Decision time is looming for Maple Leafs, especially on blue line

TORONTO – Decisions, decisions.

Plenty await the Toronto Maple Leafs before they open the regular season Tuesday night in Montreal. How the roster comes together by then is the $64.3-million question.

Paramount to everything is the matter of getting under that limit, which could mean choosing between veteran defenceman John-Michael Liles, prospect Morgan Rielly or someone else like T.J. Brennan or Korbinian Holzer. Right-winger David Clarkson’s 10-game suspension to start the season could mean the Leafs have just 11 or 12 healthy forwards available to them on opening night.

And while the likes of Troy Bodie, Carter Ashton and Trevor Smith are in that discussion, the blue line is where the Leafs have to choose a direction. Keeping the 19-year-old Rielly around—even if it’s just for a nine-game test run in the NHL—would more than likely mean Liles is placed on waivers, either to be picked up elsewhere or go to the AHL’s Marlies.

“It’s not something that you control as a player, whether it’s me, whether it’s one of the young guys,” Liles said after Saturday night’s pre-season finale. “It’s the nature of the game we’re in and the business that we’re in.”

The long-term business of winning hockey has a lot to do with cultivating young talent, something that puts the Leafs in a tough spot with Rielly. He’s too young to go to the minors, so he either has to stick around in the NHL or be sent back to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL.

Asked if he thought Rielly was NHL-ready, coach Randy Carlyle said he was “very close.” Yet unlike the Montreal Canadiens, who announced that rookies Michael Bournival and Jarred Tinordi made the team, Carlyle didn’t make it clear one way or the other.

“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,” he said.

Pressed more on Rielly’s immediate future, Carlyle said: “You’re trying to bleed something out of me that I’m not going to bleed to you.”

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Rielly had one assist in six pre-season games and did not look out of place. He doesn’t doubt being ready to play at this level.

“I feel like I am there, but that’s up to the coaches if they want me to play this year or not,” said Rielly. “They have 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. I’ll have to wait and see, though.”

The wait and see game is still to come in goal, where James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier are expected to split Toronto’s first two regular-season games. Carlyle called choosing his opening-night starter probably the “toughest decision” that still must be made.

Reimer went 2-1 with a 2.56 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage in the pre-season, while Bernier went 1-1 with a 3.75 GAA and an .891 save percentage.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, and I feel pretty good,” Reimer said. “It is obviously a tryout, but you want to be ready.”

Reimer said he did the best that he can, leaving the decision up to Carlyle.

But as with all the Leafs’ decisions, general manager Dave Nonis and his staff have input. The cap plays a role, and it seems nearly impossible to think that Liles and his $3.875-million hit can coexist with Rielly and his $1.744-million hit.

The final calls aren’t supposed to be easy, and it doesn’t look like they will be for the Leafs. When it comes to Rielly, Carlyle naturally has his opinion.

“I have one vote and we have a management team and a coaching staff that is going to consider all the options,” he said. “We’ll make a decision that’s based on what’s best for our hockey club and what’s best for Morgan Rielly.”