One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dark season for the Toronto Maple Leafs has been the development of Morgan Rielly into a top-pairing defenseman.
When former general manager Brian Burke selected Rielly No. 5 overall in the 2012 draft, he famously said Rielly was the top player on his draft board and the Maple Leafs would have chosen him first overall if they had the top pick. At the time many believe it was simply Burke hyping up his own selection, however, given Rielly’s development it’s now easy to understand why Burke thought so highly of the young defender.
Only Alex Galchenyuk, who went No. 3 overall, can be debated as a player who should have been chosen ahead of Rielly if the teams had a chance to re-draft the top five of the 2012 draft class. Nail Yakupov, who went No. 1 overall, and Griffin Reinhart at No. 4 overall, instantly dismiss themselves from the conversation given their lack of development through this stage of their careers. Ryan Murray, the No. 2 overall pick, is on his way to becoming a quality player, but everything he has done so far, Rielly has done it better.
There are a few notable names taken outside the top five in 2012 such as Mathew Dumba and Jacob Trouba, but neither defensemen is better than Rielly is today. Filip Forberg was selected No. 11 overall and would certainly be a top-five pick if the entire draft class was re-selected, but even all his game-changing abilities would still fall behind Rielly’s ability to play nearly half a game and still lead the way on a last-second rush.
This isn’t a knock against any of the players mentioned, but it’s obvious Rielly was the best or second-best player of the 2012 draft. Since the Maple Leafs traded Dion Phaneuf, Rielly was given all the defensive responsibilities of the team’s top defender and he hasn’t flinched. At only 22 years old, his confidence continues to grow with each game showcasing his puck-moving, the ability to dangle around defenders with ease and his most valuable weapon, his skating.
Today’s game is all about speed and moving the puck quickly either with a tape-to-tape pass or by carrying it out of the defensive zone all by yourself with superb skating. Rielly has the unique skill set that allows him to find streaking teammates for a breakaway pass, along with the ability to carry the puck out all on his own without coughing up a bad turnover. He hasn’t always been able to do this, but since the Maple Leafs threw all their eggs in one basket after the Phaneuf trade to see what Rielly was made of, he’s only gotten better.
As Rielly continues to become more aggressive offensively and the Maple Leafs find a way to surround him with real talent in the coming years, it’s clear the sky may be the limit for a player who likely should have been the top pick in the 2012 draft.