We are only six games into the regular season, but the Leafs are quickly approaching what will be one of their biggest decisions of the season: What to do with Morgan Rielly.
Rielly has played four games for the Leafs, so if he continues to play every game the Leafs won’t have to make a decision until October 25th, after a game against the Blue Jackets, at the earliest. He’s had a solid start to his NHL career averaging 17:24 a night, which has pretty well been all at evens as he averages less than a minute of shorthanded (11 seconds) and power play (47 seconds) time combined.
The 16:25 Rielly is averaging per game at even strength puts him behind only Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson on defense in that category, meaning he’s getting a regular shift but pretty well no special teams time. He’s partnering with Cody Franson, and at even strength is a top four defenseman. He’s playing.
The real question is how Rielly will develop throughout the season. Between 2004 and 2010, here are the other defensemen drafted in the top five, along with the year they broke into the league and an update on what they’re doing now:
2004: Cam Barker
- Went back to junior for two years after being drafted, and then split his first two pro season between the NHL and AHL.
- First full season in the NHL without any AHL time came in the 09-10 season, and he only played 13:05 per game that year. He’s currently out of the league.
- Appears Chicago kept waiting for him to develop, but he was a bust.
2005: Jack Johnson
- Went back to college for the two seasons following being drafted, much to the chagrin of Carolina’s GM Jim Rutherford because he traded him in part for doing so.
- He stepped straight into the NHL at 20 and played 21:41 a night for 74 games.
- Johnson has always been bad defensively, but he did begin showing his offensive potential at 22 with a 36 point season. The following year he had a career-high 42.
2006: Erik Johnson
- After being drafted first overall Johnson went back to college for one year before stepping into the NHL full-time at 19 and played 18:11/night.
- Now he’s a decent top four, but he hasn’t exactly lived up to his billing or potential.
2007: Thomas Hickey
- Went back and played in the WHL for two years after being drafted, playing very well and starring for team Canada in the WJC.
- Was limited to only 19 games in his first AHL season because of shoulder surgery, but then played 77 and 76 game seasons afterward before getting hurt in what was supposed to be his fourth full AHL season.
- At 23 he began establishing himself as an everyday NHL defenseman with the Islanders and looked solid doing so.
2007: Karl Alzner
- Went back and played his fourth year in the WHL after being drafted, while also starring for Team Canada. He was named top defenseman in the CHL in the same season.
- Split the next two years between the NHL and AHL before sticking for good at 22 years old. Now he’s a minute eating, shutdown, top four defenseman.
2008: Drew Doughty
- Made the Kings out of camp and then went on to lead the team in total ice time and ice time per game.
- He’s an elite defenseman and ascended as one. Has a Stanley Cup and Olympic Gold already.
2008: Zach Bogosian
- Played 18 minutes a night for 47 games and put up a respectable 19 points in a sheltered role.
- He’s stuck in the NHL since and has established himself as a top four defenseman with a long-term contract in hand. Bogosian has shown flashes of his offensive potential here and there but he hasn’t realized it yet.
2008: Alex Pietrangelo
- Went back to the OHL for the next two years after being drafted, despite getting a look in the NHL both times.
- He exploded for 43 points in his first full NHL season, and also played 22 minutes per game (and had the most total ice time of anyone on the team). Now
he’s a perennial Norris candidate.
2008: Luke Schenn
- Went straight to the NHL and played 21:32/game in a solid rookie season on a bad team.
- Since then he’s followed an on year-off year pattern in his career, but has never really shown that he can be the dominating physical force he was compared to in his draft year (Adam Foote).
2009: Victor Hedman
- Stepped straight into the NHL after being drafted and played nearly 21 minutes a night.
- Hedman has slowly and steadily grown as time has gone on, but he hasn’t become the dominating defenseman many thought he would be.
2010: Erik Gundbranson
- Played one more year in the OHL after being drafted, then played full-time for the Panthers logging 14:11/night (on a playoff team).
- Has now seen his ice time grow for two straight years and is beginning to establish himself as a legitimate top four defenseman.
It’s important to note that Rielly has already played one full season in the WHL after being drafted, but he also barely played in his draft year due to injury.
In comparison to most of these other defensemen, Rielly isn’t a big physical player (both Johnsons, Bogosian, Gundbranson, Hedman…) and instead relies on his skill, speed, passing ability, and vision to be a successful player. By that token, he’s better set to succeed in a sheltered scoring role and put up reasonable point totals, similar to Jake Gardiner.
It’s pretty clear, looking at what was done with defensemen drafted top 5 between 2004-2010, that there’s no science on what to do and each case really has to be judged on an individual basis.
In the last three games with Rielly in, Phaneuf has only played over 25 minutes once (25:02 vs. Colorado), and resting Phaneuf even if it’s just for an extra minute a night has to be appealing. The Leafs have evened out their minutes and spread out the time on ice effectively with Rielly in the fold which, to me, makes him a more attractive option to stay versus leave.
Rielly has the ability to play in the NHL, but Franson played better with Gardiner in the first two games of the season and Ranger is beginning to play the type of hockey the Leafs thought he could. Plus, Fraser will get a spot when he returns so if everyone is healthy Rielly might struggle to get into games.
To make matters even more complicated, TJ Brennan is playing like a man amongst boys in the AHL in order to show that he deserves to play in the NHL. Beyond Brennan, the Leafs have Percy and MacWilliam who both look like they could give the Leafs minutes this season if need be.
In other words, his play has shown enough to suggest that he could stay, but the Leafs have quite a few options and might not miss a beat if he goes back down. So again, the question becomes what’s best for his development. If he stays, he’s going to learn the ins and outs of the league in a controlled environment; if he goes down, he’s going to dominate while also starring for Team Canada.
Regardless of what happens, Rielly gets credit for making this such a tough decision in the first place. Unlike when Schenn made it, the Leafs have legitimate playoff aspirations, making it an even tougher roster to crack, plus they have depth on defense in not only the NHL but the AHL, too. That the Leafs will be in the playoff race makes the loss of a year off of Rielly’s entry level contract (ELC) more palatable; they wouldn’t be “wasting” a season having him on a bad team.
There are still five games to go, and while it is a limited amount of games to judge him on, it’s going to sway the decision either way. Rielly logged his lowest ice time on ice against Edmonton. The next step will be seeing how he responds as make or break time is quickly approaching.
Notes, Quotes, and 5 Things I Think I’d Do to follow later on.