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Maple Leafs more than happy with Rielly's progress

by Mike Brophy

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly winced when Montreal Canadiens foe Max Pacioretty, using his own likeness on NHL 15, scored against him as the two demonstrated the soon-to-be-released game during an event earlier this month at MasterCard Centre.

"Ouch!" Rielly said. "I'm going to hear about that one from Randy between periods."

A little humor to ease the tension.

Randy, of course, is Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle; a demanding, no-nonsense taskmaster who smiles and jokes in public but is just a little more direct behind closed doors.

Morgan Rielly made an impact last season as a rookie defenseman on a Toronto Maple Leafs team that suffered a late-season collapse. Coach Randy Carlyle is hoping he brings more of the same. (Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI)

If Rielly is worried about the wrath of Randy, he can relax. Carlyle was pleased with the way the 20-year-old performed in his rookie season and will be satisfied if he comes back and gives him a little more of the same.

"If he comes back and accomplishes statistically what he did last season, it would be a good year, because we've all heard about the sophomore jinx and how players in their second year seem to struggle a little bit," Carlyle said. "My sense is we have a mature young player. He's a skating, puckhandling defenseman and we want him to play to his strengths."

Rielly is a confident and respectful young man who has an air of confidence about him that indicates it won't be long before he breaks out of the habit of answering questions with predictable clichés and starts speaking from the heart. He knows the game and he knows the lay of the land, which at this stage of his career suggests he should be seen and not necessarily heard.

That was obvious from Day 1 of the Maple Leafs rookie camp a year ago in London, Ontario. From the drop of the first puck it was apparent Rielly was a cut above the rest of the Maple Leafs' hopefuls, so it was no surprise when the former Moose Jaw Warriors star was in the starting lineup with Toronto for the beginning of the 2013-14 season.

Rielly played his way onto the team. This season things are different.

"Last year I came in just worrying about trying to make the team and trying to make a good impression," Rielly said. "You do anything you can just to make an impression. This year you want to make an impact on the team. You're not worried about trying to make that impression. Obviously you're going to work hard, but this year I want to try to try to contribute more."

On a team that suffered a season-ending collapse, Rielly actually did make an impact. Carlyle has a reputation for not cozying up to young players, but he showed no reluctance to tossing Rielly on the ice in critical situations late in the season.

Rielly rewarded his coach with two goals and 27 points in 73 games, averaging 17:38 of ice time.

"I thought I played well, but there's always room for improvement," Rielly said.

Teammate Joffrey Lupul agreed.

"He just has to keep developing," Lupul said. "When you look at a young player, what you want to see is improvement. I think we pretty much saw it day in and day out from him last season. He was a much better player at the end of the year than he was at the start. He has a ton of natural skill and he's a great kid."

Morgan Rielly
Defense - TOR
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 27
SOG: 96 | +/-: -13
With that in mind, Rielly said he tried to keep his game simple last season and that is the path he'll follow in the coming season.

"I didn't try to change too much about the way I play the game," Rielly said. "I'll try to do the same thing this year. I try to play some offense and create opportunities for our team to score goals, but I also try to play well defensively. I want to play with confidence and make the easy play, but I won't be afraid to take the odd chance when the time is right."

Rielly is used to being in the spotlight as a high-profile junior star; he has participated in numerous IIHF tournaments, including the 2013 World Junior Championship. But nothing could have prepared him for the attention he and the Maple Leafs receive in a hockey-mad market like Toronto.

"It takes a little getting used to," Rielly said. "When you play junior hockey, there are not that many cameras around. But when you come to Toronto there are cameras everywhere. So many people want a piece of you, and you have to get used to it. That's all part of the business. I was exposed to it last year and hopefully this year I will handle it well. I'm still learning, so hopefully I don't mess up too much."

Having thrived in his first season while others around him often struggled, there is little doubt Rielly does not have to worry about messing up.

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