PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Brian Burke got his man.
The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager didn't step to the podium until the fifth pick of Friday's NHL draft, but he got the player he coveted all along in Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman Morgan Rielly. The team's scouts had their eyes on him for more than a year and were thrilled to add him to the organization.
"Well I think everyone knows my feeling on it — winning championships begins and ends on the blue-line," said Burke. "We had this player rated first overall. I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true just to build up the pick. ...
"He's got a high IQ, high compete level, smart decisions. The future's very bright for him. Our scouts are ecstatic."
For Rielly, it was a dream come true.
He endured an extremely tough season after tearing the ACL in his knee and sitting out from Nov. 6 to April 20 — dates he cites off the top of his head — and spent plenty of time wondering how the layoff would affect his draft position.
"If you had of told me in October when I was healthy that I would be drafted to Toronto in the top five, I probably wouldn't have believed you," said Rielly. "To have this experience has been unreal. It's hard to explain and I'm just extremely honoured to be here."
If anything, Rielly's road back from that injury only reinforced how strongly the Leafs felt about him.
The Vancouver native suffered it in an unfortunate fashion after crashing into a post off the rush. He had never faced a situation like that in the past and had to buckle down in order to return to the Warriors lineup for the Western Hockey League playoffs.
"This kid never viewed the injury as a setback, he viewed it as a challenge," said Burke. "He met that challenge, it's legendary the workouts he did to rehab this. While he was hurt, he was meeting his team on the road when he couldn't play.
"Little things like that showed character. This kid was brought up right."
The Leafs don't expect Rielly to make the leap to the NHL next season, but Burke says it shouldn't be too long before he's playing at Air Canada Centre.
Toronto also drafted a blue-liner in the first round last year — Tyler Biggs was taken 22nd overall — and already have young defencemen Jake Gardiner and Luke Schenn in the lineup. The organization knows it needs to improve defensively to find its way back to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
"I think I can help this team, but I'm just a prospect right now," said Rielly. "Hopefully I can help."
Burke has no doubt that it will happen.
"Highly skilled defenceman are hard to find," he said. "Everybody's looking for them."
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