Maple Leafs prospect Morgan Rielly rushing to become a complete player

Maple Leafs prospect Morgan Rielly participates in a photo shoot for the 2012 NHLPA Rookie Showcase...

Maple Leafs prospect Morgan Rielly participates in a photo shoot for the 2012 NHLPA Rookie Showcase at the MasterCard Centre in Toronto, Ont., Aug. 28, 2012. (IAN SHANTZ/QMI Agency)

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:15 AM ET

MOOSE JAW, SASK. - Morgan Rielly made it look easy.

Got the puck at the blue line. Took a couple of strides forward and avoided pressure from his check, in this case Medicine Hat Tigers forward Hunter Shinkaruk, regarded as a top prospect for the 2013 National Hockey League entry draft. Spun toward boards, came back to the blue line and passed to defence partner Travis Brown.

Stayed engaged and watched as the puck eventually was worked to Moose Jaw Warriors teammate Justin Kirsch, who banked it into the net off Tigers goaltender Cam Lanigan.

There was no assist on the play for Rielly, but the goal, the first for the Warriors in an eventual 3-2 loss in overtime on Sunday night at Mosaic Place, wouldn't have happened without his heads-up, take-charge decision.

Watch Rielly, the Maple Leafs' first-round pick last June and a true blue-chip prospect in a Toronto organization that has not had bushels of them in recent years, skate in three games in three nights and what unfolds for the observer often is the same. He gets the puck on his stick and, more or less, it leaves his blade when he decides it will.

"It's like he is playing a game of keepaway sometimes, that's what it looks like," Warriors captain Kendall McFaull said. "He controls the game."

The chances are excellent that Rielly will patrol the Leafs blue line for years, and, in all probability, some time in the near future. His skating ability isn't matched by many of his peers in major junior, no matter the position. Rielly skates the puck out of trouble like he was born doing it, and if he is on the ice, that's him leading the rush.

But the 18-year-old, who thrilled Leafs general manager Brian Burke and the front-office staff with his performance at the club's prospects camp in July, isn't a high-risk player. Everything he does on the ice is calculated, or it appears to be.

Rielly, of course, is not perfect. There are plays when he will be beaten, which happened a couple of times during a 5-1 loss in Prince Albert against the Raiders on Saturday night, but no hockey player knows perfection.

Still, Rielly, his black, red and white No. 4 Warriors sweater tucked in at the back of his pants, did things during a three-game span -- two of them 350 kilometres north in Prince Albert, another on home ice -- that others his age can't do.

The weekend as a whole was not terrific for the Warriors. They opened with a 3-2 victory in Prince Albert on Friday night, with Rielly assisting on the tying and winning goals, for their first road win of 2012-13. Though Rielly conducted the flow of the game each time he hopped over the boards at the Raiders' creaky home, the Art Hauser Centre, those picking the three stars managed to miss that simple fact entirely.

A sharp pass from the blue line by Rielly went directly to the stick of rookie Brayden Point, whose subtle flick of the wrists deposited the puck behind goalie Andy Desautels. It was a power-play goal late in the second period and made the score 2-2. In the third, Rielly, positioned behind the Raiders' net, started the play and recorded the second assist on the winner by Sam Fioretti.

The next night, the back half of rare road-and-road set, nothing went well for Rielly and the Warriors. He was caught flat-footed, the only time it occurred in three games, and the Raiders' Mike Winther went in to score on goalie Daniel Wapple. In the third, Winther scored again, escaping Rielly's check at the net to deflect the puck past Wapple.

On Sunday night, a couple of tired clubs met. In the third period, Rielly hung on to the puck, skating around the net before passing to Kirsch, whose pass was directed into the net by Fioretti. In overtime, Rielly watched from the bench as a Warriors' defensive breakdown helped result in the winning goal by the Tigers' Dylan Bredo.

In the larger picture, Rielly showed himself to be a positionally sound player, one who doesn't have to use his stick for anything other than controlling the puck. In 16 games this season, his lone penalty was a fighting major on Sept. 22 against Swift Current. Ask the majority of defencemen how many hooking and holding minors they have been flagged for this season. When Rielly finds himself in trouble, his speed and smarts lead him to safety.

