The Maple Leafs selected Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Morgan Rielly fifth overall in the NHL draft at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Penn., June 22, 2012. (ANDRE FORGET/QMI Agency)
PITTSBURGH - That Morgan Rielly suffered a major knee injury didn’t worry the Maple Leafs.
In fact, the perseverance demonstrated by the Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman as he spent most of the winter in rehabilitation endeared him to the Leafs even more.
“When we researched him, that’s what kept coming up — this kid never viewed the injury as a setback,” Leafs general manager Brian Burke said on Friday night, moments after Toronto chose Rielly with the fifth pick in the 2012 National Hockey League entry draft.
“He viewed it as a challenge, and he met that challenge with legendary workouts to rehab this. While he was hurt, he was meeting his team on the road when he could not play. Little things like that showed character. This kid was brought up right. The way he attacked his rehab and recovered was impressive.”
Rielly tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on Nov. 6 when he crashed into the goal post during a game and rejoined the Warriors in the playoffs on April 20.
“It was a pretty long wait after I hurt my knee to now,” said Rielly, who had surgery on Dec. 1. “It has been a long road with a lot of work. I had some times when I questioned whether the draft was going to work for me, and I did not really know what to expect. But I kept training hard and it paid off. I never had to deal with that before. But I feel I grew a bit as a person and learned a lot about how to treat your body.”
“Hearing people explain to me I couldn’t play again (last season), that was what drove me even more. I appreciate all those people saying I couldn’t do it, but I’m pretty happy I got to play in the playoffs.”
In Rielly, the Leafs selected a player who compared himself to Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang. They had him ranked No. 1 on their list, and Burke said he would have taken Rielly first had the Leafs had that pick.
“I would not say that if it was not true, just to build up the pick,” Burke said. “He has a high hockey IQ, high compete level, makes smart decisions, the future is very bright for him.”
Will that future include a spot on the Leafs’ blue line next season? Don’t count on it. But in training camp in 2013, that could change.
“We are not expecting him to play this year,” Burke said. “It’s up to him. This is a guy you don’t have to tell where the weight room is. You don’t have to tell how to work hard. This is a guy you don’t have to tell how to practise.”
Rielly, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound native of Vancouver, had 18 points in 18 games when he was injured. He’s not an overly physical defenceman, as he had just one minor penalty and only 21 penalty minutes in 65 games as a rookie with Moose Jaw in 2010-11.
His off-ice maturity struck the Leafs too. During interviews with the Leafs, he made eye contact with the staff and was sure of himself, but not in a cocky manner. His psychological evaluation demonstrated strong leadership skills, that he was a self-starter and didn’t require extensive coaching to know what he had to do on the ice.
Rielly knows the Leafs have a glut of defencemen and knows he has been drafted by an organization that has not been to the playoffs in eight years. But neither of those potentially negative factors weighed on him in the bowels of the CONSOL Energy Center as he was surrounded by a pack of reporters.
“I want that,” Rielly said of the spotlight. “I think I can help this team. I am just a prospect right now, but I’ll be happy to have the opportunity to help the team.
“If you had told me in October when I was healthy and that I would be drafted to Toronto in the top five, I would not have believed you. To have this experience is unreal. I’m honoured and extremely proud to be a Leaf.”