Skip to main content

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly skates during a team practice Jan 14, 2013 at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Life has been a bit chaotic the last little while for Morgan Rielly.

He can tell you, for example, that he has lived in a hotel precisely since Dec. 10, which is exactly six weeks leading up to Day 2 of Toronto Maple Leafs training camp on Monday.

Along the way as part of the Canadian world junior team, he's had stops in Moose Jaw, Calgary, Finland, Russia, England and now, finally, the luxe Westin Harbour Castle hotel in Toronto, the latest of his new homes.

For an 18-year-old rookie defenceman already faced with the monumental task of trying to make an NHL team, that's quite the itinerary to be coming off of.

"I've been in a hotel since … over a month now," Rielly said, after doing the rough math on when his hockey whirlwind started. "You kind of get used to it, but I think you can order enough movies or room service [before getting tired of it]. But, no, it's been fun."

Customarily in these situations with very high draft picks – Rielly was taken fifth overall last June – teams have all kinds of time to evaluate them. Rookie generally report to training camp a week early and then, if they're good enough, they hang around for another three weeks to try and keep up with the pros.

This year, because of the abbreviated season and a ridiculously short six-day training camp, Leafs coach Randy Carlyle and his staff hardly gets a glimpse of what the organization hopes is its next franchise player.

As impressive as Rielly's 28 points in 33 games are with the Moose Jaw Warriors this season, playing in the NHL is an entirely new universe, one the coaching staff can't be sure if he's ready until he's actually thrown into game action.

Without any preseason games in which do so, the Leafs appear poised to instead give Rielly the five-game regular-season audition he can have without burning a year of his contract – and then go from there.

"There's a risk with any 18-year-old and with any young player," Carlyle said, recalling keeping another 18-year-old defenceman, Cam Fowler, with the Anaheim Ducks two years ago. "The risk is multiplied with the short camp. Normally you have a three-week period to assess a young kid and you play some exhibition games and you see the rigours of training camp.

"I can remember playing Cam in every exhibition game. Most coaches would play the young players, if they had a chance to make their hockey club, and give them every opportunity to prove they could. Right now we're not afforded that with five days of practice; we only have a very short period of time."

For Fowler, there were positives and negatives to staying with the team, as he put up 40 points but was also a minus-25 and took a step back as a sophomore last season.

In Rielly's case, in limited viewing, there have been both signs he is ready and others that he's not.

One thing he has going for him is certainly his upper and lower body strength, as despite standing only a shade over six feet tall, Rielly is a very solid 200 pounds.

A member of West Vancouver's exclusive Hollyburn Country Club growing up, Rielly is part of the new generation of extremely well-conditioned teenage players who have taken up training at a young age.

That showed last summer when he excelled at the combine, finishing with the top grip strength and in the top four on the bench press among the more than 100 players in attendance.

"You look at him, he doesn't look like an 18 year old, besides his face," Leafs veteran John-Michael Liles said after the team did some off-ice workouts together on Monday. "You look at the size of his legs, and he's obviously a mature 18 year old. And very talented.

"There's a reason why he was drafted where he was drafted."

As for what Rielly has to learn, Carlyle wasn't shy about highlighting some of the good and bad of the youngster's early work.

"He's got great vision on the ice," the coach said. "You watch him pass the puck and move the puck, he's got NHL skills. You see him up top on the power play, that's one of his strengths. He's not intimidated by any of those situations.

"The other part of it, the defensive zone coverage and the gap control drills that we did, those are different. They're different for every junior player coming into an NHL camp."

Carlyle then branded Rielly "a quick study," something that will basically be a must given he'll likely be thrust into game action as soon as Saturday.

With last year's training camp surprise, Jake Gardiner, still out with a head injury, Rielly appears to slot right into his spot, although it'll be without the benefit of the extra month of leaning time Gardiner had a year ago.

"Hopefully I can adjust," Rielly said. "But yeah there's some pretty big guys around here. I think I'm going to have to get used to it a little bit."