Rielly's passing is at the NHL level. If there's a challenge when the Warriors are on the attack, it's that Rielly's ability to read the game a step or two ahead of most of the others on the ice can result in broken plays.

As with any defenceman whose main thrust is offence, the questions for Rielly surround his defensive approach. He's not a physical player, in that he won't hammer opposing players into the boards. But he knows when to ride people out of the play. Block shots? Not often.

"There is a point in the game when I have to take the puck and go," Rielly said. "But I am a defenceman and I understand I have to take care of our end first. It's the area I'm going to work on the most in terms of trying to improve it. I understand it's a hugely important aspect of hockey."

But Warriors coach Mike Stothers knows well what he has in Rielly. Stothers wants Rielly to become a better player when he doesn't have the puck, but there are not many restraints placed on the 6-foot, 205-pound Vancouver native.

"It's easy to coach a guy like Morgs because he knows he has some things he needs to improve on, and he is not afraid to meet that head on," Stothers said. "He is not resistant, he is willing to try use of his stick or his body position, being aware in own zone. He wants to be used in all situations. He doesn't want to be labelled as a guy who is an offensive force, he wants to be a shutdown guy. Play late in the game, protect the lead, kill penalties."

A head coach in major junior, at times, can have difficulty convincing his star player it's best for all if he buys in. For many, being carried by talent is enough.

But with Rielly, that couldn't be further from the truth. For hard work and commitment, the easiest example involving Rielly was his determination to return to the lineup from a major knee injury, one that he suffered last Nov. 6. No one would have found fault had Rielly shut himself down and concentrated solely on preparing for the NHL draft combine the following spring in Toronto.

After training for a few months back home, he returned to Moose Jaw in February, bound to get back in the lineup. That happened on April 20, when he skated on to the ice for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against Edmonton.

"It said something to the entire hockey world," Leafs director of player development Jim Hughes said. "The thing about this guy is the mental mindset. When he came to the prospect camp this summer, he was on a mission. He has things in his mind he wants to see through. He is a serious kid, matter-of-fact. He knows where he wants to go, and he knows how to get there."

When Rielly gets to the Leafs' lineup, at this point, is just a guess. The lockout derailed the team's plans to give Rielly a long, hard look at training camp, and Burke has no interest in having him on the team just to play a few minutes here and there.

"It's pretty cool when people are asking you how long it is before you will play for Toronto," Rielly, who signed an entry-level deal with the Leafs in August, said of the some of the questions he gets from Warriors fans. "But I don't really have a response for that. I just have a goal to play there at some point in my career."

THE RIELLY FILE

Born: March 9, 1994 in Vancouver

Skinny: Among defencemen scoring leaders in Western Hockey League with four goals and 15 assists in 16 games ... Leads Moose Jaw with a plus-3 rating ... Style similar to that of smooth-skating Maple Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner ... Fan of the Washington Redskins and quarterback Robert Griffin III ... Prefers country music and the TV show The League and likes to play XBox with teammates on off days ... Drives a silver Nissan Xterra ... Was captain of the famed Notre Dame Hounds during the 2009-10 season ... Father Andy played for Surrey of the BCHL in the 1970s.

RUSSIA SOUNDS GOOD FOR XMAS

Not unlike hundreds of major-junior hockey players in North America, Morgan Rielly would love to spend Christmas in Russia.

The city of Ufa will play host to the 2013 world junior hockey championship, and Rielly wants to be in Canada's colours and on the blue line on Boxing Day in its tournament opener versus Germany.

"I try not to think about it, but it's hard at times," Rielly said.

"It's certainly going to be hard to achieve with all the players who are still in junior (because of the NHL lockout), but it's something I want to do."

Rielly was strong for Canada in four exhibition games in August against Russia, recording four points to tie Ryan Murphy for the lead among defencemen. In 2011, Rielly helped Canada win gold at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.


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