Morgan Rielly knows the hard part still lies ahead, which bodes well for the teenager’s NHL career.
“I have to keep trying to get better,” he said Thursday, shortly after Toronto Maple Leafs general manager David Nonis told him he would be staying in the NHL rather than going back to junior hockey. “I’m not happy with just being okay. I have to keep getting better.”
The easy part for 19-year-olds such as Rielly, who try to prove they can stick in the NHL, is often the hockey. The hard part is being on your own in the big city as a teenager with all kinds of money to spend on any distractions that come your way. That is why teams prefer rookies such as Rielly to live with an older teammate at first, preferably one with a young family.
“We would like him to find a roommate, move in with somebody,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. “We feel it is imperative a young player, 19 years old, live with somebody.”
Rielly says that is fine by him. But he has his own ideas on a roommate. “I’m not sure. Probably a young guy. I don’t want to live with any old guys.”
This would be alarming coming out of the mouths of most young would-be NHLers. But one of the main reasons Rielly is not going back to the WHL is he has showed a maturity beyond his years. He may have played his junior hockey in Moose Jaw, but he was raised in Vancouver, so the temptations of the big city are more familiar – although Rielly has never shown himself to be so inclined.
“We provided some options but I don’t think we’re in a position to tell a player who he has to live with,” Carlyle said. “He’s not shy, he’s not introverted. He’s got a personality where he’s obviously dealt with a bunch of situations before so it’s not like his first day at the office.”
One of those “old guys,” winger David Clarkson, 29, thinks Rielly will be just fine on and off the ice.
“I think the big thing is he’s a great kid,” Clarkson said. “Everyone is excited for him.
“You don’t need to tell that kid much. He’s down to earth, he works hard and he fits in this locker room. The coaches see that and that’s why he’s here.”
Carlyle said this does not mean Rielly is automatically with the big club for the rest of the season. Under NHL rules, once junior-eligible players play 10 games their NHL contract kicks in. After 40 games, they become one year closer to salary-arbitration rights and unrestricted free agency.
This means Rielly has to maintain his level of play – currently, four assists in eight games and a move to the No.<TH>2 defence pairing with Cody Franson – to stay with the Leafs beyond 40 games. However, since the rules also do not allow players Rielly’s age to take the intermediate step of playing in the AHL, and he has clearly progressed well past junior, it would take a major regression for him to be sent back to Moose Jaw.
Friday’s game in Columbus against the Blue Jackets is also a big one for Clarkson. It is his first after drawing a 10-game suspension from the NHL for jumping on the ice to join an altercation in a preseason game. But there is some doubt which line Clarkson will join.
Winger Joffrey Lupul suffered a bruised foot in Thursday’s practice when he was hit by a shot. He is considered day-to-day. Lupul made the trip to Columbus but if he can’t play, Clarkson may take his place on the second line with centre Nazem Kadri and left winger Jay McClement. Or Clarkson could be on the third line with centre Dave Bolland and Mason Raymond.
Carlyle was not happy with Lupul because he is one of several players who refuse to wear the plastic foot guards the coach says are mandatory during practice.
“It’s one of those things where it was addressed once and all the players were fitted [with the protectors],” Carlyle said. “But there’s a couple that refuse to wear them.”
Forward Josh Leivo was recalled from the Toronto Marlies farm team after Lupul was hurt. Also available for the first time this season is forward Frazer McLaren, whose broken pinky finger was declared fit for duty.
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey