Leafs Notebook (Part 1) – The looming Rielly decision

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Morgan Rielly
Morgan Rielly (Photo: NHLI via Getty Images)

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.

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Anthony Petrielli has been at MLHS since 2011. He is known for his weekly "Leafs Notebook" feature, and also writes specific analysis pieces. You can contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @APetrielli.
  • jbenigni

    APetrielli i say send him back. he is play ok right now. not fantastic and worry what he will be in game 65-82.

  • APetrielli

    jbenigni Would like to see him with Ranger because I think Gardiner-Franson is better than Rielly-Franson.

  • Burtonboy

    If Rielly isn’t ready this yr given the way he’s played will he be anymore ready by spending another yr. in Jr? Will his size and strength improve that much because he seems to have addressed those issues if there ever where any.  Its my opinion the things Reilly needs to learn can only be taught by playing against NHL competition. He won’t learn how to handle the speed of the NHL game and positioning in the defensive zone required at this level by going back to Jr. If he was a scrawny kid who needed to develop physically I could understand but that’s not the case with Morgan .

  • LeafsManiac

    I’d like to say keep him. The kid has played good and looks like he belongs, he really has nothing to prove in the WHL. I think keeping him is the best for his development just not sure there is room for him in our line up, to me the sixth spot is up for grabs between Ranger, Gardiner and Rielly with this Brennan guy really trying his best to get in the discussion. It’s definitely a tough call but I think he’s NHL ready.

  • Anthony Petrielli

    Burtonboy There are always things he can learn in junior. I wouldn’t say he was hands down the best player in that league last year.
    But I understand your point.

  • jbenigni

    APetrielli yeah, not sure what the rationale is on the pairings. haven’t seen Brennan. would like to see a D man with a little more jam.

  • lukethenuke

    I feel like they were going to keep him up, but Brennan’s play has sort of made managment feel comfortable knowing the number of capable bodies down in Marlies is high… particularly because yes, Morgan has played well, he hasnt really done anything AT THE MOMENT where he grabbed the bull so to say… nothing spectacular that a brennan could not do or a percy or mcwilliam

  • lukethenuke

    yet im so torn

  • LeafsManiac

    Burtonboy I agree completely, I just think it is going to be to difficult to make room for him and everyone else. I think either he’s back down to WHL by game 10 or there will be a trade of some sort. From a GM stand point sending down seems like a no brainer as you get the extra year of the entry level deal but from a development stand point NHL probably would be best.

  • Xxxxxnew

    I saw him play live four times out West last year and came away thinking he still had a lot to learn about playing in his own end – in junior.

  • lieffan

    Great piece, first off.

    My issue is this:
    When Fraser comes back, and I would argue we need his defense-first presence, do we even have the ability to keep 7 defencemen on this team under the cap?

  • LeafsManiac

    lukethenuke It isn’t about making the team tho, it is more so what is best for him and not so much the team IMO

  • Great Dane

    Rielly is probably ready, but there are so many other options available. 
    This is a completely new situation for the Leafs – we don’t have to rush talent. 

    It actually feels great.

  • lieffan

    Xxxxxnew I don’t tend to think he’s totally above playing in the WHL again, and hopefully getting traded to a contender.
    Also captaining Team Canada, mayhaps.

  • Conis

    I always ask myself: 
    Is there a reason to send him down? rather then the question Is there a reason to keep him up..

  • Xxxxxnew

    The perfect place for Rielly right now would be the Marlies but the rules say he can’t go there.

  • mORRganRielly

    Logically, I think the team expects to suffer injuries on the blue-line.  So it makes sense that the logistical level that the team will hold onto Rielly because:
    a) He’s got the offensive ability to break a game open that no one else has (see: Gardiner);
    b) We have top four options, but not many bottom pairing options that can step in and make a game-breaking difference — which is the same as the first reason, but for sheltering purposes;
    c) He’s already the most skilled defeseman we have.  By a mile.  Offensively, he looks better than everyone I have seen on the ice for both teams.  What good is playing in Junior if he’s got to learn the defense?
    d) We have option of sending him to WJCs.  I would like to see if there’s a cap penalty if he is loaned.  
    e) The team is expected to make the playoffs this year.  Having him around to learn the preparation would be extremely helpful for his development down the stretch.

