Johnston: Rielly in tough to crack Leafs roster

Morgan Rielly is battling for the final spot at Toronto Maple Leafs camp. (CP/Michelle Siu)

LONDON, Ont. — Morgan Rielly has looked through the numbers.

You can bet the Toronto Maple Leafs have as well.

“I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t know what Capgeek was,” Rielly said Saturday when asked whether he’s paid any attention to where he might fit on the NHL team’s depth chart. “I’ve checked.”

The cold, hard reality is that the odds are stacked against the 19-year-old defenceman cracking Toronto’s lineup this season.

Even though big things are expected from the fifth overall pick in 2012 — he certainly looked to be a step ahead of everyone else during the opening game of the team’s rookie tournament at Budweiser Gardens — the nuances of the salary cap pose nearly as much of a challenge to his roster bid as proving that he can compete against men over an 82-game season.

Toronto already has six blue-liners on one-way deals and a seventh, Jake Gardiner, who is a lock to make the team. Assuming that restricted free agent Cody Franson signs a new contract before the regular season, it would mean that two more experienced players would have to be sent to the minors to make room for Rielly.

With just a few days remaining before the opening of training camp, Rielly was well aware of the situation.

“I have a pretty good idea just because it’s always on (TV) and whatnot,” he said. “I’m just trying to play hard and trying to earn my spot.”

Naturally, the Leafs brain trust will sit back and watch how camp plays out before making any final decisions. An injury or trade possibility — unlikely because so many teams are currently hovering around the upper limit of the salary cap — could change things, as could a prolonged holdout from Franson.

Toronto also has the option to dress Rielly for nine regular-season games without burning the first year of his entry-level contract if it wants to extend his audition.

Perhaps the biggest thing the Leafs organization needs to determine about its top prospect in the coming weeks is if he’d be better served with a fourth season in the Western Hockey League or the opportunity to play in the NHL.

Rielly is unable to be sent to the American Hockey League this year because of his age.

“It’s going to be about development and what’s going to be best for Morgan in the long term,” said Toronto Marlies coach Steve Spott, who is in charge of the team at the prospect tournament. “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.”

Spott spent 14 years coaching in major junior before taking the Marlies job earlier this summer.

He acknowledged seeing highly rated prospects return to the Canadian Hockey League and sulk in the past, but isn’t worried about that happening with Rielly. Major expectations have been placed on the smooth-skating defenceman and he’s been able to live up to them so far.

“He handles everything so well,” said Spott. “Morgan’s a really 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 the city presents and I just think he understands that he has to be a step above on the ice and he has to be a step above off the ice.

“I think that’s his motivation (at the rookie tournament) — to be different in a positive way.”

Rielly didn’t dress for Saturday night’s 4-3 shootout victory over Pittsburgh, but he impressed many of the scouts with his performance in the tournament opener against Chicago.

One told that Rielly clearly possessed the ability to skate with NHL players now, but noted that the biggest challenge he would face is showing that he can make good decisions when passing and retrieving the puck in the faster pro game.

“He was a good pick for the Leafs,” said the scout.

For his part, Rielly seems to be approaching his second NHL training camp with an open mind.

While he would obviously love to stay in Toronto, a return to the Moose Jaw Warriors would give him another chance to represent Canada at the world junior tournament this winter.

“If I went back to Moose Jaw, that’s a great team back there and a year to improve and keep getting stronger,” said Rielly. “I’ll be happy in junior as well. I’ve always enjoyed playing in Moose Jaw — it’s a great town — so either way I’ll be happy.”

There will be plenty of focus on Rielly’s immediate future once Leafs training camp opens Wednesday and he officially launches his bid to make the NHL team.

Another factor that could work against him is that he shoots left-handed — just like Gardiner, Carl Gunnarsson, John-Michael Liles, Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger — but he’s trying not to get caught up in how the math might affect his chances.

“I don’t put too much concentration into who is under contract and all that kind of stuff,” said Rielly. “I’m just going to play hard and be myself and hopefully it goes well.”

Facing tough odds, it’s the best approach to take.

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