TORONTO — Having just turned 24 on Friday, Morgan Rielly was asked if he felt any different than he did a day ago.
“Yes,” he deadpanned. “I feel old.”
It was the kind of joke your dad makes, followed by the cheesy sound effect of a rim-shot. And yet, as young as Rielly is, he now seems more like a grizzled veteran than an up-and-coming defenceman on a Toronto Maple Leafs team where the top three scorers are 21 years old or younger.
Look close, he’s got the worry lines to prove it.
Rielly, who was drafted in Brian Burke’s last year in the Leafs’ front office, was here long before Lou Lamoriello and the Shanaplan. He experienced the embarrassment of ‘salute gate,’ that time when Joffrey Lupul threatened to sue TSN over a tweet and when Mikhail Grabovski called Randy Carlyle a “(bleeping) idiot” after being bought out of his contract. He’s seen his share of horrors.
When Mike Babcock told fans there was “pain coming,” Rielly was already on his third coach in three years, having played on teams that finished 23rd, 27th and 30th overall in the standings.
Those losing seasons resulted in the team drafting William Nylander (8th overall in 2014), Mitch Marner (4th, 2015) and Auston Matthews (1st, 2016). But really, the rebuild began with Rielly getting selected with the fifth overall pick in 2012.
“No, it didn’t,” said Rielly after being told the team’s success began with him. “I feel lucky to be a Maple Leaf. This team’s come a long way, for sure. I had probably nothing to do with that.
“You grow and mature as the years go by. You get an opportunity to play when you’re young, you go through ups and downs, you mature and you deal with it. Now, you look around at the young guys who are highly motivated. It’s good.”
Whether he agrees with it or not, Rielly (along with Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk) helped set the table for what the rest of the league is seeing these days.
He lived through the misery that Matthews, Marner and Nylander were all spared. Now, with the rebuild complete and the No. 3-ranked team in the Eastern Conference poised to make a serious run in the post-season, the west Vancouver native also happens to be playing the best hockey of his career.
“Morgan’s a massive part of our team,” said forward Connor Brown, who was selected 151 spots after Rielly in the 2012 draft. “He’s got a big voice in this room.”
“He got off to a great start and he’s carried that offensively,” said Ron Hainsey, who is Rielly’s defence partner. “We’re still working on improving in our half of the end every day. Hopefully, get him into the offensive zone as much as possible.”
This year, Rielly’s fifth in the league, has been a breakout season for him. After scoring 27 points last season in a shutdown role, Rielly has rediscovered the offence that had Burke claiming he was the best player in the 2012 draft. He is tied for 19th among NHL defencemen with 38 points, having already eclipsed his previous season-high of 36 in 2015-16.
At this pace, Rielly will finish the season with 50 points.
It’s not a Norris Trophy-worthy season for him. But with him nearing the 400-game mark — he will finish the season with 394 career games if he remains healthy — Rielly is establishing himself as a true No. 1 defenceman who appears to be rubbing shoulders with some of the league’s best.
“I mean, I don’t think you ever want to be in a position where you’re having a breakout year. Does that make sense?” said Rielly, who is ranked fifth overall in the league with 30.2 shifts per game. “You just want to continually get better. I think that I can play better, I think that there’s room to grow.”
Indeed, there’s no reason to suggest that Rielly cannot build on this. He’s too good of a skater and his work ethic is too strong for him not to. Maybe he won’t put up Erik Karlsson-type numbers, but it’s worth noting that Duncan Keith didn’t reach the 50-point mark until his fifth season, when he was 26 years old. That year, he won the Norris Trophy with 14 goals and 69 points, and then helped Chicago win its first of three Stanley Cups.
Rielly would happily settle for the latter. And with The Hockey News recently ranking Toronto’s prospect depth as the best in the league, it appears that their best days are still ahead of them.
“We’re good,” Rielly said of how things have changed since his early years in Toronto. “I mean the team’s better I think. We’ve come a long way.”
If Auston Matthews was the final piece of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rebuild, then Morgan Rielly was the first. Since he was selected with the fifth overall pick in 2012, the team has graduated five others to regular NHL roles:
Connor Brown, 156th overall, 2012
2017-18: 68GP 13G 11A 24PTS
A sixth-round pick, Brown scored 20 goals as a rookie last season and has become a versatile forward who is capable of killing penalties, playing on the power play, and lining up on any one of the four forward lines.
William Nylander, 8th overall, 2014
2017-18: 68GP 14G 36A 50PTS
Nylander tied Mitch Marner for third in rookie scoring last year with 61 points and is on pace for similar numbers this season. Though he has played mostly on Auston Matthews’ wing, he might develop into a second-line centre.
Mitch Marner, 4th overall, 2015
2017-18: 68GP 18G 36A 54PTS
After a sluggish start, Marner has been one of the hotter forwards since the all-star break, with 11 goals and 20 points in the past 17 games. A big factor behind that is he is finally playing on a line with creative players such as Nazem Kadri.
Travis Dermott, 34th overall, 2015
2017-18: 25GP 1G 8A 9PTS
The team’s only rookie this season was called up from the minors at the beginning of January and since then hasn’t looked back. With each game, Dermott has shown more poise and projects into a top-4 defenceman.
Auston Matthews, 1st overall, 2015
2017-18: 53GP 28G 22A 50PTS
Injuries have held Matthews out of lineup this season, but the future captain has been more than impressive when healthy. In fact, he still ranks fifth in the league with 26 even-strength goals.