  • Burtonboy

    Anthony Petrielli Burtonboy I’m not so sure there are things he would learn back in Jr. In fact going back to a team like Moose Jaw Rielly will be heavily relied upon to provide offense . Lots off bad habits can come from that and I would much rather having Pharrish and Carlyle grooming this kid instead instead of being required to provide the bulk of the offense for an Jr. team.

  • LeafsManiac

    Great Dane Once again, It isn’t about rushing. It is more so about whether there is anything he can benefit from playing in the WHL. To me he would only learn bad habits being able to coast to coast at will and dominate.

  • george

    mORRganRielly Physically he’s ready, offensively he’s ready, and with his ability to outskate most of the NHL, he’s not gonna learn the proper defensive habits down in junior when he can skate circles around WHL players. Keep him

  • Xxxxxnew

    I don’t think it’s a step in the wrong direction. Don’t mind seeing him with the big team though.

  • GreekGod

    @george mORRganRielly 
    Well said. Took the words right out of my mouth.

  • Great Dane

    LeafsManiac Agree – but it is more the fact that we can keep Rielly because it is best for him – not because we have to like with Schenn

  • sniperstar

    mORRganRielly Yeah. Honestly with Rielly’s offensive prowess I see him dominating Jr in the sense he won’t be in his end too often. Hard to learn defence when you are always in the offensive zone although that is a pretty effective way of defending.

  • mORRganRielly

    @george Yup.  That’s how I feel.  He’s ready to play in the NHL.  If he needs time away from the pros, he can be loaned to Canada for the WJCs.

  • LeafsManiac

    Xxxxxnew Well NHL and Marlies if he struggles. I guess that is a big problem to not many have thought of is if he does struggle all he can do is practice and sit in the press box. A whole lot of what ifs

  • mr_hanie

    Here is my opinion. Rielly can play offense in the NHL.Still not solid on the boxing out in his own end.

  • LeafsManiac

    @lieffan Xxxxxnew That would be sick if he captained team canada to gold

  • GreekGod

    mr_hanie 
    Thought he did a great job knocking Shea fucking Weber off the puck in Nashville

  • Loric76

    I don’t think it’s a question of “is he ready vs not ready”.  He’s proven he’s more than capable of playing at the NHL level, but if he’s sent down and has a chance to absolutely dominate, will he eventually be the better player for it?  I’m willing to take the chance that he will.  There’s multiple benefits – saves ELC years, easier on the cap, allows Percy, MacWilliam, etc have an opportunity to come up, and keeps him away from the mess that is the Leafs defense right now.  I’d rather him come up when the rest of our D have matured and replaced the plugs (Percy replaces Ranger, for example).  I want his addition to be the key to making the Leafs a dominate force as a 6-man unit, right in time for the start of a cup dynasty :)

  • GreekGod

    Morgan Rielly is ready for the NHL. END. OF.STORY.

  • LeafsManiac

    Great Dane LeafsManiac To me he makes our team better. But to be honest I have no idea what is best for him. There is really so many what ifs that it gets so complicated. The biggest being what if he does start to struggle and the only option would be to sit him in the press box and bag skate in practice. At least if he goes to junior for a year them next year he has the option to go to marlies if that happens. On the other hand he could just get better and better and by the end of the year going into playoffs we have another legit top four dman on our hands and could be playing top line with Phaneuf.

  • Xxxxxnew

    Yakupov might want to zip it.
    “I really don’t like skating all the time, and forechecking, and hitting somebody every shift.”
    http://www.edmontonjournal.com/sports/hockey/edmonton-oilers/Yakupov+fumes+under+coach+rules/9033031/story.html

  • LeafsManiac

    sniperstar mORRganRielly and it may be better for developing his offence like that as well getting loads of PP time and quarterbacking number 1 PP down there. Here he won’t see much PP time most likely. There are strong arguments for both options IMO

  • mORRganRielly

    Loric76 The problem is, I don’t think we have a true zone entry game breaking defenseman to back up Gardiner if he goes down.  If he goes down, the complexion of the defense is defensive, not offensive.  That’s a very tough pill to swallow, especially after how the defense played against Boston when Gardiner had the leash taken off.

