LONDON, ONT – With speckles of stubble now dotting his 19-year-old face, Morgan Rielly has little interest in minimizing expectations for his second season as a prospect in the Maple Leafs organization.
"Pretty high ones," he said with some degree of certainty. "Obviously, my goal is to make the Leafs this year."
Rielly is one among 25 prospects in London, Ontario this weekend for the organization's annual rookie tournament, an early springboard into NHL training camp next week.
"He's obviously a very gifted defenceman," said Steve Spott, the newly named head coach of the Marlies and frontman for the assembled group in London, "but at the same time, it's a process and one thing I think the organization is cognizant of is making sure we develop the players the right way."
The Leafs have two simple and yet very distinct choices as it pertains to the immediate future of the fifth overall pick from the 2012 draft. The organization can opt to keep him with the NHL club in Toronto – with a nine-game tryout window – or send him back to Moose Jaw for another year of junior hockey with the Warriors (he is not eligible to play in the AHL).
Ultimately, Leafs general manager Dave Nonis, his management team and the coaching staff, led by Randy Carlyle, will have to determine which course of action is best for the long-term development of their number one prospect.
"Morgan's play is going to dictate where he ends up," said Spott. "You can't teach the ability and the skill that he has, but ultimately, his play will dictate where he ends up."
Carlyle will be among the Toronto brass in attendance for the four-team tournament, which also includes the Penguins, Blackhawks and Senators, the head coach getting a first look at Rielly's progress ahead of camp.
Regardless of his potential and performance this weekend and in the NHL exhibition schedule to follow, the Leafs have to be wary of any decision that includes keeping their promising defender. In doing so beyond the threshold of nine regular season games, they would initiate the clock on his entry-level contract, a friend in today's cap-conscious world, and in some ways jump-start his development curve. Thus, it's usually wise to opt for caution and patience, even if all signs point to readiness right away.
Case in point, what went wrong in Buffalo last season. Despite the hasty schedule that lay ahead post-lockout, the Sabres chose to stick with 18-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko beyond the requisite threshold of NHL action (five games in the 48-game schedule) only to determine after 25 games and spotty ice-time that he was not quite ready for the pros. They promptly delivered him back to junior with the Quebec Ramparts, burning a year of his entry-level deal with little to show for it.
Luke Schenn offers a more complex case locally. Like Rielly, Schenn was picked fifth overall in 2008 and had played three years of junior with the Kelowna Rockets. Then an 18-year-old, he arrived at training camp that fall with an obvious NHL frame and bravado that suggested he was ready to play right away. The brass, led at that time by Cliff Fletcher and his head coach Ron Wilson, opted to keep the rugged defender, who actually thrived with a solid rookie year. What followed though were three years of inconsistent development, capped by a trade to Philadelphia in the summer of 2012.
Conversely, the organization exercised the highest degrees of patience and caution with Nazem Kadri, rewarded when he broke out with 44 points in 48 games last season.
Rielly is the most prized and promising of the Toronto prospects, offering an elegant stride and unique penchant for making something out of nothing on the back-end, offensively. He'll compete for a spot on a busy Leafs defence, one that should include nine defenders with NHL experience (the unsigned Cody Franson likely to be among them).
At a brief training camp following the lockout last January, the Leafs chose prudence with Rielly and sent him back to junior for his third season in Moose Jaw, where he went on to post 12 goals and 54 points in 60 games before joining the Marlies for 22 games (eight in the playoffs) thereafter.
Having coached him twice prior – at the Under-18 tournament and World Juniors last December – Spott sees a bright future for the young defender.
"He's definitely matured as a young man and ultimately now, I think he realizes what's available for him," said Spott, who replaced Dallas Eakins in early July. "I think he takes it very seriously; I think this camp for him, this week for him, is going to be real important."
Despite the caution, the organization may eventually opt to employ with him and Rielly will do his part in the coming days to make that choice all the more difficult. The rookie tournament is just the start.
"He's intelligent, he's sharp, he'll be able to handle himself in this city," Spott concluded, "and I think ultimately is going to be a special defenceman for the organization for a long time."