The Toronto Maple Leafs certainly have an interesting decision to make on Morgan Rielly.
The franchise’s top prospect has been solid yet unspectacular so far in preseason, playing in 20-plus minutes in each of Toronto’s first three games, and he is likely to get into almost all of them by the time this far too lengthy exhibition schedule is up.
Leafs coach Randy Carlyle admitted as much as his team geared up to head to Buffalo for Game 4 on Saturday night.
“He’s trying to earn his space and give us a proper evaluation,” Carlyle said when asked if he’ll play every preseason game. “And there’s no better place to do it than in exhibition games.”
“I think each game that I play I think I’m a bit more comfortable,” Rielly added. “It’s been great… I can’t ask for anything more than I’ve gotten. I’ve been treated like a player on the team, and it’s been awesome. Having the chance to play all these games and also be on the power play and whatnot has been great.”
It’s one thing, however, for Rielly to log these kinds of minutes in early preseason games, when teams are using far from their full NHL rosters – both teams dressed close to the minimum eight veterans in the first two – and another to consistently play in the Leafs top four (or perhaps five) for an entire 82-game regular season.
And that’s what it would take to justify burning a year of his entry level contract on this season.
For one, as witnessed in the Nazem Kadri situation this off-season, negotiating that second “bridge” contract for a highly drafted young player isn’t always easy, and a player of Rielly’s potential talent level, after three NHL seasons, is presumably going to be due a considerable raise.
Under his entry level deal, he will make just $925,000 as a base salary, and the really smart move would be to try and ensure that he is as useful (and underpaid) a player as possible in those three years.
Especially if he’s not ready for full time duty just yet.
It’s obviously better, in other words, to have him play for that low cap hit at 20, 21 and 22 than 19, 20 and 21, especially given how few teenage defencemen make a real impact in the NHL. (Only four have hit the 30 point mark in the last eight years.)
The good news here is the Leafs still have many opportunities to watch Rielly play in both preseason (with five more games) and into the regular season (nine games before eating a year of his contract) to see if he is truly ready to make an impact.
But there’s no sense easing him in on a part-time basis, giving him 12 to 15 minutes a night, especially not when the Leafs have six or seven capable NHL defencemen even without Cody Franson signed.
What Franson’s contract stalemate does allow is for the Leafs to have the cap and roster space to test drive Rielly a bit more in the regular season, giving him some looks on the power play when the games start to matter.
That said, at this point, he’s probably not going to offer that much of an upgrade over someone like T.J. Brennan – who was himself a skilled junior player and a high second-round pick five years earlier – and he won’t be able to shuttle up and down to the AHL the way the Leafs will probably need their depth defenders to, either.
Even if Rielly doesn’t stick beyond the nine-game mark, this year’s camp has obviously been a useful learning experience. He already feels much more a part of the organization and has a better sense of where his game needs to grow to contribute in the pro game.
With an abbreviated camp a year ago, the lockout robbed Rielly of the chance to play in some preseason games, which means this fall has been his first real taste of what it means to play in the NHL.
Flying on the chartered plane, for example, is a big deal for a player who has logged some major, major overnight miles on the junior bus with a team based in the Eastern end of the Western Hockey League.
He knows he’s a long way from Moose Jaw.
“Here it’s unbelievable with this room and the gym,” Rielly said, standing in the Leafs practice facility on Friday afternoon. “All the coconut water you can drink.
“We got a chance to hop on the plane yesterday [after the game in Ottawa] and that kind of hit me as opposed to hopping on the bus. That was a pretty cool experience. I think it kind of just drives me even more to want to play in this league and want to play on this team.”
Click here to see the Leafs' training camp depth chart