VANCOUVER -- Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly was already excited about playing for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey 2016, but his expectations increased even more after having dinner with Auston Matthews in Toronto a few weeks ago.
"We talked for a long time and when we started talking about the World Cup and I said, 'I think we're in tough, we've got a tough pool, we're a young team,' and he says, 'Really? Because I was thinking we could actually win it,'" Rielly said after skating in his hometown of North Vancouver this week. "We're the underdogs, but we're pretty motivated."
Rielly and Matthews, the center selected by the Maple Leafs with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, likely will be teammates when the NHL season begins in October.
First, they'll play together for the first Team North America in international competition. The team is a mix of the best 23-and-under players from Canada and the United States. It's an impressive roster of young talent that includes some of Rielly's teammates from Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in May.
"So you already have that connection with myself and Connor McDavid (of the Edmonton Oilers) and Mark Scheifele (of the Winnipeg Jets)," Rielly said. "I can't wait to get going. There are lots of great players on that team that I have played with before that I am really looking forward to playing with again, and some really good American players on the team that I haven't had a chance to play with before that I am really looking forward to."
Rielly fits right in with the talented young group. The 22-year-old set NHL career highs with nine goals, 27 assists and 36 points last season, his third in the League, before signing a six-year, $30 million contract on April 13.
Other than the World Championship, Rielly's focus since signing the contract, which could keep him in Toronto through the 2021-22 season, has been continuing his evolution into a top defenseman. That meant adjusting his summer training schedule to prepare for an early start at the World Cup; Team North America begins training camp Sept. 4 in Montreal and plays its first game in the preliminary round of the eight-team tournament Sept. 18 against Team Finland at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Rielly leaves the science and specifics to longtime trainer Dean Shiels, vice president of athlete training at Twist Sport Conditioning Center in North Vancouver, but said what he does has not changed; only the timeline has.
"You've got to be ready to peak earlier than you normally do," said Rielly, whose average ice time of 23:13 per game and 122 blocked shots led the Maple Leafs last season.
Video: CBJ@TOR: Rielly opens scoring with top-shelf SHG
In the weight room at Twist Sport Conditioning, conveniently located across the street from North Shore Winter Club, where Rielly grew up playing minor hockey and still skates in the summer, he starts with more repetitions of lighter weights before moving into heavier weights later in the offseason.
"Right now, I am trying to lift as heavy as I can, become as powerful as I can, when normally I would have an extra month to do that," Rielly said. "So you are just trying to squeeze it all in, having to do it all sooner."
That includes skating more than he normally would this early in August, including four times this week. With fellow NHL players David Jones, Tanner Glass, Mike Santorelli, Sam Reinhart, Griffin Reinhart and Stefan Elliott among the local pros taking part in annual skates run by Twist Sport Conditioning at North Shore Winter Club, at least it's easy to find a good pace.
"Usually, I won't skate this much until September," Rielly said. "You are out there as much as you can be while trying to maintain strength and not break down your body, because starting earlier, that also means a longer season."
For now, Rielly is focused only on having a strong start at the World Cup, which he believes will carry over to the regular season with the Maple Leafs. He said players have been communicating with the Team North America staff, including a recent conference call, but the focus so far has been on logistics, not style of play or systems.
Reilly believes his experience at the World Championship will help.
"It gives you a taste but it also gives you reassurance that you can get together with a group of guys that have never played together and win something," Rielly said.
Despite a tighter summer schedule, Rielly will make time to play in a charity softball game organized for the second straight summer by Montreal Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher this Saturday. In addition to helping raise awareness for Shriners Hospital for Children - Canada, it's also a chance to catch up with Scheifele and talk World Cup.
"We'll have a quick meeting in the outfield," Rielly said, "talk strategy."
If it's anything like dinner with Matthews, Rielly will come away even more excited about the World Cup of Hockey.