TORONTO – Andy Rielly didn’t want to take any chances.
With the clock ticking on a decision about his son’s immediate future with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the proud papa made the cross-country journey from Vancouver this week to attend a pair of games while he knew his boy was still assured of a spot in the NHL.
Never mind that the Leafs will soon face the Canucks at Rogers Arena, not far from where the Rielly family lives. That Nov. 2 contest might as well be eons away for a 19-year-old defenceman who has no choice but to live in the moment.
In this moment, after Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over Minnesota, Morgan Rielly felt satisfied.
His two-assist performance not only came with his dad in the stands at Air Canada Centre, but it also followed Saturday’s minus-2 outing against Edmonton, one that he called the worst of his NHL career.
While that is an extremely relative assessment given that his “career” is just five games old, Rielly said it was important for him to re-establish a little bit of the confidence he had lost a few nights earlier. You never would have known any doubt had crept into his mind when you saw the home run pass that set up Trevor Smith’s goal at 13:51 of the first period against Minnesota.
That was yet another example of the tantalizing talent the fifth overall draft pick from 2012 has to offer the Leafs. However, it was a much less effective play by Rielly that stuck out in Randy Carlyle’s mind following the game.
“The one mistake was pretty glaring,” said Carlyle. “In the third period he tried to curl and drag at the (Minnesota) blue-line in a 3-1 hockey game (and turned the puck over). Those are the ones that send a little shiver (through you).”
It also underscored the difficulty of the decision facing Leafs management. Defencemen are bound to make mistakes, especially while they are still finding their footing in the NHL. Even though the team’s brass is believed to be leaning towards keeping Rielly rather than sending him back to the Western Hockey League, it is far from a slam dunk.
The audition can only last up to four more games — ending Oct. 25 in Columbus, assuming he isn’t scratched in the next week or so — before the first year of Rielly’s NHL contract would take effect.
To this point, he seems to have done all the organization has asked. Carlyle indicated at the outset of training camp that he would have to demonstrate that he can play 12-15 reliable minutes per night and he’s exceeded that total in every game so far.
There is also some comfort and trust growing between him and defensive partner Cody Franson, another WHL product who was in a similar position to Rielly not so long ago. Following the tandem’s disappointing effort in the 6-5 win over the Oilers, they went over game tape of all of their shifts and determined that they needed to do a better job of communicating on the ice — something they thought they accomplished against the Wild.
Franson’s mentorship role with the rookie was also evident after the third-period turnover that left Carlyle cringing. Once they returned to the bench after that shift, the 26-year-old could be seen offering a few words of encouragement to Rielly.
“He knew what he did already and I just kind of made a joke with him to make sure that his head was still in the right place,” said Franson.
These are somewhat unusual times around the Leafs. Despite the team’s 6-1-0 start to the season, there has been all kinds of focus on the perceived deficiencies in its defensive game. Heck, the Leafs were outshot 37-14 during Tuesday’s victory.
However, Rielly has appeared to play his way into the top-four on the blue-line over the first two weeks of the schedule — although he ended up with the fewest minutes among Toronto defencemen against the Wild.
No matter what ends up happening, it’s undeniable that he has made a strong impression on the organization and learned a lot about life in the NHL. About a month ago he was gushing about the endless supply of coconut water in the dressing room and on Tuesday he cashed his first bimonthly NHL paycheque — one that was in the neighbourhood of $64,000 before deductions.
He’s also earned all kinds of praise from teammates along the way.
“He doesn’t really look like a rookie to me,” said goalie James Reimer, who stopped 36 shots against the Wild. “He makes mistakes obviously, but it feels like he never gets panicky or unsure of himself. … He’s mature. It looks like he’s been there.”
The question remains about how long he’ll be here.
Rielly has been living in a hotel down the street from the ACC since early September and would love to get word that it’s safe to start looking for somewhere more permanent to live. In the meantime, he’s doing everything he can to avoid thinking about whether he’ll be sent back to junior or not.
“They have that choice,” said Rielly. “It’s completely up to them. I’m just trying to do the best job I can and make that choice hard for them.”