Maple Leafs’ Morgan Rielly blossoming in 6th year as a pro

Morgan Rielly is off to the best start of his career, but his Maple Leafs teammates also recognize him for what he does off the ice.

TORONTO — At the outset of his sixth NHL season, I asked Morgan Rielly what would constitute a step forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It didn’t take long for his response.

“You would say win a championship …” Rielly said, “but I think if you break it down from there you’d say ‘win a playoff series.’ Then if you break it down from there you’d say ‘win the division’ and then if you break it down from there you say ‘improve your record.’”

That popped back into my mind recently because it’s the kind of answer that tells you more about the person delivering it than the subject he’s speaking about. Rielly’s inclination was to take a big aspiration and chop it into bite-sized, granular chunks.

With apologies to the Philadelphia 76ers, he seemed to be trusting the process.

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It’s a useful quote to dust off now, too, since the 24-year-old is enjoying a ridiculously productive start to 2018-19 and unwilling to walk a reporter anywhere close to a conversation about why he’s performing at such a high level.

That might not be a coincidence.

“I feel fine,” Rielly said Monday. “We’ve played well as a group and that tends to reflect kindly upon individuals. That’s about it.”

Seeing his name in the high-rent district on the NHL’s scoring chart explains some of the extra attention, too. Rielly scored twice in Saturday’s 5-0 win over Pittsburgh to move alongside Mitch Marner for the team lead with 18 points — the highest total among all NHL defencemen.

But these are still the early stages of a long season.

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Rielly’s been around long enough not to look too deeply into an offensive hot streak, in part because he understands when he’s playing well, points or not. But he also surely wants to see it continue.

“I think he’s really taken that extra step this year,” said teammate Travis Dermott. “I think just his confidence has gone through the roof. He knows what he can do day in, day out, and he seems to be doing just that. And doing it very well.”

It’s hard to believe now that Rielly was barely even seeing power-play minutes just two seasons ago. Mike Babcock believed it was more important for him to focus on other aspects of his game.

Today he’s second in the league with nine power-play points through 14 games — a benefit of manning the left point on Toronto’s lethal first unit.

You get the feeling the coach now sees Rielly as a graduate of the school of hard knocks. He’s earned a long leash.

“I think Dion [Phaneuf] was really good for Mo and [Jake Gardiner],” said Babcock. “He looked after ‘em, he protected ‘em, and him being a real solid citizen himself helps out. But I think they’ve just been around and understand what it takes and now Mo’s an important, important player on our team.

“But he’s an important guy because of his energy and what he brings everyday and how much he cares about winning.”

This is what the Leafs envisioned for Rielly the day he was drafted back in 2012. He was the former front office’s top-rated prospect that year and they were thrilled when the New York Islanders called Griffin Reinhart’s name after Nail Yakupov, Ryan Murray and Alex Galchenyuk were already taken.

That left Rielly for them at No. 5 — a player they believed could blossom into the kind of leader and difference-maker he’s become today.

After more than 400 NHL games, he’s a voice of reason inside the Leafs dressing room. Even with a 9-5-0 start and the big win over the Penguins, he was challenging teammates to find another level at Monday’s practice.

“I think we’re happy with the way we played against Pittsburgh, but it’s important that we’re able to do that every night,” said Rielly. “We want to be a bit more consistent, have less ups and downs. You know those good teams that can find a way to be good every single night, that’s what we’ve got to do.”

At least he’s pretty clear on what it’s going to take to do that.

Rielly is the last player you have to be concerned about getting distracted from the larger task at hand. He just focused on all the incremental improvements in the meantime.

“There are many different things that you have to accomplish along the way and things you have to improve along the way just in order to get there,” Rielly said in September, on the first day of training camp. “I think if you really want to break it down I’d say practice habits being better, you know, preparation improving.

“All that kind of stuff has to happen in order to reach the final goal.”

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