The case for keeping Rielly with the Leafs beyond his 9-game tryout period is really pretty simple and straightforward. Proponents state that keeping Rielly with the Leafs will a) improve the team and b) hasten Rielly’s development as an NHL player. From the looks of it, Leafs fans have bought in on this as well. On the popular Leafs website http://theleafsnation.com
, their reader poll on whether the Leafs should keep Rielly up with the team beyond the tryout period is showing 65% in favour and 35% against as I write this post. However, the case against keeping Rielly on the team past the tryout period is more complex and considers more of a complete picture of what keeping Rielly up means for him and the team. So let us get started:
1) Playing a full season in the NHL now may slow down or even derail his development
This one’s pretty obvious. As Leafs fans, we’ve seen this play out before. I’m sure we all remember what happened with Luke Schenn. In the 2008-2009 season he made the team full-time in his first year after being drafted. Although he played reasonably well and seemed to improve steadily for a couple of years, he started struggling and his progress began stalling out in his third year, a time during which he was benched for two separate brief stretches of the season. A fourth season that saw no improvement ended with him being exchanged for James van Riemsdyk, who at the time had large questions looming over his ability to reach his potential as well. Two years later, Schenn’s future is still very much in question. Rielly has all of the potential to be a top-tier defenseman in the NHL. As the Schenn situation demonstrates, maybe taking the safer route and utilizing the junior and minor leagues while they’re still available would be in everyone’s best interests in the long-term.
2) The blue line is overcrowded and someone’s going to have to be benched
Look at the current makeup of the Leafs’ defensive core and their contracts. We have Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Franson, Fraser (injured week-to-week at this point), Ranger and Gardiner. All of them have one-way contracts. Once Fraser is healthy again, what will the plan be? Obviously, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Franson aren’t going to sit on the bench. Knowing Carlyle’s style and the chemistry Fraser has with Franson, it’s very hard to imagine Fraser not being immediately slotted back into the lineup alongside Franson when he’s healthy again, especially with the team lacking in defensive defensemen right now. So who do you want to sit? There’s Jake Gardiner who’s a similar type of player to Rielly and who has similarly been improving game-by-game this season. Sitting him will not only stall his development, it will also substantially diminish his trade value if the Leafs elect to shop him as well. On the other hand, there’s Paul Ranger, who has also been improving each game of late, and who was good enough before his leave of absence from the league to play on the Lightning’s top defensive pairing. That may be a hefty expectation of him for now, but it’s certainly realistic to expect him to play like a top-4 defenseman again by the time April comes around. However, that’s not going to happen if he’s sitting on the bench. Also, keep in mind that Paul Ranger has a full no-trade clause in his contract as well. The truth of the matter is that there isn’t a clear top-6 spot available for Rielly right now.
3) He may end up sitting for a significant portion of the season
Following from the last point, if Gardiner and Ranger continue to improve while Rielly has some setbacks, which are inevitable as a teenage NHLer, he’ll be the one sitting on the bench. That’s the worst case scenario for Rielly’s development right now. We don’t have to look back far to find another player who was trapped in the same situation. Sabres fans were elated when Mikhail Grigorenko made the team after his 9-game tryout last season, but he then had some setbacks of his own. After being benched for a significant stretch, he was sent back to the Quebec Remparts for most of the remainder of the season. All in all, he only played in 16 of the team’s final 39 games. His season thus far hasn’t exactly turned heads either with 0 points in 7 games to start the season. There are no guarantees that things will move in the right direction with any youngster, even with a promising first few games to start a season.
4) He has made some glaring mistakes which were clearly due to lack of experience
Rielly has had two consecutive good games to this point, but we’ve seen some ugly ones as well. The worst was undoubtedly three games ago against the Oilers, where he was on the ice for four goals against, and he looked rather unimpressive on each of those plays:
On Smyth’s first goal, Rielly makes a soft clearing attempt which lands right on Arcobello’s stick, who then throws it in front for Smyth’s deflection.
On Gordon’s goal, Rielly focuses all of his attention on the wrong side of the net before trying to make a last-ditch effort to get back to the danger area and is not quite in time.
On Eberle’s goal, Rielly does a poor job at playing the 2 on 1 situation, failing to do anything to prevent either the shot or the pass.
On Smyth’s second goal, Rielly skates into the corner alone while the danger is heading towards the front of the net.
I hate to be so harsh on him, but that really was an awful game for him. He did have some other glaring mishaps in the other games, but I don’t want to spend the rest of this post dissecting them.
