TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs could find themselves in a bit of a pickle where young defenseman Morgan Rielly is concerned.
The Maple Leafs are ecstatic with the progression of their first round pick (No. 5) from the 2012 NHL Draft and are convinced he will compete for a job in September. Chances are very good he'll get a nine-game NHL apprenticeship, at the very least, when the 2013-14 season begins.
If, however, the Maple Leafs decide he's not quite ready to play in the NHL, they will be forced to return him to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. Therein lies the problem: The Maple Leafs do not believe playing another year of junior hockey will help his development.
Has Rielly, 19, outgrown junior hockey?
"Possibly so … yes," said Jim Hughes, the Maple Leafs' director of player development. "I think he's in the crossroad where we all know it's play in the NHL or be sent back to junior. I think there has to be a lot of thought that goes into having him go back and play against 16- and 17-year-old kids. Is that going to benefit him? We're not sure. Again, that assessment will be made sometime in September. It's a delicate situation, but I'm sure we'll make the right choice in terms of where he belongs next year. We do know that he's a high-character kid and he will eventually get to this League."
After a nightmare season in 2011-12 during which he was limited to 18 games with the Warriors because of a major knee injury, Rielly bounced back nicely, scoring 12 goals and 54 points in 60 games for Moose Jaw. He represented Canada at the World Junior Championship, scoring two goals and three points, then finished the season in the American Hockey League with the Marlies, scoring a goal and three points in 14 regular-season games and one goal in eight playoff games.
Make no mistake, Rielly remains a work in progress, but all indications are he's close to being NHL-ready.
"He played the appropriate minutes and in all situations -- 4-on-5, 5-on-5, the power play and the penalty kill -- so he had a great season from start to finish," Hughes said. "We'll see how he does in the rookie camp in September and then we'll assess the situation, and [Maple Leafs general manager] Dave Nonis and [coach] Randy Carlyle will decide where we go from there."
The Maple Leafs took significant steps under first-year GM Nonis last season, becoming a bigger and tougher team. They made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season and came close to eliminating the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins in Round 1, but blew a 4-1 third-period lead in Game 7.
Simply making the playoffs is nice, but certainly not what Nonis is aiming at. So far this offseason, the Maple Leafs have added goalie Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings and rugged power forward David Clarkson from the New Jersey Devils. Chances are Nonis' tinkering is not done.
The Maple Leafs have significant experience on the blue line with veterans Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles as well as Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner. Toronto acquired free agent TJ Brennan, who played with the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers last season, and there's still a chance restricted free agent Mark Fraser will re-sign.
Regardless of whether or not Nonis gives his defense another boost through trade or free agency, Rielly will be given every opportunity to make the team. The Vancouver native is a superb skater with excellent vision and terrific offensive instincts. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound blueliner will one day quarterback a power play in the NHL, if not in Toronto, then elsewhere.
"My goal is to make the Maple Leafs," Rielly said. "It's never easy to get cut so, yeah, I would be disappointed. Obviously it's not easy to play pro hockey as a teenager, so you have to keep that in mind, but I'm going to keep training hard and come to camp and hopefully play well."
One person certainly in Rielly's corner is new Marlies coach Steve Spott. He coached Rielly in the WJC and believes he has star potential.
"He's a world-class player," Spott said. "He's a player that is extremely dynamic with the ability to transport the puck and run a power play. I think he's going to be a prototypical defenseman in the NHL who is just going to get better and better with experience."
Rielly, whose priority is to get stronger in the offseason, said it was very beneficial to end the season playing with the Marlies.
"Just having the chance to play against older players was great," Rielly said. "I had a chance to play in the playoffs as well, which was a big help for me. I was pretty happy with my play. When you are trying to make the jump from junior to pro there is a period of adjustment, but after that I was pretty happy how things went."
Rielly is realistic about his situation. Even though he'd be better served playing in the AHL if he fails to make the Maple Leafs, he understands it is not an option.
"If I end up going back to Moose Jaw next season, it's not like it's going to be a chore," he said. "I've always enjoyed playing there and the team will be good next season. Obviously my goal is to play here and I'm going to try to make it at camp. If I do have to go back to Moose Jaw, it's not going to change my attitude. I'm going to continue to try to get better."
A year ago when Hughes spoke about Rielly, he bubbled over with enthusiasm, as though he couldn't wait to see the player in a Maple Leafs jersey. This year Hughes' fervor remains evident, albeit a little restrained. Asked how long it'll be before Rielly arrives in the NHL, Hughes smiled.
"It's just time and patience," Hughes said. "He's physically strong; he's crystal clear in his head about where he wants to go; his skating is good, his vision is good, his skill set is good, his maturity is good. It's really just a matter of time, and we'll let it play itself out. I think it's a very fair goal. We'll see if Morgan is ready, both psychologically and physically. He's a talented young player, and if it's the right fit, I don't think anybody is afraid to throw him into the fire next year."