A good way to describe Morgan Rielly's season would be a gradual build. It started in training camp when there were questions about whether Rielly would crack the Leafs opening day roster or be returned to the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. While he broke camp with the Leafs, Rielly had to wait until the team's third game of the season to see action.
Then he played his tenth regular season game on October 26th against the Pittsburgh Penguins, meaning the first year of his three year entry level contract had kicked in. On January 15th against the Buffalo Sabres, another threshold reached as Rielly played his 40th game, meaning this season would count as a full season of service toward the seven required for unrestricted free agency.
All the while through the first two months Rielly fought to claim an everyday spot in Toronto's top three defence pairings, forced out of the line up on nine different occasions as a healthy scratch. But that appears to be a thing of the past now too; Rielly has not watched from the press box since December 8th against Boston.
“Obviously he feels a lot more comfortable,” said Randy Carlyle, before the team departed for Florida on Monday afternoon. “We're starting to see the true Morgan Rielly. I think like any young player, they're conservative in the early going; they don't want to make any mistakes.”
Now a fixture among the Leafs top six defencemen and also seeing time on a second power play pairing with Jake Gardiner, Rielly is beginning to emerge in the form of a confident puck carrier.
“I think over the course of the year so far, I've been able to gain some confidence and I've really got pretty comfortable jumping up in the play and trying to carry the puck a bit more,” said Rielly.
Now with points in six of his last nine games (1-5), Rielly has moved into third among Leafs defensemen in scoring.
Paired with Tim Gleason since midway through last Thursday's game against the Florida Panthers, the veteran defenseman has been impressed with the 19-year-old's poise with the puck.
“I notice how well he skates with the puck and how confident he looks skating with the puck,” said Gleason. “It's something that I wish I had when I was 19, 20 years old. He's ahead of the game I think at his age, especially as a defenceman.”
After playing with Jake Gardiner for a stretch of 10 games, a partnership with Gleason might be just the recipe to free Rielly up to take chances carrying the puck up the ice.
“I hope that's the case,” said Gleason. “He's a puck moving guy who skates well; he's one of those guys who can lead the rush and that's tough to do in this league. He can go whenever he wants and I'm more than happy to kind of keep the fort down and do my thing. I think it's a good mixture for sure.”
The reassurance that Gleason won't stray too far from home has been beneficial for Rielly.
“I like playing with Jake but playing with Timmy's been great, he's always back there playing good ‘D' and that helps me because I like to jump up a little bit.”
So far, the feeling has been mutual for Gleason.
“I have a good time playing with him,” Gleason explained. “If he has any questions, we're different types of players so I don't know if I'd have all the answers for him on the offensive side of things but he's grown really well since he started.”
As Rielly continues to develop into the player the Leafs hoped they were getting when they drafted him fifth overall in 2012, Randy Carlyle insisted the Leafs will remain cautious in their approach with the young defenseman.
“We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves with any young player, we want to make sure we continue to measure and afford him the ice time that allows him to develop but, again, we don't want to put him in situations that he can't possibly have success in.”