The Toronto Maple Leafs are gambling against history with their decision to keep Morgan Rielly past the nine-game mark, triggering a full season of his entry-level contract.
The team announced, to the surprise of no one, that they intend to keep Rielly in Toronto after he plays his ninth game of the season against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday. Rielly’s performance through the first eight games of his pro-career has resembled a player worthy of staying in the NHL. However, given the bad luck that has surrounded former rookie Maple Leaf blue-liners, it’s important to wonder if Toronto is making the best decision regarding his future.
Critics will point to players of the past, like Jeff Ware or Luke Schenn, and suggest Rielly would be better served by playing another year of junior hockey. After all, what harm could be done by allowing him to dominate the WHL with the Moose Jaw Warriors? He’d certainly play a big role with Team Canada at the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championship and could finish off his season by joining the Toronto Marlies on a potential AHL playoff run.
Regardless of how well Rielly played, there would always have been doubters suggesting he should be returned to the juniors. Doubters would quickly remind fans about how Schenn was rushed to the pro level when he wasn’t ready and his career has been forever altered as a result. However, comparing Schenn and Rielly couldn’t be a better example of comparing apples to oranges.
Schenn was a big-body bruiser who relied on his physicality to impact games. Rielly is a smooth skater who relies on his speed and exceptional passing to impact games. Schenn hit a wall in his development when he was unable to push around the opposition like he could in junior due to the size of NHL forwards.
Once Schenn realized he wasn’t bigger than everybody else, he struggled with confidence. His mediocre skating was exposed and the opposition often began using him as a pylon to skate around.
Schenn also struggled to move the puck out of his own zone at times as it appeared he’d either panic trying to move it too quickly, or not move it quick enough and have it stolen away. Rielly has had his share of turnovers, but appears as comfortable as a rookie could be when the puck is on his stick.
He looks cool, calm and collected in his own zone as he understands he can make a pass, putting a teammate on the opposing blue-line or simply use his skating ability to march out of his zone on his own.
Rielly’s skating ability has kept him out of trouble when he’s tried to do too much offensively. A bad turnover at the opponent’s blue-line by Rielly resulting in a two-on-one going the other way is often eliminated by his ability to chase down the opposition, evening the attack into a two-on-two. Few defensemen in the league possess that kind of explosive skating ability.
It’s that same skating ability that lifts Leaf fans out their seats when he grabs the puck off the opposition’s stick in his own zone and takes off down the ice, dangling through defenders. When former GM Brian Burke said he’d have taken Rielly first overall when he selected him fifth overall in 2012, it’s easy to see why when the defenseman can carry the puck the length of the ice as a 19-year-old.
Despite an unpleasant history when it comes to young defensemen, the Maple Leafs have done the right thing by keeping Rielly in the NHL.