The Toronto Maple Leafs should release Morgan Rielly to Canada for the World Junior Hockey Championships, but unfortunately, they can’t afford to lose him.
At a time when the Buffalo Sabres have released Mikhail Grigorenko to play for Russia at the World Junior Hockey Championships while the Florida Panthers aren’t releasing Aleksander Barkov to play with Finland, Rielly’s status remains unclear with the Maple Leafs.
Buffalo made the right decision by allowing Grigorenko to go play for his country and earn valuable experience while avoiding a toxic environment with the Sabres. Since Buffalo is such a mess this season and already out of the playoff picture, it makes sense for them to invest in their future by letting Grigorenko gain confidence at the tournament.
Meanwhile, Florida has decided it’s better for Barkov to grow his game with the Panthers instead of dominating another junior tournament. Last year when Barkov played for Finland at the World Junior Hockey Championships, he recorded seven points in six games. Florida clearly feels Barkov would develop faster playing in the NHL than in a international junior tournament.
This is where the Maple Leafs are struggling with their decision on whether or not to let Rielly play for Canada. Rielly has struggled this season and has a team-worst plus/minus rating of -11; nearly twice as bad as the next worst player. Given his struggles, it makes sense for Toronto to let Rielly grow confidence by playing on the top-defensive pairing for Canada at the tournament. Just how Grigorenko will likely be on the top line for Russia, Rielly would be a key leader and one of the best players for his country if he plays in the tournament.
However, the dilemma for the Maple Leafs is Rielly’s ice-time has gone up recently as he’s proving to be one of the team’s top-four defensemen after two months of the season. Rielly has a season average of 17:45 minutes of ice time, but in his past five games, he’s been averaging close to 20 minutes a game. Toronto’s blue line is also banged up with Cody Franson forced to miss time and Mark Fraser still struggling to return to form after recovering from injuries suffered early in the year.
Given the increase in ice time and the injuries on the blue line, releasing Rielly will significantly hurt Toronto’s chances of success. The Maple Leafs shouldn’t be in a situation where they are so dependent on a 19-year-old, but unfortunately their disappointing blue line has put them in that exact position. The confidence Rielly could gain playing for Canada could be extremely valuable in his future, but Toronto is only thinking short-term and they realize releasing him removes a key member of the lineup for three weeks.
Given his struggles as a rookie this season, it’d probably be for the best for Rielly to play in the tournament. Dominating players his own age could be the type of confidence boost needed for Rielly to excel for the rest of the NHL season. Unfortunately, although he’s struggled, Rielly hasn’t struggled enough that the Maple Leafs can lose him for the duration of the tournament. If the rest of Toronto’s defensemen were playing at a higher level than Rielly could be loaned to Canada for three weeks.
However, because of the Maple Leafs’ thin blue line, Rielly likely won’t be given the chance to represent his country since he’s needed a lot more in Toronto.