The Future Is Now: Rielly & Gardiner and a 1st Line Centre

This isn’t Pat Quinn’s Leafs from hockey’s version of BC (Before Crosby). When the revolutionary lockout of 2004-05 commenced, the National Hockey League transformed into a high tempo beast. Rules changed drastically, and youth became a premium. Smart old vets began losing job security to younger, faster, more rambunctious kids. The Leafs were late to that party, but they’ve finally arrived, and they look good.

It’s been slow progressing, but the 2013-14 edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs is stacked with home grown young talent, none more impressive than defenceman Morgan Rielly.

Morgan Rielly Represents High End Hope For The Toronto Maple Leafs

Simply put, the potential on display by Morgan Rielly is hard to ignore. In last evening’s contest against the Nashville Predators, the young blue liner showcased moments of brilliance, en route to the Leafs 4th victory in five games to begin the season.

Last night’s 4-0 victory featured Rielly’s first NHL point. The 19 year old earned a second assist on the Leafs 3rd goal, a power play marker that blew the game wide open.

With the puck, Rielly has looked poised, intelligent, and impressive. He clearly possesses the skill set expected of a 5th overall draft pick.

Without the puck, the kid ain’t bad. In fact, for a young player with three games of NHL experience, he’s well above average on the defensive side of play.

Good reads is a skill of Rielly. He made several smart step ups – closed gaps well – boxed out opponents effectively for the Buds last night.

Rielly made one very mature play in the 3rd period, riding out Preds captain Shea Weber along the boards in the Leafs zone. Nearly twice his size, Weber tried to beat Rielly wide, to no avail. The young defender played the man, forcing Weber into a dead end where side boards meet corner.

His former teammate and rookie counterpart, Seth Jones, played strongly, as well. The Leafs can be excited about Rielly, as can the Predators about Jones. These two kids might be competing for the Norris in the near future.

Rielly & Gardiner or Rielly Over Gardiner?

Trading Jake Gardiner now may be the way to acquire a true number one centre. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)
Trading Jake Gardiner now may be the way to acquire a true number one centre. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

Rielly & Gardiner has a nice ring to it. Like Weber & Suter or Keith & Seabrook, the Leafs may possess their own star defence pairing to boast for several years. The two kids have the pedigree, talent and opportunity to be great. It helps that their coach, Randy Carlyle, is a Norris trophy winner. You think Randy can teach young defencemen? All indicators suggest, definitely yes.

Rumours are circulating about Gardiner’s status as a Leaf. According to the reliable Elliott Friedman, the Leafs are entertaining trade offers on Gardiner (points 14 and 15 discuss Jake).

Insert temptation.

The temptation to allow Rielly and Gardiner a bright future with the Leafs must be overwhelming. The potential for two superstars on the blue line is a dream of every NHL franchise. Look at Cup winners – they enjoy such formula. Makes sense, if you want to win Cups, a couple stud defencemen are major requirements.

How about the temptation to trade Jake Gardiner? By far, the Leafs strongest organizational depth exists on the back end. Gardiner is great, but what is he worth on the trade market? If the answer is a first line centre, that’s tempting.

First Line Centre – The Leafs Biggest Need

Looks like goaltending is secured in Leaf Land. Between the impressive Jonathan Bernier and  capable James Reimer, the Leafs have two guys they can run with.

On D, depth is abundant. Andrew MacWilliam and Stuart Percy looked very strong in preseason. Korbinan Holzer is more than capable of stepping in and contributing to the Leafs 3rd pairing. Cody Franson is becoming a superb NHL regular. Plus, Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, and Mark Fraser all do their part, while the verdict is still out on NHL returnee Paul Ranger.

At centre, the Leafs lack at the high end. The four man crew consisting of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, David Bolland and Jay McClement is strong, but it could be better, theoretically. All four middle men are effective players, that’s not the concern. None are elite, though. Elite centremen win Cups. The goal here is winning Cups. Improving up the middle is worth consideration on behalf of Leafs GM Dave Nonis.

If Jake Gardiner fetches a first line centre via trade, the Leafs may consider, and they’d be right to do so. NHL teams should explore all possible options.