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The clock is ticking on Kerby Rychel

The Marlies winger has been hot lately and getting some buzz, but is he part of the Leafs’ future?

NHL: Preseason-Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Scott Harrington scored his first NHL goal on the weekend. Kerby Rychel had seven assists in three games in the AHL.

For the Leafs, trading Harrington (acquired in the Phil Kessel trade) was more about choosing Frank Corrado over him, and that choice might have been as simple as left versus right. But the actual return on the Harrington trade, Kerby Rychel, was a swap of a waiver-exempt forward prospect for a defender the Leafs knew could play well enough in the right NHL situation, but wasn’t going to wow anyone.

The waiver exemption on Rychel runs out this year, but that’s next year’s worry—a training camp conundrum in a season when Vegas might be snapping up any promising looking player on waivers that catches their eye. It is a clock ticking on Rychel’s career, but it is not the loudest one.

Due to a quirk of the way Columbus played Rychel, he is not exempt from the expansion draft. That is the loud clock ticking right in the ear of the Leafs management group. Before June 17, they have to decide if they want to use a protection slot for him. If they don’t want to or don’t have enough, they then have to decide if they want to risk him going for nothing. The alternative is to trade him to get something out of him.

For Rychel himself, the ticking clock may well be partly about money. He’s on the second year of his ELC right now because it slid two years. The AAV is a whopping $1,213,333, but that’s all fantasy numbers.

When your ELC slides, you still get your signing bonus, so Rychel’s $92,500 yearly payment ran out last year. He makes $70,000. That’s it. And if he plays in the AHL next year, that’s it again. You don’t get a chance to earn performance bonus money in the A. You don’t get your NHL salary. And at 22, Rychel is watching years of earning potential slip away.

Forget all that noise; he wants in the NHL. He would not be where is he right now if that drive was missing. And circumstance has handed him the opportunity to prove it now, right when he needs to, that he is ready, able and what the Leafs need on the team. But he needs to hurry.

The Marlies may not be playoff bound, and there might not be a chance at playoff glory to wow the bosses. Rychel did not wow anyone in the AHL playoffs last year, even if he was part of the Calder Cup winning team. All he has managed before this season was to dig a deep hole.

So far this season, he seems to have climbed out of the hole. Here he is on the Marlies top ten by points:

Toronto Marlies Top 10 January 23, 2017

Brendan Leipsic LW 34 11 26 37 -3 24 4 16 1 1.09 0.71 98 11.2
Kasperi Kapanen RW 33 16 17 33 -3 14 9 13 0 1 0.42 97 16.5
Andrew Nielsen D 40 8 20 28 -4 35 4 15 0 0.7 0.88 85 9.4
Kerby Rychel LW 38 8 18 26 -15 54 6 11 0 0.68 1.42 95 8.4
Byron Froese C 37 16 9 25 4 14 5 4 1 0.68 0.38 94 17
Andreas Johnsson LW 40 10 9 19 2 28 7 3 0 0.48 0.7 79 12.7
Colin Smith C 38 6 13 19 -4 16 0 6 0 0.5 0.42 81 7.4
Colin Greening C 37 6 8 14 1 23 1 0 1 0.38 0.62 61 9.8
Tobias Lindberg LW 35 5 9 14 5 32 2 0 0 0.4 0.91 56 8.9
Travis Dermott D 27 1 9 10 2 10 0 3 0 0.37 0.37 36 2.8

Some things stand out here. He has almost the same stat line as defender Andrew Nielsen, including getting most of his points on the power play. He also shoots a lot, but his shooting percentage is very low for the upper echelon of the AHL.

He shot at 9.1 percent in his first year in the AHL in 51 games played. He shot 6.8 percent last year in 37 games. Those are all situations numbers, as per the official AHL stats. Power play shooting percentage is generally higher, so I’m left wondering if he just does not have a very good shot. Shooting percentage isn’t repeatable and varies, sometimes wildly over time, but three years of play in one league gives you a hint at a career average which does speak to shooting ability. His is not saying much good about his ability.

In primary points-per-game at five-on-five for players who have played at least 15 games in the AHL this season, Rychel is 320th (data from Prospect-Stats). This is bad defenceman and grinder forward territory. He is tied with Brooks Laich and Milan Michalek.

The context for his results is important. The Marlies do not score goals at five-on-five. Brendan Leipsic and Kasperi Kapanen are the only forwards who get even a remotely decent percentage of their points outside of the power play. The Marlies simply are not a team that gets offensive zone time, particularly against tougher teams.

Kapanen is out for an unknown period of time with an injury to his leg, and in the last game on the weekend, Leipsic left the game with what looked like a head injury of some kind.

Rychel meanwhile, has been generating buzz with an uptick in points. He has x points in his last y games, say the boosters, and immediately picture him moving onto the Leafs to replace whoever they don’t like and want traded.

Rychel’s play this weekend was very exciting, and he has had a couple of very interesting games and many good ones. He played exceptionally well with Brett Findlay and Eric Faille, two of Orlando's best Solar Bears, against Hartford on Friday and again on Saturday. He played with Findlay and Colin Smith on Sunday, and also saw time with new Marlie Seth Griffith on the power play.

When he’s hot, Rychel is the sort of player who leads the team in shots on goal and is constantly noticeable carrying the puck in and driving the offensive cycle with a hard forecheck. When he’s cold, you can easily forget he was ever on the ice. Anyone who watched Kapanen last year might find that description familiar.

It is natural to look at a young prospect and pay more attention to their highs than their lows. You can look at the peaks and say, “If he plays like that all the time, there is something there.” You can hope the highs get a little higher too.

Kapanen, named to the AHL all-star roster this year, raised his level of play not so much at the top end, but at the bottom. He got rid of the days off, the invisible games, and he added versatility to his play with the penalty kill. The average is better. He might not play at his peak all the time, but he comes closer.

Rychel needs to do this, and he needs to do it now. At some point you stop saying, “But his shooting percentage was low. But in these few games here he was great. But he scores on the power play. But the team isn’t very good,” and you look at the averages. Rychel is 22 and Kapanen is 20.

Rychel has been hot lately. With Kapanen out of the lineup, Rychel and Griffith are looking at the fabled wide open door of opportunity. They have to put down game after game of hot play to step through it.

Griffith is also not exempt from the expansion draft, so that’s one more player in the mix when the Leafs start making decisions about who to keep, who to trade, who to protect and who to risk.

The Marlies have 36 more games to play in the regular season. Tick tock.