He has sat three of the last four games, but there’s no frustration on Morgan Rielly’s face.
The 19-year-old defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs had been expecting to spend some time in the press box this season and, with everyone healthy, that has been the case of late.
With Mark Fraser’s knee injury flaring up again and expected to keep him out of at least a few games, however, Rielly draws back into the lineup against the New York Islanders on Tuesday and is eager to make an impact.
“We didn’t have too many chats about what I have to improve on,” Rielly said of his time spent mainly practising. “It was kind of trying to keep me on the ice and up to pace and stuff like that. I knew pretty well what I had to improve on and they knew that I knew. So it was just a matter of trying to get some extra work in.
“I knew coming into the year that I probably wasn’t going to play all 82 games or anything like that. But it’s been great experience and I’m just happy to be back in the lineup and have a chance to play well tonight.”
Rielly’s first 15 games in the NHL have been the sort of mixed bag you would expect for a teenager making the jump from junior. He has averaged 17 minutes a game and has six points – including three as part of the second power play unit – but he and usual D-partner Cody Franson have also been on the ice for a lot of goals against.
What’s clear is that Leafs top prospect has a unique skill set that will allow him to be a long time NHLer once he fully develops, something Carlyle said the organization has made a top priority, even if Rielly isn’t always drawing into games.
“When you see him join the rush, and you see him make plays and his skating ability, you only see glimpses of it now, but there’s a lot more coming with Morgan Rielly,” Carlyle said. “It’s up to us to manage that properly. That’s our responsibility as an organization to make sure to some degree he’s protected. We think the situation he’s in right now, practising with us, playing when we so choose, that it’s only going to help his development and he’ll be a pro for a great number of years.”
The tough question for the organization is if it’s worth keeping Rielly around the team for the full season.
Should he remain on the roster past the 40-game mark, his unrestricted free agency date will drop by a year, meaning he can sign with another team at age 26 instead of 27.
That’s a subtle distinction but an important one in the cap world, as UFAs typically draw much higher salaries, especially in this organization, where GM Dave Nonis has done a nice job of limiting what he pays his restricted free agents.
What may play a role in if he stays is the health of the team’s back end, which has been remarkably good so far this season. Five Leafs defencemen have appeared in all 20 games this year, with only Fraser and his bad knee creating a hole in the lineup.
Toronto has been on the hunt for another blueliner to play the right side, however, so even if Fraser continue to labour with his injury – which he was calling day-to-day on Tuesday – there may be a reinforcement coming.
But until that move is made, Rielly is set to play regularly, something that could it make it much tougher for the team to release him to play for Canada’s world junior team at Christmas and then back to Moose Jaw in the WHL after that.
He plans on making their decision more difficult with his play.
“I really want to make a difference and I think I’m capable of doing that,” Rielly said. “I just have to do that a bit more often lately and hopefully it’s in the net next time.”
“I think Morgan is right on course,” Carlyle said. “He’s a 19 year old defenceman that is trying to cut his teeth in the NHL and I think he’s doing a heckuva job. It’s difficult at times and we know that there’s going to be struggles in certain areas of the game. But there’s a lot of growth taking place with a young player like him. He’s not overwhelmed by anything that goes on out there.”
- Goalies on Tuesday will be Jonathan Bernier for the Leafs and Kevin Poulin for the Islanders, who are missing Evgeni Nabokov due to injury.
- Phil Kessel missed Monday’s practice with the flu but declared himself fit to play after Tuesday’s morning skate. He declined to talk to the media more than that, however.
- Carter Ashton is expected to be the lone healthy scratch, joining Fraser and Nazem Kadri, who will sit the final game of his three-game suspension. That means you can expect to see a lot of newcomer Peter Holland and Trevor Smith at centre.