TORONTO – It was early December and Morgan Rielly was pretty sure he'd soon be traveling to Sweden for the World Junior Championships.
The 19-year-old, who had been scratched in four straight games, had plans to fly back to B.C. over the three-day Christmas break, but sensing the increasing likelihood of a stint for Team Canada, he told his father Andy he might have to cancel those plans.
"When we made the decision to not send him to the World Juniors that in our minds was when he proved to us that he had to play," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, "and so we've been committed to the kid."
It was the latest in a series of hurdles Rielly has gracefully overcome for the Maple Leafs this season.
There was the lofty challenge of cracking the NHL roster out of training camp, sticking around beyond the 10-game mark and finally doing enough to convince those within the organization that his development was best served in North America rather than with the Canadian juniors in Malmo this holiday season.
Now for the first time all year, Rielly is standing on solid ground in Toronto. The clouds of those earlier distractions have cleared and his sole focus can be on the ice.
"It is a bit of a change," he told the Leaf Report, "but I think it's a change in a good way. I'm happy that I don't really have any worries right now. I'm just trying to keep playing well and just trying to keep in the lineup."
Rielly has not left the lineup since that four-game stint in early December. And with each passing game he offers growing glimpses of the potential which made him the fifth overall selection in the 2012 Draft.
Those daring drives up the ice, with puck in tow, are becoming increasingly frequent, too emphatic to miss and a glaring reminder of why the Leafs decided to keep him in lieu of a trip back to Moose Jaw or a stint with the junior team.
"He continues to grow," Carlyle said of Rielly, tied for fifth among rookie defenders with 11 points.
"He makes mistakes as young players do – and old players do also. But we think there's a lot more potential in Morgan Rielly and you see glimpses of it now; his skating ability; his ability to move the puck; his ability to get up on the rush; his ability to read the game. It's all improving. And that's a great sign."
Much of it, Carlyle says, is an increasing sense of comfort and confidence. And if there's one piece of advice Rielly has garnered above all others in his acclimation to the NHL, it's to play with confidence.
That was the wisdom passed along from Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf, who, in addition to 26-year-old Cody Franson, has been the most influential voice for the rookie defender.
"I could be back in junior or you know over in Sweden, but I'm not so [I] just try to have confidence and play like I can," said Rielly, averaging exactly 18 minutes nightly this season. "And that's all been Dion. He's been great with that. He's been really trying to help me with that."
Still just a teenager, Rielly and fellow rookie Jerry D'Amigo were fit with shovels as the official portion of practice wrapped on a quiet Saturday afternoon. They were called upon to clean the ice of snow for shootout work, the Leafs heading to the skills aspect of extra time in each of the past four games.
It was the predictable grunt work of a first-year player trying to earn his keep. And it was exactly where he wanted to be.