TORONTO - In a perfect world, Morgan Rielly would like to be in Toronto with the Maple Leafs in October. But it's not that simple.
The 19-year-old defenceman is in no-man's land, caught between being too good for junior and perhaps not yet ready for the NHL. He's too young to play in the AHL with the Marlies, yet Rielly is at the point where he might be bored dominating the Western Hockey League.
"It's not something where he needs to mature and he needs to learn how to be the guy because I think he already knows how to be the guy," Leafs director of player development Jim Hughes said. "Has he outgrown that role? It's possible that he has and that he needs new challenges."
How to get him new challenges is an organizational concern for the Leafs, who already have an established defensive corps led by Dion Phaneuf and a young defenceman in Jake Gardiner they need to blend in with the rest of the group. There's no sense in rushing Rielly, who could be a star but might need patience before his time comes.
"I understand that I have plenty of time to play pro hockey," said Rielly, the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft. "If I don't play this year, that doesn't mean that I won't ever play in the NHL. That's a goal I have. But if not, I've just got to keep working hard, keep trying to get better. I'll be 20 this time next year, which is still pretty young, so I'm not too concerned about it. But that's a goal I'm pretty driven to achieve."
The Maple Leafs understand the delicate situation they're in with Rielly. Hughes said being in the pressure-packed Toronto market ups the ante on making sure they don't derail his development by either pushing him into the NHL too soon or keeping him in the WHL too long.
"We've got to do it right," Hughes said. "You can see how Nazem (Kadri), how he's turned the corner. So we need to get this right. But Morgan, he's mature, and he's sharp and he's physically strong. He's got that strong, wide base and foundation. He doesn't get knocked off the puck. So he's a little bit further ahead, and it's going to be real dicey to see how this all unfolds."
Rielly is waiting along with everyone else. He was almost a point-a-game player last season for the Moose Jaw Warriors, who finished 10th out of 12 teams in the WHL's Western Conference.
There's not much else he can achieve at the junior level, except perhaps feel better about his game as a top prospect who controls the play.
"I think I'd get a chance to be an older player on a team that's quite young. I think that's a pretty good opportunity to just be a leader," Rielly said. "I think if you're playing well every night and you're a huge part of the team, I think that can help the confidence."
Rielly got a chance to make a cameo appearance with the Marlies late last season, playing 14 regular-season and eight playoff games. He didn't play alongside Gardiner but got a chance to speak to the 23-year-old defenceman whose twisting path in Toronto could serve as a cautionary tale.
Gardiner is expected to be a Leafs fixture next season after spending most of 2012-13 with the Marlies.
"He's obviously a great player, and he has a whole lot of years of pro hockey to play still," Rielly said. "If I can play like him one day I'll be pretty happy."
Rielly would like that one day to be this fall. The Leafs could keep him around for up to nine games before returning him to his junior team without using a year of his entry-level contract, something that would give him a taste of the NHL.
It could also serve as a test of the puck-moving defenceman's readiness. Any other avenue would continue to test his patience.
"Obviously I want to play pro hockey, that's a goal, but I think you kind of have to appreciate the players that are also competing against you, that I'm only a teenager now," Rielly said. "You have to be patient with it, and that's often pretty hard. I think you've just got to be smart with it and appreciate the opportunity that I have to even have that chance. It's tough, but you have to do it, I guess."
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