Morgan Rielly, Player Development and What Could Have Been
When Brian Burke took to the podium at this year’s NHL draft, many (myself included)
expected the name he would call came down to two strikingly obvious choices. For fans, pundits, critics and just about anyone who watches the famed Blue and White, the opportunity to take a big centre was an easy choice and one that shouldn’t be passed up. After all, the realms of Maple Leafs faithful have been discussing the need to acquire a big centre since the day those three picks were dealt for #81. So who were the aforementioned obvious choices? Well, Filip Forsberg, the 6’1 physical young Swede who turned heads when playing with his peers on the international stage or Mikhail Grigorenko, the towering young centre with a world’s worth of potential of course.
What nobody was expecting (even if you claim you were) was that Burke would step up to the podium and say…
“With our first selection in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs are pleased to select, from the Moose Jaw Warriors, in the Western Hockey League of the Canadian Hockey League…Morgan Rielly.”
For many of the most passionate Leafs fans, the selection of yet another young defenseman came as a major surprise, especially considering the aforementioned need for size and skill down the middle. If the Leafs were to draft a defenseman, many considered it would be in a deal that would see the Leafs move down and select, say, Jacob Trouba (a young man who has the physical tools to be a steady defender), or Matthew Dumba (a crushing defenseman whose leadership, physical play and booming shot have drawn comparisons to Brian Burke’s very own captain, Dion Phaneuf). The Troubas and Dumbas of the prospect pool are, at the very least, more of the “Burke” variety. Even so, at number 5, there was seldom a Leafs fan who thought Morgan Rielly would pull a Maple Leaf-crested jersey over his head on that Pittsburgh stage.
Burke and the Maple Leafs ridiculously large scouting staff had a different view on who they should draft, citing that Rielly was the best athlete in the class and was ranked #1 on their list (maybe a vote of confidence more than anything). The often-quotable GM would also mention the young man’s determination, shown in his fight through a devastating knee injury that was suffered early in the season as reason to judge him not only on his smooth skating but also his character. At first glance, the draft became even more peculiar when Burke decided to select Matt Finn with his 2nd round selection, bringing two young rear-guards into a mix that already included Jesse Blacker, Jake Gardiner, Stuart Percy and Cody Franson. All defensemen who play up-tempo games…
What’s become intriguing about that draft day is the ability to step back and assess it. On one hand, the choice to pass up an impact centre (a role that is hard to come by) could prove costly. On the other, Finn has recently been named Captain of the Guelph Storm and Rielly has shown flashes of brilliance both early on in the WHL season and at the mini-series that was held between Canada and Russia as the summer came to a close. Morgan’s eagerness to jump up into the rush is complimented remarkably by an ability to not only get back but to reduce his turnovers. Young players have a knack for making unnecessary plays or panicked decisions but unlike many of his peers (Ryan Murphy struggled in the mini-series with turnovers), Rielly has shown he’ll make the smart play instead of the flashy one. A strong sign of maturity that has helped the young defensemen garner 4 points in 4 games thus far this season.
If Morgan can come into his own though and if he can be say, Dan Boyle esque, will Leafs faithful still be satisfied, especially with the emergence of Jake Gardiner and the shot at a promising young defender in Blacker, Percy and Finn. Surely they don’t have the ceiling that Morgan possesses, save perhaps Gardiner but the shot at a top pivot down the middle may have been lost. Leafs fans know all too well that waiting on that one “big piece” to compliment your star forward is not something that comes up too often. In Mats Sundin’s tenure as Leafs Captain he played perhaps with only one player who could compliment him; Alex Mogilny.
What’s clear is that the Leafs may (notice the italics) have a true star in the making on the backend, a valuable and welcome piece to any team in the “new” NHL. What is also evident is that the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres, both Eastern Conference foes, added two potential gems of their own, only at a centre ice.
Burke gambled… Will it pay off?