation he is vague, as witnessed in a column by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun. On October 16, Simmons quoted Nonis as saying, “I never make a decision until I have to. I like to wait until the end. That’s how I am. Besides, there’s no need to make it right now, is there?” Read the full story here.
Nonis is right, to be fair. As of October 16th it would have been ill-advised to make a pre-emtive public statement about a 19-year old with five games NHL experience. Rielly will have nine NHL games to his name when the Leafs must decide, and which way they are leaning is still unknown.
Perhaps the most significant factor pertaining to Rielly’s immediate future with the Leafs is the play of NHL returnee, Paul Ranger. The Ranger experiment has been mediocre at best to this point. Sure, he may need more time to ease back into a league he left high and dry in 2010, however, in the big leagues players don’t always enjoy such leisures. Thus, Ranger, who has been okay and is only signed for this season, doesn’t exactly fit into the Leafs plans moving forward the way Rielly does. Unless Ranger starts wowing, his time with the Leafs will likely be over when the 2013-14 season comes to an end. If Leafs’ GM Davd Nonis prefers Rielly to Ranger, the latter may be joining the club’s AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies in the very near future.
The Leafs’ six man defence corps share time on ice rather evenly. Captain Dion Phaneuf leads the way with an average of 24:39 per game, followed by Cody Franson who is averaging 21:49. Carl Gunnarsson, Paul Ranger and Jake Gardiner all play within the 19 minute range, while rookie Morgan Rielly sees substantial action, clocking in at 17:56 TOI average thus far. See Leafs ice time stats courtesy of NHL.com.
At nearly 18 minutes of TOI a game, Rielly is capable of directly influencing the outcome on any given night. In a contest against the Minnesota Wild last Tuesday, the Leafs budding star recorded two assists in a 3-1 win. On that night, Rielly’s offensive prowess was the difference between winning and losing.
There are other things to consider, as well, like the salary cap. The Leafs are up tight against the Cap ceiling. Finding room for Rielly may be tricky. That being said, they are allowed the option to defer Rielly’s bonuses until next season, helping them to save a few bucks this year.
Nonis is known for his patience and ability to not make senseless panicky decisions. Based on his track record, the Leafs GM will likely send Rielly back to the WHL if he believes the young man isn’t ready for a gruelling 82 game season with the Leafs. However, we don’t know what Nonis is thinking, and from the outside looking in, Rielly appears ready to contribute, here and now. This riddle will be solved by Friday the latest.