TORONTO – At a sprite 19 years of age, Morgan Rielly hasn't much minded spending the past few weeks living in a downtown Toronto hotel.
“It's not so bad,” said Rielly with some glee on Saturday morning. “I'm a teenager still so I like to get room service and order movies and stuff … Hopefully I'll get a few more weeks in the hotel. I'll have to wait and see.”
Randy Carlyle wouldn't tip his hand on the organization's immediate plans for Rielly, whether to keep him with the Leafs in Toronto or send him back to the junior ranks in Moose Jaw for one more season.
“I think Morgan Rielly is very close,” Carlyle said, questioned on whether he believed Rielly was ready to play in the NHL. “To say that unequivocally he's ready to play in the NHL is a tough question to ask and a tougher question to answer at this point.”
Rielly didn't look out of place over the course of the exhibition schedule – he played in six of the eight games – but whether he's ready to step in and become a regular contributor in the NHL this season is the “tough question” that Carlyle and the Leafs will have to answer in the hours ahead.
At the outset of training camp, Carlyle stated that the decision would lie in whether it was best for Rielly to offer 12-15 minutes nightly in the NHL – when he does play – or return to the Warriors for a year of likely domination, additionally suiting up for Team Canada at the World Juniors.
“I feel like I am there,” Rielly said of his readiness play in the NHL. “But that's up to the coaches, if they want me to play this year or not. They have a team to play and a goal to reach, which is to play in the playoffs again; that's what they ultimately want. If they choose to keep me or to put me back to junior obviously I'll understand. Have to wait and see though.”
The Leafs can keep Rielly in the fold just a little longer if they'd like – which seems likely at this point – with nine regular season games at their disposal to make a further assessment. Anything beyond that and they will exercise the first year of his entry-level contract, a fact they can't erase if his game slips at any point later in the season.
With Cody Franson back on board following a lengthy contract dispute, the organization would appear to have six defenders ahead of Rielly on the depth chart, but still able to keep the B.C. native as a seventh option if they so choose.
“We know he's played very well for our hockey club,” Carlyle said on Saturday evening, following a 3-1 win in the exhibition finale against Detroit. “He's a talented young man and he's only going to get better. Those are the tough decisions that you're faced with.”
Rielly for one, understood the difficulty of such a decision.
“Absolutely I can [understand],” he said sincerely. “That's why I say if I end up going back to junior I won't have any complaints.
“I can obviously understand if that's what they choose.”
1. ‘Toughest decision'
Outside of the impending decision with Rielly, perhaps the most difficult choice Carlyle faces in the coming days is which goaltender to start in the opener in Montreal on Tuesday. “That probably is going to be the toughest decision,” he said. “[But] those are good decisions. It's tough on coaches and management to pick one guy when both have played well. But the underlying fact is it's a great decision because we have 1-A and 1-B quality goaltenders, both guys can start.”
For what it's worth, James Reimer held the advantage statistically during training camp, boasting a .923 save percentage in four exhibition starts to that of Jonathan Bernier, who registered an .891 mark in four starts of his own.
2. Reimer ready to go
Reimer was hopeful that he'd earned that opening night start following a solid exhibition showing. “Obviously the starting job is what you want and hopefully that's the case,” he said. “But it's obviously going to be Randy's decision, what he feels is best for the team. I feel I've worked hard and done what I needed to do.”
In his final exhibition start on Saturday, Reimer allowed just one goal on 25 shots, albeit against a mostly AHL-laden Red Wings roster. Of his training camp in general, the 25-year-old was pleased. “Results have been good,” said Reimer before the game, “but those are, in essence, secondary. It's about getting ready and feeling good out there and feeling comfortable. And so far, I've felt that way. I felt that with every game that I felt more and more comfortable and there have been fewer situations where I was not ready or was taken by surprise. That's what exhibition is really about, just getting ready.”
Reimer said he typically feels ready for the regular season after 2-4 starts in the exhibition. “That's when you've pretty much faced probably 90 per cent of the chances that you'll ever face during a season,” he noted.
Carlyle has already declared that Reimer and Bernier will split the first two games with one to play in the opener against the Canadiens and the other to follow the next night against the Flyers.
3. Liles future lingers
John-Michael Liles faces an uncertain future as training camp concludes; the 32-year-old on the outside of a secure roster spot following just three exhibition games. In the finale against the Wings on Saturday, Liles scored once and added an assist in nearly 19 minutes. “I think every time you step on the ice you're trying to build towards something,” Liles said afterward. “For me, this was my third preseason game, you're trying to build toward the regular season. I don't think it was necessarily a conscious thing to say I need to go out there and assert myself. That's all you can do as a player and I'm no different than any other guy.”
Miscast for a role on a Carlyle defence, Liles' situation is further complicated by a burdensome contract, which carries three more years at a cap hit of $3.8 million annually. Considering their cap crunch, the most likely scenario would see Liles placed on waivers in the days ahead. If he cleared, the club would save $925,000, unable to bury the full cap hit as in years past.
4. Preseason Schedule
The Leafs concluded their eight-game exhibition schedule with their second back-to-back set, a Friday-Saturday affair with their new division rivals from Detroit. With a back-to-back, additionally on the road, to begin the regular season, Carlyle opted to dress a lineup Saturday chalk full of youth and very few regulars. “It's not something that you would say would be ideal when you have to finish on a Friday-Saturday back-to-back and then play your first two games of the season on Tuesday-Wednesday and open two buildings,” Carlyle said. “I don't think that is really ideal. I think it puts us somewhat at a competitive disadvantage.”
5. One last opportunity
In light of the hectic exhibition schedule and need to keep regulars rested was an opportunity for one last impression before most of those dressing Saturday returned to the Marlies. “It's another opportunity to show the organization and the coaching staff that if need be they can be called upon to make a contribution to our lineup,” Carlyle said. The player who stood out most in that regard against the Wings was Josh Leivo, the 20-year-old scoring twice, including a laser beyond Jared Coreau in the final frame. Andrew MacWilliam additionally demonstrated the raw truculence that made him noticeable in the early days of camp, delivering eight hits against the Wings.
The Leafs open the regular season in Montreal on Tuesday.