PITTSBURGH — The Toronto Maple Leafs went for the home run pick at No. 5 overall, taking offensive defenceman Morgan Rielly at the NHL draft.
There was a working theory the Leafs might look for a centre. However, in a draft which is deeper on defence, they went for a high-ceiling blueliner. Rielly had his season with the Western Hockey League's Moose Jaw Warriors cut to 18 games by a torn ACL that required surgery, but his body of work before the injury and his rapid recovery endeared him to the Leafs. Rielly made it back in time to play for Moose Jaw in the WHL playoffs and NHL Central Scouting ranked him fifth among North American skaters.
"When we researched him, that was what kept coming up and coming up and coming up," Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "This kid never viewed the injury as a setback. He meant that challenge. It was legendary, the workouts he did to rehab this. While he was doing this, he was meeting his team on the road when he couldn't play. This kid was brought up right."
The Leafs are "not expecting" Rielly to play in the NHL this season. They've liked him for a long time, since he 28 points in 65 games for the Warriors as a 16-year-old who ran their power play.
"We had this player rated first overall — wouldn't say that if it wasn't true," Burke said. "He's got a high hockey IQ, high compete level, [makes] smart decisions. The future's very bright for him. Our scouts are ecstatic.
"I think the injury set him back on some teams' lists," added Burke. "We were able to get him much later than we would have otherwise. We felt he would get to us [at fifth overall]. We did look at moving up, but I didn't like the price."
HockeyProspect.com's NHL Draft Black Book says Rielly is "often in a world of his own when it comes to thinking the game. He is often two steps ahead of the competition as the play develops offensively, and is one of the top PP [power-play] quarterbacks available."
Shades of Salming?
Rielly is no one-trick pony, though. He is one of those skaters who moves effortlessly and loves to jump up into offensive rushes. Defensively, he is more about using his hockey sense to cut off passing lanes and anticipate plays, rather than knock forwards off the puck. It's dangerous to dangle comparisons, but his ceiling might be becoming the kind of smooth-skating, two-way defenceman the Leafs have lacked since Börje Salming was in his prime.
It's probably a 50/50 proposition whether Rielly will be able to advance to the NHL next season. He's 5-foot-11 1/2 and 190 pounds, so it might be a lot to ask him to handle the NHL grind at 18 years old. The Leafs, who have the longest skein of playoff misses since the 2004-05 lockout, may have to be patient with his development.
One playmaking centre whom Leafs fans desperately wanted, the Sarnia Sting's Alex Galchenyuk, went two picks earlier to the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs obviously opted to pass on Grigorenko, whose work ethic is seen as a potential red flag.
Here is Rielly in action at the NHL combine in Toronto in June:
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.