Morgan Rielly is proving Brian Burke right.
Back in 2012, the then Toronto Maple Leafs general manager had the defenceman ranked first on his list of prospects to be selected at the NHL Draft. As luck would have it, Rielly was still available when Toronto called the fifth overall pick. Six years later – and with Burke now long gone – Rielly is emerging as one of the best players in the league at his position.
For his part, Burke stands by his assessment. Speaking recently on Sportsnet’s Starting Lineup, Burke said he watched video of every one of Rielly’s shifts for the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors during his draft year, and he went on to explain what he liked about the defenceman’s game:
To me, his skating was so advanced – and you could see it was going to get better with some power – that he could skate the puck out of trouble at all times, his decision-making was good. His maturity as a kid was good; this is a guy who when he was hurt he’d go meet the team when they’d come back after a road trip at 3 or 4 in the morning, he’d go and meet the bus on crutches.
So was Burke right? Should Rielly have been the first player picked at the 2012 NHL Draft?
Rielly is making a good case for himself this season, leading all NHL defencemen in goals (7) and second in points (21) through 17 games.
The 4 picks ahead of Rielly
To begin, let’s take a look at the players picked directly ahead of Rielly, and briefly examine how things have worked out.
#1 Nail Yakupov
The Russian forward has recorded 12 points in 15 games so far this season … for the SKA St. Petersburg over the in the KHL. Yakupov never lived up to his potential after being selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers, an organization that has become known for failing its potential young stars.
He was eventually traded to the St. Louis Blues and later signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Avalanche before heading home. Maybe he’ll be back in the NHL at some point and redeem himself, but this pick did not pan out at all.
#2 Ryan Murray
Due to a string of injuries, this defenceman has played only one full season with the Columbus Blue Jackets since being snagged with the second overall pick. He’s a two-way stalwart and there’s room for growth, but he hasn’t quite developed into a building block that a team would expect to land that high in the selection process.
#3 Alex Galchenyuk
Of the players picked before Rielly, here’s where Burke may have been a bit off base. Yes, perhaps more was expected from Galchenyuk during his time with the Montreal Canadiens, as he topped out at 30 goals and 56 points in 2015-16. In fairness, though, he was constantly being shifted from centre to wing as he seemingly failed to establish himself at his supposed natural position, in the team’s eyes, at least.
He was jettisoned to the Arizona Coyotes this past summer in exchange for Max Domi, and has six points in eight games after starting the season on the injured list. The jury may still out here, but Galchenyuk is one of two players from the 2012 Draft to outscore Rielly.
#4 Griffin Reinhart
This defenceman appeared in only eight games for the New York Islanders before being wisely flipped to the Oilers the 16th and 33rd picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. Reinhart hasn’t appeared in an NHL regular season game since 2015-16, and has two assists in 37 appearances to his credit.
There you have it: An argument can easily be made that Rielly is at least the second best player out of the aforementioned top five picks, leaving at least three general managers to shake their heads in regret.
But let’s also not forget about the actual best player from that draft.
The player to beat: Filip Forsberg
With 127 goals and 143 assists in 347 career games, Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators stands out as the elite talent from Rielly’s draft. Forsberg, of course, was picked 11th overall by the Washington Capitals, and was infamously traded in an ill-advised trade deadline deal involving Martin Erat. Ouch.
Not only has he been the most prolific player from his class of prospects, the Predators have been to a Stanley Cup Final and have achieved more playoff success than Edmonton, Columbus, Montreal, the Islanders, and Toronto.
Look, maybe Rielly wins a Norris Trophy this year, and gets his name etched on the Stanley Cup sooner than later, all of which could tip the scales in his favour.
At the moment, Forsberg deserves the distinction as being the best player drafted in 2012, and while you can argue the merits of Rielly vs. Galchenyuk, that pair clearly rounds out the top three.