Nineteen-year-old Morgan Rielly sat next to 29-year-old Paul Ranger in the Maple Leafs dressing room, both of them talking to reporters about what it will be like to play their first game in a Toronto uniform.
They came at it from different perspectives – Rielly is a prize defence prospect who will soon play his first NHL game, while Ranger is a veteran coming back to the league after a self-imposed three-year sabbatical – but shared the same emotion: unrestrained happiness.
“It’s a good feeling,” Rielly said. “It was a pretty long camp and I’m pretty happy I am here. I have a lot of work to do still and I am going to keep working hard.”
As the fifth-overall pick in the 2012 NHL entry draft, Rielly’s progress in training camp toward a job on the Leafs defence overshadowed that of fellow newcomer Ranger. But Ranger doesn’t begrudge the kid a thing.
“It’s my first NHL game back, and I can’t wait for it. It’s going to be good,” Ranger said. “I’m not looking for attention or to be a star.
“Having Morgan around is good. He’s a really good kid. I get a good vibe from him. It’s refreshing to see a character kid like that.”
Ranger will be in the lineup Tuesday in Montreal for the season-opener against the Canadiens. At this point, it is not clear if Rielly will be as well.
“He’s with our hockey club. He’s one of our seven defencemen” was all head coach Randy Carlyle would say about Rielly’s chances of dressing against the Habs.
Under NHL rules, players still eligible for junior hockey can play nine games in the league before their team has to decide to keep them or send them back. Carlyle would only say the Leafs will make a decision before Rielly’s 10th game based on what is good for the team – and for him.
As far as Rielly is concerned, all that matters is he’s with the big club. He had a lot of fun calling his father, Andy, in Vancouver with the news, as well as his teammates on his junior team, the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL.
“I’ve been keeping in touch with all those guys and my coaches. They’re all pretty happy,” Rielly said. “I spoke with my dad last night. He was pretty happy.”
Unlike Rielly, who was a high draft pick because of his offensive ability, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Ranger made the Leafs because of his size and his willingness to play a physical game, although he had 31 points in 72 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2007-08, his last full NHL season.
Ranger has not said why he took a break from the NHL, returning to play in the AHL last season with the Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies.
“I have a new feeling with myself, a new confidence in myself,” said the native of Whitby, Ont. “I’m just looking to do my job and build my life. If I can help promote a good lifestyle for younger kids and other people, that’s what I’m here to do.”
Based on the defence pairings at Monday’s practice, Ranger and another bruising defenceman, Mark Fraser, will make up the Leafs third pairing. Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson will be the top pair, while Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson will be the second unit.
If Rielly is going to play, either Tuesday against the Canadiens or Wednesday in Philadelphia against the Flyers, it may come at the expense of Gardiner. He didn’t play as well in training camp as he did in the 2013 playoffs, and Carlyle has indicated he is not overly impressed with the 23-year-old.
Veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles, who lost his job to Rielly, cleared NHL waivers Monday and is ticketed for the Marlies. (There is a chance Liles and his rich contract could be traded to Calgary, as Flames president Brian Burke signed him to that deal when he was running the Leafs, and the Flames are thin on the blueline.)
Enforcer Frazer McLaren (broken pinky finger) was placed on the long-term injured reserve list, which means a reprieve from the Marlies for winger Troy Bodie.
“McLaren saw the hand specialist and he’s still a ways away,” Carlyle said. “He’s in a position where the healing process started, but it takes time to heal those small bones.”
By putting McLaren on the long-term list, the Leafs cleared just enough salary cap space to bring in Bodie, who cleared NHL waivers at noon (EDT) Monday. He will probably join centre Jay McClement and Colton Orr on the fourth line.