TORONTO- Morgan Rielly’s trial run with the Toronto Marlies is serving its purpose as the prospect has quickly learned that you need more than skating skill alone to compete at the pro level.
The highly-talented 19-year-old has played 20 games with the Marlies since his junior season ended and has increased his role for head coach Dallas Eakins because of his ability to skate and move the puck out of his own zone. But he’s also realized that those same skating skills that allowed him to succeed in junior won’t work by themselves at a higher level.
“I think when I came from junior there was a time I had to adjust to the pace, but over the last 20 games I’ve adjusted well and I’m pretty happy with how it’s gone,” said Rielly. “But there’s still room for improvement.
“When you’re playing pro hockey you’re playing grown men and it’s a big change. That was an aspect of the game I knew I had to improve on when I got here. When you’re in junior there’s always high-end players, but they’re not completely grown. Here they’re grown up, have the skill and the speed and the size. It’s all a process. I have more experience with it now, but certainly a huge change from junior to pro.”
“Some of these guys are big and have speed where in the past a guy may have him wide by a stride and he can close it,” added Eakins. “Now it’s ‘oh no, he’s skilled, he’s fast and he’s 230 pounds.”
While the Leafs top pick from 2012 is finding out that defensively he’s got some room to grow, he has reinforced why the Leafs drafted him so high. He debuted with the Marlies in March shortly after Jake Gardiner was summoned to the Leafs and he’s transitioned into a similar role, leading breakouts and running the point on the power play.
“He’s been good, he’s been real solid,” said Eakins. “His skating’s good, vision’s good, he can shoot the puck. Offensively he’s a really good first- pass guy, doesn’t complicate things.”
The Vancouver, B.C., native is one of seven late-season prospect additions currently on the Marlies roster, however the only one that has caught on for a consistent run of playing time. On Wednesday night Rielly will suit up in his sixth post-season game when the Marlies face the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 3 of the second-round matchup.
In comparison, blue-line prospects Stuart Percy and Andrew MacWilliam have yet to see a playoff game this year while forward David Broll is second in game action with three appearances in the post-season.
“He’s no different than any other guy in here,” said Eakins. “He wants his shot at the NHL, whenever that chance comes. You never know when your opportunity is going to come. You just want to keep improving for when your name’s called.”
Rielly has embraced his opportunity with the Marlies as its given him a chance to be evaluated by the organization while getting a better understanding of pro hockey for himself. Adding strength is something the 6-foot, 205-pound defenceman is already working on off the ice while every game he suits up in gives him that much more experience for the future.
“Just being around the guys, seeing how they handle it. See what the coaches are doing, it’s going to help me a lot down the road,” said Rielly. “You are trying to act like a sponge and absorb what you can to help you. The experience of playing pro hockey will help me in (Leafs) training camp next year.”
In 14 regular-season games Rielly had one goal and two assists while in five post-season games he has yet to record a point.