PITTSBURGH — In the end, Brian Burke chose not to trade up in the draft order. The price was too high, he said. Besides, even if he had, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager said nothing would have changed.
First or fifth, Morgan Rielly was Toronto’s man.
“We had this player rated first overall,” Burke said of the Moose Jaw Warriors defenceman who was selected with the No. 5 pick. “I wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true, just to build up a pick. This is a guy that if we had with the first pick, we would have taken . . . our scouts are ecstatic.”
Rielly’s reaction was more of a surprise. Back in November, when he tore the anterior crucial ligament in his knee after sliding into a goalpost, some questioned whether he would be able to play hockey again. The draft — never mind being selected in the top five — was just a pipe dream.
“To have this experience is unreal,” Rielly said. “I appreciate all those people who said I couldn’t do it.”
According to Burke, the season-robbing injury was part of the reason why the Leafs selected Rielly. For one, it allowed him to slide down in the order. And secondly, it provided the youngster with a rare opportunity to show just how determined he was when facing adversity.
“When we researched him, that’s what kept coming up and coming up and coming up,” said Burke. “This kid never viewed the injury as a setback. He viewed it as a challenge. And he met that challenge. The workouts he did were legendary to rehab this. While he was hurting, he was meeting his team on the road. Just little things like that showed character.”
Rielly, who said he “is a bit like Kris Letang (of the Pittsburgh Penguins),” had 18 points in 18 games prior to his injury. When he returned five months later, he picked up three assists in five games during the Western Hockey League’s conference finals, putting to rest the worry he had any issues with his knee.
“It was a pretty long wait from when I hurt my knee to now,” Rielly said. “A long road with a lot of hard work. I had some times when I would question whether the draft was going to happen for me and I didn’t know really what to expect. I had to keep training hard and getting healthier. I guess it paid off.”
The last time the Leafs picked this high at the draft was in 2008 when the team traded up two spots to select Luke Schenn at No. 5. Though Schenn jumped straight from junior to the NHL, Burke is not putting the same level of expectation on Rielly.
“That’s really up to him,” he said. “This is a guy that you don’t have to tell where the weight room is. This is a guy that you don’t have to tell to work hard. This is a guy that knows how to practise. I’m going to say he’s probably going to be fast-tracked, but we’re certainly not expecting him to play this year.”
Also complicating Rielly’s progression is that there is a logjam of young defencemen in Toronto’s system. Along with Schenn, who is 22 years old, the team has five others — Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Stuart Percy, Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker — who are under 25.
“I think everyone knows my feeling on it,” said Burke, who added positional needs would be addressed through trades. “Winning championships begins and ends on the blue line . . . there was no discussion at the table, there was no hesitation. Just punch that pick into the computer once they called us.”
Where there seems to be hesitation is on the trade front. Most had expected this weekend would be a perfect opportunity for the Leafs to add a front-line centre and possibly a goaltender.
Burke said he had spoken to Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero regarding Jordan Staal, who was reunited with his brother Eric in Carolina. As well, he was seen talking to Vancouver GM Mike Gillis, who is attempting to unload Roberto Luongo.
When asked if he expected to get anything done, Burke said no. He then he added: “That could change with one phone call.”
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