PITTSBURGH – A personal draft tradition since his days in Hartford, Brian Burke selections will not be spotted on stage in baseball caps. Burke, you see, has no interest in hiding the face of his newest recruit, on this night a defenceman from the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Morgan Rielly was high atop the Maple Leafs draft rankings in June, and was picked fifth overall by the Leafs on Friday night.
"We had this kid rated one," Burke said boldly of Toronto's first selection. "Wouldn't say that if it wasn't true just to build up the pick, but this is a guy [that] had we had the first pick in the draft we would've taken him.
"Once the Islanders announced their pick there was no discussion at the table, there was no hesitation, it was punch that name in the computer as soon as they tell us."
Comparing his game to a Pittsburgh standout in Kris Letang, Rielly played in only 18 games this past season, stuck on the shelf for much of the year with a torn ACL. The B.C. native returned in triumphant fashion for the conference finals of the Western League playoffs – six points in six games – earning a nod of glowing approval from Leafs brass.
"I think the injury set him back on some teams' list," Burke said, drawing a comparable in Keith Tkachuk, who fell to the Jets at 19th overall in 1990 because of an ankle injury. "When we researched him that was what kept coming up and coming up and coming up was this kid never viewed the injury as a setback, he viewed it as a challenge. The way he attacked his rehab and recovered from that injury is impressive."
"I think it's always been an aspect of who I am as a person," said Rielly, who finished with a point per game (18) in limited action. "I've always been pretty driven and I think just hearing people explain to me how I can't play in playoffs and how I can't play again in our year; I think that was kind of what drove me even more. I appreciate all those people who were saying I couldn't do it."
A gifted skater with a "high hockey IQ, high compete level" and dynamic offensive skill-set, Rielly was pegged as the Leafs top choice in early June, a fact made firm by an impressive interview with management at the scouting combine in Toronto.
"The psychological evaluation he did was really off the charts," Burke said, noting Rielly's posture, maturity and eye contact. "They said [he had] leadership skills, self-starter, doesn't require extensive coaching [and] if he's put in a situation where he's got to make decisions he'll make the right ones.
"Psychological evaluation is often as important as the physical one."
Burke conceded earlier in the week that he'd considered addressing an organizational need (big forward) in an unpredictable draft, but was likely to veer toward the best available prospect. Skilled offensive blueliners are always a hot commodity, but were particularly front and centre this past season with Senators stud Erik Karlsson snatching the Norris Trophy and Kings cornerstone Drew Doughty dominating this spring en route to a Stanley Cup.
"This is a guy we feel can get out of jams with the puck and I think that's going to be an asset," said Burke, noting a personal belief that officials were letting more go than they did in previous years. "If it's going back to big man's hockey he's strong enough to play that way and quick and agile enough to get out of jams with the puck.
"Highly skilled defenceman are hard to find, everyone's looking for them."