TORONTO – Sitting a stall over from his prospective rookie teammate in the Maple Leafs dressing room, Paul Ranger concedes that he often loses sight of just how old Morgan Rielly actually is.
"It doesn't even enter my mind most of the time," Ranger told TSN.ca, he and Rielly paired together yet again on Tuesday night. "It's moreso as he's just my partner and he just can play."
Remaining in question for the Leafs with the opener in Montreal drawing near is whether it's best for the 19-year-old to play right away. Suiting up in all but one of six exhibition games so far, Rielly continues to offer "flashes of definitely being ready" as Dave Nonis put it recently, while also showing his age and inexperience at times, too.
For head coach Randy Carlyle, the decision, a difficult one, will lie in whether it's best for the teenage defender to stick around and play 12-15 minutes nightly in the NHL or head back to the junior ranks in Moose Jaw.
It's a decision rife with complexities.
Rielly has, at times, oozed the potential which saw the Leafs happily select him with the fifth overall pick in 2012. In question though, is whether that case is definitive enough for the club to risk keeping him for the full 82-game season. The internal debate likely to ensue, and surely already ongoing, is not quite so simple as to whether he is ready now, but still ready in January, February and further on down the line. It's a question of which course is best for the long-term development of the organization's top prospect.
Formerly the bench boss in Anaheim, Carlyle faced a similar conundrum with the Ducks in the fall of 2010. There he opted to keep a then-18-year-old Cam Fowler in the NHL, doling out big minutes – 22 per night – to the 12th overall pick from the outset of an eventual 47-win team.
"They're two young players obviously that are trying to cut their teeth and take the first step into the NHL," Carlyle said Tuesday of Fowler and Rielly. "They're both talented young defencemen."
Of his evaluation process for the like-minded prospects, Carlyle said he aimed to play both in a variety of situations over the course of the exhibition schedule, implying that judgment as to their readiness would be made in whether they "continue to play and they're not failing".
"Randy knows what he's looking for," Nonis said over the weekend, before contrasting Rielly to the case Carlyle faced in Anaheim with Fowler. "I think he was always looking for [Fowler] to falter and he never did and Randy used him more and more. And if he would've faltered, I'm sure Randy would've pulled him out. That's the same kind of scenario here with Morgan. If he's ready, then he'll go in."
Two years ago, in the fall of 2011, that case was a slam-dunk for a then-21-year-old Jake Gardiner. Gardiner separated himself from the instant he stepped on the ice at training camp under Ron Wilson and never looked back, speeding toward all-rookie team honours.
Though he's looked the part in stretches during the exhibition season, the case isn't quite so definitive for Rielly.
With the Senators in town on Tuesday, Rielly played 20 minutes and appeared to struggle at times – unusually with the puck – on the ice for all three goals against, though he also helped to instigate the Leafs game-opening goal.
"Is it better for him to play with our hockey club, the 12-15 minutes a night when he plays and to practice than going back to his junior situation?" Carlyle opined of Rielly earlier this fall. "Those are tough decisions…"
Complicating matters is an unsettled situation on defence. The Rielly conversation might just be moot if Cody Franson were signed and with his teammates at camp, but in his continued absence, the club would appear to have one position open and available in their top-6, the likes of Rielly, John-Michael Liles, Korbinian Holzer and T.J. Brennan competing to fill the role.
Though he has much to prove at this level, Rielly might just be the most attractive option of the group at the moment with his tantalizing skill-set, but again, the Leafs must debate whether now is also best for later.
"If he does go back, he has a good coach there," Nonis said of Moose Jaw head coach Mike Stothers. "I think that's one area you look at and say is he being coached by a quality staff and the answer is yes. Would he have a major impact on the World Junior team? I think the answer there is yes. There's some things that could happen to him that would be good for him. That doesn't mean that he should go back. If he really is ready to play here and he can play a significant role, then there's nothing wrong with keeping him at 19."
Though the decision will ultimately fall to Carlyle, with input from Nonis and team brass, a decision on Rielly does not necessarily need to be made in the next week. The Leafs can play the B.C. native in up to nine regular season games before they would be faced with the choice of burning a year of his entry-level contract.
"I think he's played well," Carlyle said of Rielly, following the 3-2 exhibition loss to the Senators. "I think he's acquitted himself very well."
Well enough is the question.
1. Rielly scouting report
The first word to emerge from Ranger when questioned on Rielly was "speed". "He's quick with his decisions and he reads the plays very quickly," Ranger said of his younger teammate, noting his instincts for jumping into the play offensively. "He has the physical ability to be able to make passes and make plays and adjust at this level. So far, it's been great."
