Each week until the entry draft in June, Point Blank will be reporting on the top prospects in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. This week’s profile is defender Morgan Rielly, ranked as the fifth best North American skater in the CSS mid-term rankings. You can keep a watch on our profiles via the “2012 Draft” tab at the top of the page and check out profiles of Islanders’ young guns filed under the “NYI Prospects” tab.
Brian Leetch is widely recognized as one of the top defensemen in NHL history. His skill-set, along with a silent, yet deadly demeanor were immense factors in helping the New York Rangers slay a 54-year drought and capture the 1994 Stanley Cup. For Moose Jaw (WHL) first-year head coach Mike Stothers, a professional hockey player and coach for the past three decades, he can see the traits that made Leetch a 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee in his 18-year old defenseman and isn’t afraid to lead the Morgan Rielly campaign with the 2012 NHL Entry Draft quickly approaching.
“Morgan reminds me of Brian Leetch when he played with the Rangers,” said Stothers, whose 12-year playing career included stops in Philadelphia and Toronto, before turning to the coaching ranks where he has served as an assistant and head coach on the AHL, OHL and NHL levels. “They both have the same size and body structure. Morgan is agile and elusive because of that powerful skating stride.”
Yet, despite the fact that Morgan Reilly’s junior season was cut short – 18 games in – by a season-ending torn ACL in a regular season game against Calgary back in November, scouts haven’t wavered in their praise of the six-foot, 202-pound blue-liner.
Regarded by many insiders as the most gifted offensive-defenseman in this year’s draft class, TSN’s Craig Button has pegged Rielly as his fourth overall prospect – second behind Red Deer’s Matthew Dumba amongst defensemen – in this June’s NHL entry draft in Pittsburgh.
“In his 18 games, before he got injured, Morgan was improving his overall defensive zone responsibilities,” said Stothers. “While being blessed with great vision, offensively, he knows the importance to positioning in the defensive zone.”
Rielly was introduced to hockey at the tender of age of three in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, but never fully committed solely to hockey until nearly a decade later.
“I played all sports when I was a kid,” said Rielly. “From baseball to track and field to hockey, I was always doing something.
“But it wasn’t until the eighth grade, after I had played peewee hockey for two years that I saw myself having a chance to being a pretty good hockey player.”
Those two seasons in peewee were followed by a few more playing for the Notre Dame Hounds in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League. As a 14 year-old, Rielly recorded a remarkable 84 points – 41 goals and 43 assists – in 43 games. He followed his rookie season in midget by notching 18 goals and dishing out 37 assists, as a 15 year-old in leading the Hounds to the ‘AAA’ Provincial and Telus Cup Championship.
Wowing scouts with his scoring prowess, Rielly was highly sought after by several Western Hockey League teams as the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft came near. The Moose Jaw Warriors, with the second pick in the draft, selected Rielly. Coincidentally, the draft’s top four selections – Derrick Pouliot (1st by Portland), Rielly, Griffin Reinhart (3rd by Edmonton) and Dumba (4th by Red Deer) – are all projected to be selected in the top half of the first round this June.
Rielly relished the opportunity to don the Warrior crest, and display his skill-set against the best that the Western Hockey League had to offer.
“Playing in the WHL gives me a huge opportunity to play hockey each and every day,” said Rielly, a lifelong Canuck fan and currently an admirer of Swedish-born defenseman Alexander Edler “It also doesn’t hurt having a gym attached so I could build up my body.”
As a WHL rookie, the 16-year-old Rielly earned regular shifts under then head coach Dave Hunchak, and collected 28 points – six goals and 22 assists – in 65 games. He helped the Warriors reach the postseason, ultimately dropping a six-game series to the Kootenay Ice. Rielly had six helpers in the team’s playoff run.
During his rookie campaign, Rielly also took part in the World U-17 Hockey Challenge in Winnipeg, as he played for Team Canada-Pacific. Rielly helped his team earn a bronze medal. Individually, Rielly’s two-goal performance in Canada Pacific’s 6-5 semifinal loss to the United States was his own shining moment.
Understanding that this present draft class had a plethora of highly skilled defensemen on display each and every night in the WHL, OHL, QMJHL and the USNTDP, Rielly had high hopes and huge expectations, as he entered this season – his second in the ‘W’.
Stothers quickly took notice.
“Morgan’s passion to play, great personality and humor quickly made him popular with his teammates and new coaches,” said Stothers, who coached current Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano on the junior level and sees great similarities with Morgan and Mark in their work ethic. “His attention to detail and preparation is unlike any other player that I have coached.”
Prior to his season-ending injury, in which Rielly is currently rehabbing, the 18 year-old was scoring on a point-per-game basis. In his 18 games played, Rielly had collected 18 points – three goals and 15 assists.
Despite the loss of their 25-minute-a-night defenseman, the Warriors have persevered and are currently in the midst of a successful playoff run. After defeating Regina in five games in the WHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, they are currently battling Medicine Hat in the semifinals. The Warriors lead that series, 2-0.
Still, despite being limited to his on-ice play, Strothers is a great admirer of Rielly’s overall talents translating into a long and successful NHL career.
“I have had the luxury of seeing Morgan on a daily basis and think the world of him as a player and as a person,” said Stothers. “To me, he is the best player available in the draft.
“Depends on who drafts him, and what their needs are, I would expect that he would need and welcome another year of junior hockey under his belt, especially with the injury this year.”
Rielly, supremely confident in his own abilities, has not set a timeline on his ultimate dream of playing in the NHL. Nevertheless, the experience of playing a second season in the ‘W’, albeit a limited one, has greatly benefited his overall game.
“I’m not sure if I have a timeline in mind,” said Rielly, who models his game after current Pittsburgh Penguin defenseman Kris Letang, based on Letang’s effortless skating abilities, along with his pin-point accuracy from the point. “Playing a second season of junior hockey also allowed me to grow a lot mentally and become stronger physically.
“My speed and my passing are two areas that I continue to strengthen each day, and I know that I have always room to grow when it comes to my physical play.”
With the Islanders securing a place in Tuesday evening’s draft lottery, ensuring a selection no later than 5th overall, is the organization confident that they have the heir apparent to Mark Streit in its prospect base? If the Islanders fail to win the draft lottery, would the selection of Rielly prove that its organization has soured on 2009 first round pick Calvin De Haan?
Whether the Islanders select Everett (WHL) defenseman Ryan Murray, Dumba, Reinhart, Rielly or if fortunate, Sarnia (OHL) scoring sensation Nail Yakupov, the organization will once again gather another piece to add to its prospect stable.
The NHL draft lottery is Tuesday evening … the NHL draft is 75 days away.