Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan may not be the end of the world, but it’s certainly a long distance away from where Morgan Rielly wants to be this season. And while he professes to be okay should he find himself back in the CHL, the 19-year-old former first-round draft pick isn’t going to become a Warrior without putting up a fight.
“What was driving me [this summer] is that I’m trying to make the Leafs. I was training hard and I was on the ice a lot,” he said. “Obviously, my goal that I had in mind is to play in Toronto this year and that was what was driving me to wake up every morning early and train and go on the ice.
“Here I’m just trying to play well, make a good impression, and play at a pro level. At camp, I’m just going to keep working hard and play well hopefully, and hopefully make a hard choice for the brass and the coaches.”
In terms of Leafs’ prospects, Rielly’s name most often comes up as a defender who can compete for a roster spot on the NHL club. However, in addition to beating out the incumbents, there’s the tricky issue of guaranteed salaries and the cap to negotiate.
“I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t know what CapGeek was,” he said, laughing. “I’ve checked but I’m not constantly checking. I don’t put too much concentration into who is under contract or not.
“I typically don’t look a whole lot, but I have a pretty good idea just because it’s on TSN a lot. I’m just trying to play hard and earn my spot.”
Toronto Marlies’ head coach Steve Spott, who is serving as the head coach of the Leafs’ rookie camp squad, said that the ultimate factor in where Rielly will play will be what’s best for his long-term future.
“I’m a proponent of junior hockey, but as an organization, I think everyone’s on the same page: his play will dictate ultimately where he goes,” Spott said. “It’s going to be about development and what’s going to be best for Morgan in the long term, and I think that has to be the idea here. If he can come in and play and contribute, then obviously he’s earned that opportunity. His play’s going to dictate that.
“But I do know it’s going to be all about what’s best for him as a player. That’s going to be the key ingredient.”
If any player has the mental make-up to make the jump, though, Spott said he’s confident that it’s Rielly.
“He handles everything so well. Morgan’s a very intelligent young man. If you speak to him, he’s mature beyond his years. He’s going to be able to handle the media that [Toronto] presents,” he said. “I just think he understands that he has to be a step above on the ice and he has to be a step above off the ice. I think that’s his motivation — to be different, but in a positive way. He’s done that so far. He’s been great around the meal rooms, he’s been great at the hotel, and obviously here in the dressing room and around the rink. He’s just become more mature on and off the ice.
“He understands what comes with being a first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Development-wise, there have been a number of pundits (both paid and amateur) who have speculated what Rielly needs to do to make the jump. Rielly said, however, that he’s only listening to one set of voices — those who called his name fifth overall in the 2012 NHL Draft.
“They told me that they drafted me for a purpose and to not change anything — to play my game, which is a two-way game,” Rielly said. “There’s been some chatter that I have to change this or change that, but they told me to keep doing what I’ve been doing in the past.
“[People say] you have to be a lot bigger, a lot stronger, blah, blah, blah… but [the Leafs] just told me to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Rielly counts himself lucky to have had 22 AHL games (regular season and playoffs) with the Marlies last season to help in his attempt to crack the pro roster this year.
“It’s quite big. I really didn’t know what to expect going from junior to pro, but I got a chance to play 20 games last year, which was great,” he said. “When you’re playing against grown men and on a team with grown men that have kids, it’s different. But you have to get used to it. You’re playing with guys that have played pro hockey for a while now, so you’ve got to get used to that as well. It was a great experience and hopefully it will help me as I go into camp.”
When asked which was more challenging — the physical or mental aspects of the game when making the jump to the pro ranks — Rielly said he couldn’t say. They’re equal, but different.
“They’re both hard. In junior you have all your pre-game meals planned out for you and your post-game meals,” he said. “In pro, you’re almost left on your own, which is great. It’s awesome to have that. It’s tough, but you have to do it. There’s no choice.”
He also knows that the microphones are coming. This week, at the rookie camp, marks the calm before the storm. Next week, when main camp kicks off, he knows he’s going to be inundated with questions about his status.
“I haven’t put too much concentration [on next week’s camp]. I’m just trying to play well here and keep focused,” he said. “Come camp, there will probably be some questions about it and whatnot, but I’m just going to play hard, be myself, and hopefully it goes well.”
Some players, after having a taste of the NHL, have a hard time when they’re returned to their junior squads, whether it’s during camp, or after an eight-game stint in “The Show”. Spott said he’s confident that the Moose Jaw Warriors will have no issues with Rielly should he fail to crack the NHL roster.
“It’s a big part of [the decision-making process]. When players come back — and we’ve had a number of them come back in junior that start in the NHL — ultimately attitude is everything,” Spott explained. “Those kids’ motivation is to help their junior teams win; they’re usually captains, so they get that experience, then you’ve got the World Juniors. So there is still extra motivation at the junior level that he can accomplish.
“He’s a special player, he’s mature, and no matter where he ends up this year I know that his character will never be challenged.”
And although his heart and his hopes are in "Hog Town", Rielly already is saying the right things about a potential return to junior, where he enjoyed a season where he scored 12 goals and added 42 assists in 60 games last year.
“I think if I’m playing on the Leafs next year, obviously it would be great, but if I went back to Moose Jaw, I mean that’s a great team back there,” he said. “A year to improve and keep getting stronger — I’ll be happy in junior as well. I’ve always enjoyed playing in Moose Jaw, it’s a great town and a great place to play. Either way I’ll be happy.”
Also, the media’s a little different in Moose Jaw, right? “A little bit,” he replied, laughing.
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