Morgan Rielly has never worn a letter on his Maple Leafs’ jersey, but expect that to change in the coming years.
The Leafs have ample young talent entering their 100th season, and Rielly, 22, is ready to lead the way. Top prospects Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are expected to join Rielly on the ice this year.
“When you get that many young guys that are extremely talented that have a chance to make the jump, you have to take it upon yourself to help them out,” Rielly told the Toronto Star. “But they are mature young men who know what they have to do.”
When Leafs president Brendan Shanahan signed Rielly to a six-year contract extension in April, two things happened. First, the Leafs showed the rest of the hockey world that they know what they’re doing, and second, that they have a lot of faith in their talented blueliner.
“This is just another step toward where we want to be as far as developing the foundation of this franchise,” said Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, calling the signing “extremely important.”
Despite playing a full season for the league’s worst team, Rielly posted career highs in goals (9) assists (27) and points (36), good enough for 34th in scoring among NHL defencemen last season.
And on one of the league’s youngest teams, Rielly epitomizes success in the truest sense. As one of seven players remaining in Toronto since his rookie season, Rielly proves Leafs management finally understands real talent when they see it.
“He certainly is the key to our defence,” Lamoriello told the CBC. “He’s our leader there.”
But beyond the blueline, other potential captains include Marner, Nylander or Matthews down the road, as well as other supplementary options to fill the void sooner. Tyler Bozak is the Leafs’ longest serving roster player, Leo Komarov is a charismatic skater beloved by many, and Brooks Laich is entering his 13th NHL season.
Rielly, however, has started to fill this void already, taking on significant responsibility since former captain Dion Phaneuf was dealt to Ottawa in February. For instance, Rielly led Leafs defencemen in ice time playing a routine 23:13 minutes, ranking him 28th among 2015-16 NHL defencemen. To put this in perspective, Rielly played more minutes than the likes of Brent Seabrook, Jay Bouwmeester, and Cam Fowler. In addition, Rielly registered 27 even strength points last season, a mark matched only by Nashville’s P.K Subban and Florida’s Aaron Ekblad.
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 18, 2016
And for a player who can anchor the power play, is reliable on the penalty kill, and can jump into the rush to act as a fourth forward, Rielly should get even better. Amazingly, though, it’s his off ice characteristics that really separate him from the crowd.
“It’s kind of the way I was raised, you know, to not only be a good hockey player but also a good person,” he said.
Since being drafted in 2012, Rielly has represented the Maple Leafs well. He visits with fans, engages with school groups and amateur teams, and pays hospital visits when he can. Following the 2015 NHL draft, Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said Toronto is “looking for good human beings,” and Rielly fits this mould.
But what’s more, Rielly thrived on Toronto’s top pairing in just his third NHL season, a good sign for the next wave of Maple Leafs prospects.
“We’re all looking forward to it,” said Rielly. “Whenever you add a player like Auston it adds some extra excitement. The fans are really looking forward to it, the guys are really looking forward to getting things going.”
Rielly and Matthews will be Team North America teammates at the World Cup of Hockey this month, comprised of the best Canadian and American players under the age of 23. Matthews is the youngest player on the team, and Rielly expects the tournament will improve his game. He’ll be there to help where he can.
“You have to look at it as an opportunity to get better,” he said. “We’re all going to have a chance to learn a bit about each other and how we play. It will be fun.”
This will be Rielly’s first opportunity to play with Matthews, and all tournament games will be at the Air Canada Centre. So let the mentoring begin, and hopefully it translates into regular season success this October.
Following the end of the 2015-16 season, Babcock indicated Toronto likely won’t have a captain for the immediate future, but that’s not to say Rielly isn’t displaying strong leadership potential. Rielly is well positioned to guide Toronto’s young talent, and seeing as he’s signed until 2022, don’t be surprised when – one day soon – you see this upcoming all-star wearing the C.