PITTSBURGH – Morgan Rielly stood in a quiet corner of Consol Energy Center thumbing through the text messages on his cellphone. As it turns out, a lot of people take notice when you score your first NHL goal.
The one message that has yet to be delivered to the 19-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman is the one seemingly everybody keeps asking about: Will he remain in the NHL over the Christmas holidays or join Canada at the world junior championship in Sweden?
Based on Rielly’s play over the last week, he should probably just stay put in Toronto. But the people responsible for making that call still don’t seem entirely sure about what is best for his development.
"That wrist shot of his is pretty dynamic," Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said after watching Rielly score in Monday’s 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh. "We’re going to have a tough decision here coming, that’s for sure."
Essentially, they have to decide one way or another after Tuesday’s home game against Florida. While Leafs management could also technically elect to watch Rielly face Phoenix on Thursday, they would only have until 11:59 p.m. EST that night to complete the paperwork needed to loan him to Hockey Canada before NHL rosters are frozen for the holidays.
The uncertainty is clearly starting to weigh on Rielly. He’s been unflappable since arriving in Toronto, but indicated prior to Monday’s game that it would be a relief when he finally learned his fate one way or the other – if for no other reason than to put an end to the speculation and persistent questions on the subject.
"As a kid growing up in Canada, you dream about having the opportunity to play for Team Canada," said Rielly, who was part of last year’s team. "To be in the spot that I’m in is nice compared to having to go try out and stuff. But I play for the Toronto Maple Leafs and that’s where my priorities lie.
"I’m not going to be heartbroken either way."
The Leafs have previously said that the decision would make itself based on whether Rielly was getting a chance to play. Since re-entering the lineup last Wednesday after a string of scratches, he has averaged more than 18 minutes per night in four games and directed eight shots on goal.
One of those sailed over Marc-Andre Fleury’s shoulder on Monday for the first goal of his NHL career. It was a perfectly placed shot and a "nice feeling" for a blue-liner that scored 12 times for the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Western Hockey League last season.
He had a solid all-around performance against the Penguins. You could see the confidence as he calmly chipped a pass to teammate Jake Gardiner on a power play and fired the puck the length of the ice to set up another scoring opportunity.
There has also been some noticeable chemistry with veteran John-Michael Liles, who took Rielly out for dinner prior to his first NHL training camp in January and has nothing but kind things to say about how the rookie is adapting to the pro game.
"His skating sets him apart from other guys," Liles said. "He’s a kid that is probably more mature than 19 years old. He carries himself very well, very respectfully. He’s a good kid that has a bright future ahead of him.
"It’s been a pleasure playing with him these last couple games."
Whether that partnership remains intact next week remains to be seen. Outside of brief conversation with director of hockey operations Dave Poulin recently, Rielly basically hasn’t heard anything from the Leafs about the world junior tournament.
The Canadian team recently held a training camp in Toronto and has already travelled over to Europe for a pair of exhibition games. The tournament begins on Boxing Day and runs through Jan. 6.
Toronto’s expectations for Rielly this season have been clearly defined from the outset of training camp. Carlyle wanted him to show that he can be a reliable contributor for 12 to 15 minutes per night and didn’t expect him to play every single game this season.
Based on that set of criteria, he has done more than what was asked of him. In fact, Rielly has only failed to play less than 15 minutes in three of 26 games he’s suited up for so far. Perhaps the best aspect of his game is his ability to recover when he gets caught deep in the offensive zone.
"I think his skating allows him to make up for any mistakes that he has and he hasn’t made too many of them," Liles said. "I think he’s played tremendous."
Soon Rielly will find out once and for all which colour of Maple Leaf he’ll don for the next few weeks. At this point, it would rank as a surprise if Toronto sent him overseas.