Preseason games don’t mean much in any sport, but one storyline that inevitably emerges in a typical National Hockey League training camp is the roster makeup.
Morgan Rielly is attending his second Toronto Maple Leaf camp and shouldn’t be considered a long shot to make the team this time around.
If you count unsigned restricted free agent Cody Franson, Leafs appear to have eight NHL-calibre defencemen.
Rielly only needs to beat out two or three of them for a job and it won’t be as hard as it sounds.
Jake Gardiner is the only one of the group who possesses a two-way contract, though you would expect him to be motivated to stay with the big club for the duration of the 2013-14 regular season, given that he spent most of last season with the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.
Mark Fraser, Korbinian Holzer, and Paul Ranger are depth players, nothing more.
That leaves captain Dion Phaneuf, the ever dependable Carl Gunnarsson, the aforementioned Franson, and John-Michael Liles.
In that foursome, only Liles isn’t a lock.
Like Gardiner and Rielly, Liles is a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman. Unlike those two, he possesses a bad contract—$3,875,000 per year for three more years—and has already played his best hockey.
At 32, Liles is the oldest player on the team, but doesn’t provide the kind of leadership this young team needs.
The only thing that might prevent Rielly from making the big club is the mental side of things.
“He’s been one of the best players at his level for many years, growing up, and so on, but when he gets on the ice against NHLers, he won’t be the best player on the ice – that will be an adjustment for him,” says Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star, over the phone.
“How he handles that will dictate how quickly he’ll be a regular NHLer. He’s not going to be the biggest – he might be the fastest – but he’s not going to be the smartest because there’s so many other talented players.”
With one preseason game in the books for the Leafs, a 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at Budweiser Gardens in London on Sunday, we haven’t seen enough of Rielly to judge his progress, though he did not look out of place.
Hypothetically, if he does make the team, what role would he play? It is unlikely he’ll crack the top four, so that leaves him with bottom-pairing minutes, or even a spot as the seventh man.
As per AHL rules, Rielly is ineligible to play there due to his age, so he’ll either be playing with the Leafs or with his junior team in the Western Hockey League, the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Mike Stothers, head coach of the Warriors, doesn’t think being sent back to junior would be a step back for Rielly.
“Let’s not forget there are still some pretty good hockey players in the Western Hockey League,” said Stothers, as told to the Toronto Star. “It’s not a matter of just playing against green, rookie 16-year-olds. It could still be a challenge for him and a lot of benefit to him down the road.”
Basically, he’ll either be the No. 1 guy in Moose Jaw, or the No. 7 guy in Toronto.
“There’s nothing wrong with being the main guy, and don’t forget there’s a spot waiting for him on Team Canada at the under-20 World Juniors team,” says McGran.
He adds that Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle doesn’t need Rielly to play every game for them.
“They’d mark him as a seventh defenceman, but [Carlyle] needs him, when he plays, to play 12-15 reliable minutes,” he says. “So I can see Morgan Rielly as the seventh defenceman. Or remember, injuries can take their toll and I’m not sold that Korbinian Holzer or Paul Ranger are quite at the NHL level.”