2. Clarkson accepts his fate
Sentenced to 10 games for leaving the Toronto bench during a brawl with Buffalo on Sunday, David Clarkson summed up his intents quite well in his first session with media following the incident. "I sometimes make decisions with my heart, not my head," he said. "I saw a teammate that I felt was in trouble and my reaction was to help." Though he regretted the eventual outcome of his actions, Clarkson made clear that his instincts would continue to lie in defending teammates, much as he attempted to do in light of John Scott's attempted throttling of Phil Kessel. "It's like if you have a little brother and you feel like he's in trouble or you feel like there's a situation, you can get out and help," the 29-year-old continued. "That was the feeling I had in my belly. I had a feeling to do something and I've got to pay the consequences for it.
"Everything happened so quick," he continued.
"I saw something go on that I hadn't seen, hadn't been apart of, so it's hard for anyone to say anything unless you're sitting there and you've got your feet in my skates. I've never seen something like that go down before … I was just going in there to help and settle things down. That was the intent."
Clarkson considered appealing the suspension, but ultimately chose to accept the sentence. His Leafs debut will have to wait until October 25th in Columbus.
3. Raymond sticks out
At 27-years-old with six NHL seasons under his belt, Mason Raymond probably shouldn't feel quite like a crafty old vet. And yet with widespread youth on the Toronto roster – Joffrey Lupul, Jay McClement and John-Michael Liles are the only three potential regulars over 30 – that's exactly how the newly signed Raymond felt when he joined the Leafs at training camp on a professional tryout earlier this month. "As hard as it is to believe, I feel like I'm an older guy on this team," said Raymond, inked to a one-year deal worth $1 million. Facing an unfamiliar situation when he arrived at camp without a contract this fall, Raymond quickly stuck out with his wheels. "When we brought him in on a tryout, the expectations were that he was going to be able to make an impression and he didn't fall short," Carlyle observed of his new asset. "It was pretty easy to pick him out – it still is when he's out there. He has the ability to grab you with that speed."
A natural left-winger, Raymond played some right wing and centre during his stint with the Canucks and is open to moving around if needed. Stuck without Clarkson for the opening 10 games of the regular season, the Leafs have a hole to fill at right wing – likely alongside Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul – one that Raymond or perhaps Nik Kulemin could be charged to fill. "I don't think it's too much to adjust to," he said of moving to the off-wing if needed.
4. Lupul speaks out
Joffrey Lupul didn't mince words when questioned on Clarkson and the fallout of Sabres melee. "I'm never going to say anything bad for a teammate sticking up for another teammate," Lupul said of Clarkson, who rushed to the aid of teammates on Sunday, suspended by the league on Monday. "That's what we're taught right from day one and something we preach in this locker room. Your initial reaction for sure is everyone to go out there and stick up for a teammate."
What Lupul couldn't grasp though were the actions of Scott, the 6-8 Sabres behemoth who initiated the brawl with an attempted attack on Kessel. "You don't expect one of the top-5 toughest guys, biggest guys in the NHL, to do something like that," said Lupul, now a veteran of nine seasons. "I've never seen that in all the years I've played. It's pretty embarrassing for him and I'm sure he doesn't feel well about it now."
Following a late afternoon hearing with dean of discipline, Brendan Shanahan, Kessel was suspended for the remainder of the pre-season schedule. Stung with a match penalty for a flurry of slashes at the shins of Scott, Kessel retreated as the Buffalo enforcer was mauled by a pair of teammates. "The thing about a guy of that size, it's not like Phil could possibly fight him and get out of it unhurt," Lupul opined of the 6-foot, 200-pound Kessel. "The guy's outweighing him by close to 100 pounds. It's not possible. So what are you going to do? You're going to whack him with your stick. I think it's a whack in the shin-pads, a hard whack. But it could've been a lot higher and with a lot of players it might've been a lot higher. [For] a lot of guys in the league, if Scott drops their gloves and comes at them like that, he might be missing his front row teeth. You can say it's a hard whack and I know they're upset about the whack but it's in the shin-pads."
5. Mobility work
The after effects and healing process of a fractured orbital bone took a chunk out of Mark Fraser's offseason. But when back to full health, Fraser went to work, targeting one specific area of his game. "For me it's an ongoing process of trying to become a better skater," he said. More specifically, Fraser has eyes on improving his lateral mobility, easier said than done for a player registered at 6-4 and 220 pounds. Working with Leafs skating consultant Barb Underhill, Fraser looked to improve his form in the summer months. "It's like in sprinting," he explained, "you can try to run as fast as you want, but until you actually have proper form, you won't actually run as fast as you're capable of."
The 26-year-old gleaned that he could expend less energy with better form, specifically by powering off one leg in an athletic position when pivoting. "A lot it is learning how to properly use your edges," Fraser explained. "We can all stand up and skate fine, but it's properly using your edges and a lot of the core strength that actually helps make an efficient stride. It's expending less energy which is something I haven't really mastered yet."