5) His gameplay improvements haven’t been completely steady
A lot of Leafs commentators have noted that they believe Rielly has been improving every game. I don’t think it’s been quite so smooth. While Rielly did improve from the Sens to the Avs to the Preds games, he had an awful game against the Oilers as I noted above, and still hasn’t been as good as he was against the Preds since then. Argue what you will, but his play has been a little rocky and likely will continue to be.
6) Rielly will not play top-4 minutes
Any Leafs fan knows by now just how heavily Carlyle leans on his most reliable players. I don’t think there’s any doubt right now that his four most reliable defensemen are Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Franson and Fraser. Is it really better for Rielly to be playing 10-12 minutes of mostly first and second period hockey instead of 25-30 minutes in the WHL?
7) His style of play isn’t a good fit with the team’s present needs
I find it odd that many of the same people who are saying that the Leafs need to add a top-4 shutdown defenseman to their lineup also want Rielly to stick with the team. Rielly, like Phaneuf, Franson and Gardiner, is known for his offensive prowess far more than for the defensive aspects of his game. Add to that Ranger as well as potential callups Brennan and Liles who probably also are stronger in the offensive zone than the defensive zone, and you have a real balance problem.
8) His stats aren’t particularly impressive
In 6 games to this point, Rielly has 0 goals, 4 assists, a +/- of -2, a relative Corsi of -7.3 and a GF/GA On per 60 minutes differential of -2.28 (advanced stats per [url]www.behindthenet.ca). That’s not quite what you’d expect considering the offensive upside and qualitative evaluations of the player, and it certainly doesn’t scream that he’s a sure bet to light up the league this year. You might at least expect a goal from an offensive defenseman who’s been given powerplay time if he’s ready to make the transition to the NHL.
9) It will force the Leafs to carry 7 defensemen and squeeze their cap situation even further
As noted above, the Leafs already have 6 defensemen who are on one-way contracts. If Rielly is added to the mix, they’ll have no choice but to carry 7 defensemen regardless of the need for additional forwards (assuming they don’t trade any of their defensemen). I ran the numbers through capgeek to determine what would happen if Clarkson’s suspension were cleared away, Kulemin, McLaren and Fraser came off LTIR and Leivo, Bodie, Broll and Smith were sent back down to the Marlies. Adding Kulemin, McLaren and Fraser and subtracting the Leivo, Bodie, Broll and Smith cap hits from their present $2.3075 million in available annualized cap space leaves the Leafs with about….$65,000 in spare cap space. Ouch. What if one or two forwards have to miss a game without the option of using the LTIR?
10) The Leafs already have excellent blue line depth
Regardless of what you think of the Leafs’ present top-6 tendem, they already have (in my opinion) three defensemen playing for the Marlies who are NHL-ready in case of any injuries. Those three would be John-Michael Liles, T.J. Brennan (who has some NHL experience and has scored an incredible 7 goals and 4 assists in just FOUR games!) and 23 year old hard-hitting shutdown defenseman, Andrew MacWilliam. MacWilliam would be an obvious fit as the type of player Randy Carlyle is looking for, but Brennan is putting up some early numbers that are difficult to ignore. John-Michael Liles is obviously NHL-capable, and may be best able to prove his worth and at least restore some of his trade value with another shot at the NHL. If Rielly stays, it suddenly becomes a much tougher task for any of these guys to crack the lineup at some point this season. At the same time, having good, NHL-ready defensemen in the Marlies should really abate the effects of losing any of their top-6 to injury even without the need for Rielly.
11) It will burn a year of his (very team-friendly) contract
Let’s face it. After his first three years in the pros, Rielly will never have an annual cap hit as low as $894,000 ever again. Playing game #10 at the NHL level will take him one year closer to a big raise. We might as well get the best out of him by allowing him to develop one more year without burning up a year of his pro contract at the WHL level. In the salary cap era, cap teams are defined by their ability to get the most out of the cap dollars they spend. Every year of a team-friendly contract is important.
12) It may take him one year closer to UFA status
This past offseason, we saw just how much leverage the RFA status gives teams over their players in the Kadri and Franson negotiations. As Mike Augello pointed out earlier this week, if Rielly stays up with the team past 41 games, he will gain UFA status one year earlier than he otherwise would. As above, every year of relatively team-friendly contracts is vital to the team’s ability to compete.