  • .Kong.

    GreekGod Today, yes.  But 60 NHL games from now?  That remains to be seen.  If you keep him, do you sit Fraser?  Fraser was a stablizing force on our blueline last season, and when we lost him to injury in the playoffs, we lost the Boston series – This may not have been coincidence.
    And if you agree that Fraser is the better option, today, then who do you pull?  Ranger?  Perhaps, but Ranger looked very good against the Oil the other night (arguably our best that night).
    Either way, I worry about what the rigours of the NHL will do to him 60 games in.  He’s a kid.  19 is a kid.  The game has not even come close to reaching its real pace as of yet.  That is why I wish the NHL would extend this 9 games bull shit to like 30 games.  Then you would know what you really have.

  • GreekGod

    .Kong. GreekGod 
    Ummmm…. pretty sure we took Boston to game 7 and had a 3 goal lead on them in the 3rd period of game seven without Fraser. Not saying he wouldn’t of helped but don’t make it sound like Fraser was the only reason this team got anywhere last season. 
    As of now, Gunnarsson is my weak link. 
    Yep but don’t forget that not all players are alike. Rielly is a gym rat and works very hard. He’s in amazing shape. Everybody was worried about his size and yet Morgan was able to knock Shea Weber off the puck a couple games ago. I think we need to stop looking for excuses on why we should send the kid down when he’s proven he can play at this level and actually help this team win games.

  • Marlies Man

    .Kong. GreekGod He did play around 90 games between WHL, AHL and World Juniors.

  • Xxxxxnew

    I’d like to see a special rule for exceptional players that allows them to play in the AHL a year earlier. Having said that, the Marlies setup is first class and if I was a parent f a kid playing in other organizations I don’t know if I’d want my 19-year-old kid sent off some dive US city like Albany or Rochester

  • .Kong.

    mORRganRielly You’ve built a strong case to keep him.  That said, we’re 6 games into the regs.  The real hockey hasn’t even started yet.  NHL vets are just starting to get their legs.  When they do, Hockey reaches another level.
    More importantly, who do you sit to give him games?  Practice isn’t going to make him better.  You get better playing games.

  • KurtWhite

    Xxxxxnew  is he Russian or what!

  • .Kong.

    GreekGod .Kong. You only strengthened my argument.  If we were THAT close (game 7 dying moments), having Fraser could have been the difference.  Fraser was an important part of this team all season last year, especially against the Bruins, where we desperately needed his toughness.

  • KurtWhite

    hey guys can rielly be brought back up if we send him down? do the 9 games have to be at the start of the year?

  • Xxxxxnew

    Eakins has his job cut out for him.

  • .Kong.

    GreekGod .Kong. I’m not going to lie though… I hate the idea of sending him down.  The kid has legitimate NHL skills.  I would just also hate to ruin his confidence, as this sort of thing can be permanent.

  • .Kong.

    KurtWhite Good question… Not sure.

  • TheColborneUltimatum

    Gunnarson is my trade target. Package him with Bozak to improve our 1C.

  • Loric76

    mORRganRielly Loric76 You make a good point.  I was going to say that we’re likely not contending for a cup anyway this year, so there’s no harm in bringing Liles up instead if Gards gets hurt, but our record speaks for itself.
    I still don’t think we’re contending, but we’re a ton closer than we were two seasons ago.  I guess I’m still hesitant, half waiting for the floor to fall out from under this team.

  • GreekGod

    .Kong. GreekGod 
    Not at all. We were down in the series when Fraser was injured. We won games and kept Boston essentially off the score sheet… except for the dying moments in game 7. But even then that was a big fuck up by the whole team and I’m sorry but not even Fraser could have stopped that. Believe me if he could have, I’m sure management would be giving him more then just a one year 1.2 million dollar contract.
    Regardless, I’m more interested in talking about Morgan Rielly who should be playing with the Leafs this year. Sending the kid down will do nothing for his growth. Having him here playing with guys like Kessel, Lupul, JVR, Phaneuf will serve him better.

  • Xxxxxnew

    Wouldn’t liles put us over the cap?