LONDON, Ont. – The Toronto Maple Leafs are on Morgan Rielly’s mind, and they have been for some time.
The 19-year-old defenceman is the organization’s top prospect, and his complex situation of perhaps being too good for the WHL, too young for the AHL and not yet ready for the NHL has been well-documented. All Rielly could do over the summer was give himself the best possible chance when training camp opens Wednesday.
“What was driving me was I was trying to make the Leafs,” said Rielly, who worked out back home in Vancouver. “I was training hard, I was on the ice a lot and obviously my goal I had in mind was to play in Toronto this year. That was what was driving me to wake up every morning early and train and to go on the ice.”
Rielly was asked plenty during Leafs prospect camp in June about going back to junior with the Moose Jaw Warriors if he can’t earn a roster spot in Toronto, and he will be under the microscope plenty as his real audition begins later this week.
“He’s a kid, he handles everything so well,” Toronto Marlies coach Steve Spott said. “Morgan’s a very intelligent young man. If you speak to him, he’s mature beyond his years, he’s going to be able to handle the media that this city presents. I just think he understands he has to be a step above on the ice and he has to be a step above off the ice.”
To be a step above on the ice means playing with the same kind of poise that he has shown when talking about his tough spot. Rielly insists he doesn’t think too much about what it would take to make the Maple Leafs, but he’s not blind to the depth chart.
“I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t know what Capgeek was,” Rielly said. “I’ve checked, but I’m not constantly checking. I don’t put too much concentration into who’s under contract and all that kind of stuff. I’m just going to play hard and try to earn my spot.”
Rielly could be helped in the number crunching if Cody Franson isn’t signed or the Maple Leafs trade a defenceman to get deals done under the cap with Franson and fellow restricted free agent Nazem Kadri. But the competition for spots should be heated between Rielly, Paul Ranger, T.J. Brennan and Korbinian Holzer.
In preparing for training camp and the upcoming season, wherever he’ll spend it, Rielly didn’t change much of his training regimen. He said Leafs management told him to continue his regular development.
“There’s been some chatter about I have to change this and change that … (like) ‘You have to be a lot bigger, a lot stronger, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Rielly said. “But they just told me to keep doing what I’ve been doing and just play the way I did in junior and whatnot. They just told me to keep working hard, basically.”
As hard as he works, there might not be room for Rielly on a blue-line that already includes Dion Phaneuf, Franson, Jake Gardiner, Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser and John-Michael Liles. But it’s not as if his destination has been predetermined.
“I think as an organization everyone’s on the same page where his play will dictate ultimately where he goes,” Spott said. “It’s going to be about development and what’s going to be best for Morgan in the long term. That, I think, has to be the idea here. If he can come in and play and contribute, then obviously he’s earned that opportunity.”
Rielly just wants to make it a “hard choice” on general manager Dave Nonis, coach Randy Carlyle and the rest of Toronto’s brass. But if he has to go back to Moose Jaw, Rielly has said all the right things about handling that disappointment.
Dealing with it would be another test of Rielly’s maturity.
“Ultimately attitude is everything,” said Spott, who coached the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers for five seasons. “Those kids’ motivation is to help the junior teams win. They’re usually captains, so they get that experience and then you’ve got a world junior (tournament), so there is some extra motivation still at the junior level that he can accomplish. He’s a special player, he’s mature and no matter where he ends up this year I know that his character won’t ever be challenged.”