13) It’s a low risk development opportunity
Considering our confidence in his ability to dominate at the WHL level, there’s no reason to think he won’t continue to improve just by being a standout in the WHL. Commentators have suggested that he may have ‘out-grown’ the WHL, but Rielly is hardly the first prospect with elite potential to have to stay in the juniors at 19 years of age. This isn’t new, and he will continue to develop just like everyone else. At his young age, his body will also fill out some more, making him more NHL ready next season.
14) It will allow him to recover the year of development he lost due to injury
Don’t forget that Rielly missed most of the season immediately before being drafted due to injury. He has already essentially lost one year in the WHL. That’s another reason why I don’t believe he’s oversaturated in the WHL at all per point #13. He has spent less time playing there than most people seem to remember.
15) It will give him an opportunity to hone the new skills he has been learning in his brief time at the NHL level
Through his time in the Leafs’ rookie camp, their main camp, their pre-season games, his regular season games, conversations with coaches and other players and at practices, Rielly has surely picked up some new skills. It’s obvious that he has improved over that stretch of time. Quite simply, it would be of great benefit to him to be allowed to put that new knowledge into practice at a lower level of play in the WHL, where he could work out any kinks in it himself without being exposed by experienced NHLers. His time in the NHL will have helped him, but it’s often best to mix greater difficulty situations with less difficult situations for anybody who’s learning new skills. Leaving him in the NHL will take away that opportunity.
16) It will give him a clear opportunity to play on Team Canada for the World Junior Championships
It is possible that he could still be loaned out to play for Team Canada even if he stays in the NHL, but in reality this usually doesn’t happen. Looking back on recent history, Luke Schenn was sent to play for Team Canada when he was 18, but not when he was 19. Additionally, it will return him to a higher level of play following on point #15 to play with and against the best players in his age group.
17) He’ll be given the opportunity to lead and play with the expectation of being elite
What do you think the expectations will be of an elite, senior defenseman on his WHL team? He’ll be expected to be a leader, and he probably will be. This is an opportunity for Rielly to gain leadership skills which won’t just be handed to him in a locker room full of NHLers. This may be his only opportunity to work on this important skill which he may need if he ever hopes to play a leadership role on the Maple Leafs. This will also give him a chance to get used to having an elevated level of expectation of him on the team given his background in the NHL. This will likely be compounded if his WHL team trades him to a team expected to compete for the Memorial Cup. Given his upside and final year of WHL eligibility, there’s a very good chance that’s exactly what happens.
18) He may be more injury prone in the NHL right now
Given the recent injury to Jacob Trouba and the scare Tomas Hertl experienced, maybe having a little more time to develop Rielly’s skating ability, allowing him to adjust more gradually to the higher pace and physicality of the game and allowing his body to grow a little more wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He’s only 6’0 and 205 pounds. And don’t forget that he had a major knee injury in the WHL two seasons ago.
19) He can still be called back up whenever the Leafs need him
If, for whatever reason, the Leafs find themselves in particular need of Rielly’s services, they can still call him up whenever the need arises, whether in the regular season or the playoffs. Looking at their current roster, there is only one (short-term) injury at the moment and three other good options as discussed in point #10 to fill the void. The Leafs are far from desperate for defensive depth right now, so why play with fire by keeping Rielly around? He’s the only defenseman they have who would unnecessarily lose a year of his contract and whose development may be affected particularly negatively by playing in the NHL, so why not give one of the others a shot?
20) Overall, it’s a low reward, high risk endeavour
For any managerial decision to be made, you’d hope an option would present itself that is low risk and high reward, but this seems to be the opposite here. Keeping Rielly in the NHL is high risk because we don’t know how it will affect his development. It seems that, more often than not, teams end up regretting bringing players up from junior. Sending Rielly back to the WHL will ensure a smoother development trajectory. At the same time, it’s low reward because does anyone really think that Rielly is going to be significant upgrade over Jake Gardiner or Paul Ranger, the two guys he would likely replace? Both of them may be able to play consistently at a level worthy of a bona-fide top-4 defenseman this season. Can we really say the same about Rielly? I’m not so sure. We can’t just trust that Rielly’s potential will start being realized immediately.
I love Rielly as a player and hope that he will be the elite defenseman in this league that he seems capable of being, but that doesn’t mean the time is right for him this season. If we’ve learned anything at all from being Toronto sports fans the last 10 years (at minimum), it’s not to get your hopes up too high or too quickly. Why don’t we take the safer route this time? Rielly seems in every way capable of making our patience worthwhile.