Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Point/Counterpoint: Keeping Morgan Rielly

morgan rielly leafs
Morgan Rielly is making life very difficult for Dave Nonis and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The 19-year-old defenceman made the Leafs out of training camp and has looked good so far with the big club. Rielly has four games remaining before the Leafs must decide whether or not to keep the talented blueliner or send him back to Moose Jaw to play in the WHL. Once Rielly plays his 10th game as a Maple Leaf the first year of his entry-level contract will kick in and he's here for good.

It's a very complex decision and not one management will take lightly. There are pros and cons to keeping Rielly and Nonis has a lot to weigh before making the decision.

To help him out I've summarized the debate in a segment called "Point/Counterpoint".

Point: Rielly is playing top-4 minutes in the NHL and he's only next to Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson in even-strength time on ice. With him in the lineup the Leafs are spreading out the minutes amongst the defencemen a little more evenly, which means Phaneuf isn't as burdened as he was last season. And Don Cherry said Rielly was the " best defenceman they’ve got." So your argument is invalid.

Counterpoint: Wow, busting out Don Cherry in the opening salvo. Was that sandwiched between his throw-back rant against Europeans? I'll take my arguments without a side of xenophobia, thank you very much. Rielly is playing quality minutes in the NHL, but he isn't getting much time on the special teams. While that is a reality for most young players and not a knock against Rielly, playing big minutes in all situations, and dominating them, in junior could be better for his long-term development. Starring in the World Juniors at Christmas would be another important developmental event Rielly will miss out on by being in the NHL.

Point: Randy Carlyle has already shown a willingness to increase Rielly's power play minutes as he acclimatizes himself to the NHL. Against the Wild Rielly logged close to two minutes on the power play and formed a nice second pairing with Jake Gardiner. One of his two assists on the night came on the power play and he is the best option for the second unit now that John-Michael Liles is with the Marlies.

Counterpoint: I just can't remove images of an immobile Luke Schenn from my brain. What if he didn't make the NHL as a teenager? Would he have been better? What if Rielly turns out like Luke Schenn!? Save me from these nightmares.

Point: Well, Luke Schenn turned into James van Riemsdyk so maybe thinking of Schenn isn't the worst way Leafs fan can torment themselves. More to your point, although Rielly can still benefit from playing in junior, there is no better place to learn than the NHL. Even better, he's learning in a controlled environment. When Schenn broke into the NHL Ron Wilson matched him up against tough competition because there was no other viable option (Jonas Frogren, anyone?). Randy Carlyle has been careful to steer Rielly clear from the heavy defensive matchups and can bring him along slowly, like he did with Nazem Kadri last season.

Counterpoint: Even though Rielly has been sheltered somewhat from the best offensive players, he has yet to truly take advantage of those matchups. He's raw defensively and his puck possession numbers aren't great (Leafs control 45% of shots with Rielly on the ice).

Point: Those numbers aren't too bad for a young defenceman getting his first look in the NHL. Kris Letang was given sheltered minutes for the Penguins in 2007-08 and the Penguins only controlled 46% of the shots with him on the ice. Letang wasn't immediately a great offensive player either, scoring only 17 points in his rookie season. The fact that Rielly has three points in his first five games is pretty impressive.

Counterpoint: Letang was also a year older than Rielly when he broke into the NHL, going back to junior for two seasons after being drafted. The St. Louis Blue did likewise with Alex Pietrangelo. Once he made the team three years after being drafted he was a Norris Trophy candidate. That could be Rielly. Let's skip the whole growing pains thing.

Point: That worked out tremendously for the Penguins and the Blues, but sending Rielly back to junior for another season is no guarantee for long-term success, just ask the Chicago Blackhawks how that worked out with Cam Barker.

Counterpoint: No, sending Rielly back to junior definitely does not guarantee he develops into a quality NHLer, but sending him back has positive financial implications. Delaying the start of his entry-level contract (which kicks in if Rielly plays more than nine games) will be a major boon for the Leafs cap, and space will be pretty tight in the coming years. Sure, Rielly is playing pretty well right now and definitely providing good value on his cheap contract, but if the Leafs are able to get an older, better Rielly for three full cost-controlled seasons that's preferable.

Point: The Leafs aren't the Phoenix Coyotes, they don't have to hold off on playing their best players for budget reasons. If Rielly helps make the team better, he should stay. Period.

Counterpoint: Sure, if Rielly is the best option then he should stay. But the Leafs are pretty deep in the AHL too, so if Rielly goes back to the WHL the difference between Rielly and TJ Brennan, who is currently demolishing the AHL, or Stuart Percy, who had a strong pre-season, probably isn't enough to outweigh the benefits of delaying Rielly's contract clock. Andrew MacWilliam could even be a depth option, so the Leafs aren't in a spot where they need Rielly.

Point: As the fifth overall pick in 2012, Rielly has more upside over anyone on the Marlies and the Leafs are gunning for a playoff spot this year. If Rielly is better than the others, even if the difference is minimal, he should stay. Plus, you're going to get the same growing pains from either MacWilliam or Percy, and Brennan only has 40 games on NHL experience so he's still raw too.

Counterpoint: Mark Fraser is coming back at some point soon so there is another more experienced option to take Rielly's place as well. More importantly, Carlyle loves Fraser. If Rielly is up and not getting into games, or receives piddling amounts of playing time, he's better off spending the year in Moose Jaw.

Point: Oh please, we both know if anyone comes out of the lineup when Fraser comes back it's Jake Gardiner.

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