There's a lot of optimism in the air today as news that the NHL has made a significant move toward the players hit Twitter, the radio, and the televisions of hockey fans this afternoon. While there is undoubtedly still some distance between the players and the owners, the prospect of losing an NHL season seems unlikely unless the players choose to really fixate on the 57% of revenues that they were set to earn had this lockout not taken place.
Should the league and the players come to terms, Leafs management will be faced with several tough personnel decisions, not the least of which is what to do with their shiny new toy; defenseman Morgan Rielly.
Rielly has shown very well this year. He was a stand-out in the Canada-Russia Challenge this August and has registered 12 points in 9 games with an otherwise pretty crummy Moose Jaw team. I don't doubt that he will make management's decision a tough one once play resumes but for this year, it's better to err on the side of caution with Rielly and to have him play the season in the WHL.
There are a number of reasons why I don't want to see Rielly spend significant time in the NHL this year. Maybe I'm excessively cautious after watching Schenn deteriorate from a useful defensemen with lots of promise to a possession-nightmare and defensive liability -- it's possible. I'd like to think though that I've checked my recency bias at the door and am basing this on some sound logic.
For one thing, Rielly played a total of 23 games last season --18 regular season and 5 playoff games-- effectively depriving him of a full year's worth of development. Spending this year in the WHL will give him the chance to hone his decision-making in an environment where he can get away with some of the mistakes that offensive defensemen invariably seem to make. His decision-making is definitely a strength but there's always room for an 18-year old to improve.
There's also the Leafs' projected roster itself. Jake Gardiner, while promising, is still very much learning the ropes at the NHL-level. Do we really want two good, young offensive defense prospects in the NHL learning in tandem? Is there enough ice for both of them, keeping in mind that the amount of icetime Randy Carlyle will be willing to forfeit to below average defensive defensemen will doubtless be limited? Leaving Gardiner as the sole player of his ilk on the team will make sure that neither of our best defensive prospects gets short-changed.
Michael Langlois at Vintage Leaf Memories gives us some great perspective on Leafs defensemen of the past and how many of them have failed to live up to their projections. Langlois concludes that. "Rielly looks awfully good, I admit, and it's important to be positive and have hope for the future. But even if he's very, very good some day soon, he'll still just be one piece of a very large puzzle that will be needed to make the blue and white legitimate contenders for something more than just a measly playoff spot." This is an important point and one that should not be overlooked. Rielly is not the difference between today's roster and a Stanley Cup.
By leaving Rielly in the WHL this year (or not allowing him to exceed the 9-game mark, assuming there are no changes to the new CBA in this regard) the Leafs wont burn a year off of Rielly's ELC. If there's one lesson that Tambellini will likely teach us in the harshest way possible, it's that it isn't enough to just pick great prospects up as the spoils of your own ineptitude. A league with a salary cap makes it essential to take advantage of the most efficient years a player can provide which, based on the present framework, typically occur during a player's ELC. Edmonton has nothing but more prospects to show for two years of Eberle and Hall, and one year of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Leaving Rielly in the WHL gives this young team an extra year to develop and Burke an extra year to further bolster his lineup before starting the clock on our talented blueliner.
I understand the excitement that's revolving around Rielly right now, and in many respects I share it. With that said, there's still work to be done on this roster and Rielly still has room to improve as a player. I honestly believe that the best thing for Rielly's development and for the team moving forward is for Rielly to spend no more than 9 games in the NHL this season and to continue dominating the WHL. With any luck at all, he'll be doing the same in the NHL soon enough.