There was one player Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke really wanted to select at the NHL Entry Draft on Friday, and his name wasn’t Nail Yakupov.
Meet Morgan Rielly, the fifth overall pick of the draft, and Toronto’s latest top prospect. A smooth skating, offensive defenseman, Rielly was one of the top defensemen available, and the one the Leafs’ scouting staff wanted the most.
A native of West Vancouver, British Columbia, Rielly was by no means the obvious choice in the five-spot. Other top prospects such as Mathew Dumba, Filip Forsberg , and Mikhail Grigorenko were all still available. However, Burke made it clear afterwards that Rielly was number one on their list.
“Well I think everyone knows my feeling on it — winning championships begins and ends on the blue-line,” said Burke. “We had this player rated first overall. I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true just to build up the pick. He’s got a high IQ, high compete level, smart decisions. The future’s very bright for him. Our scouts are ecstatic.”
Burke isn’t the only one who’s thrilled about the decision, as Rielly is pretty pumped up himself.
“If you had of told me in October when I was healthy that I would be drafted to Toronto in the top five, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Rielly said after being picked. “To have this experience has been unreal. It’s hard to explain and I’m just extremely honoured to be here.”
And Leafs Nation is glad to have him. While the fans would prefer to not have such a high pick in the draft on a regular basis, something needed to be done to rejuvenate the energy in Toronto. On top of drafting Rielly, Burke also made a trade with the Flyers on Saturday, sending Luke Schenn to Philadelphia in exchange for winger James Van Riemsdyk.
“In an ideal world, obviously we would have liked to have taken a centre,” head scout Dave Morrison told The Globe & Mail. “But at that particular spot, he’s just such a talent. There was no way we were going to let him go.”
Rielly’s draft-year was marred by a torn ACL suffered less than twenty games into the season. He didn’t let the injury rattle him though. The Leafs’ top draft pick worked extremely hard on rehabilitating his knee following surgery in December. He was on a point-per-game pace prior to the injury, and managed to get himself into five playoff games for the Moose Jaw Warriors upon his return.
The 6’0″, 200 pound defenseman pushed himself hard to get back into shape. His efforts told Burke exactly what he needed to know, and made Rielly a player coveted by the Maple Leafs’ brass.
“This kid never viewed the injury as a setback, he viewed it as a challenge,” said Burke. “He met that challenge, it’s legendary the workouts he did to rehab this. While he was hurt, he was meeting his team on the road when he couldn’t play. This kid was brought up right.”
While watching the draft, it was difficult to ignore the reaction of Rielly’s father upon hearing his son’s name called out. There were small fist pumps (with the intent of being discrete) and Rielly’s father, Andy, could barely hold back his emotions. While being interviewed shortly after, Rielly made it known that his dad is a big Leafs fan. Below you’ll find a clip of Rielly’s life changing moment.
It’s unlikely Rielly makes the leap to the NHL next season. The more probable situation sees him being sent back to Moose Jaw to refine his game. A spot on Canada’s World Junior team isn’t out of the question considering the big ice it will be played on this time around.
“We are not expecting him to play this year,” Burke told the Toronto Sun. “It’s up to him. This is a guy you don’t have to tell where the weight room is. You don’t have to tell him how to work hard. This is a guy you don’t have to tell how to practise.”
Nobody will be pushing Rielly into Toronto’s lineup for opening night against Montreal. However, much like Jake Gardiner did last season, if Rielly gives the Leafs a reason, it would be a challenge to hold back such a determined young player.