Dallas Eakins has been down this road before. It was only two years ago that the Toronto Marlies head coach was put in charge of the development of Nazem Kadri.
Kadri was 20 years old and the Leafs top prospect at the time. He spent two-plus years in the AHL working with Eakins on tweaking his game and learning to become more of a two-way player, and since cracking the Leafs opening night lineup in January he’s been one of the team’s most dynamic forwards.
Now it’s Morgan Rielly’s turn. The 19-year-old defenceman, who was selected fifth overall by the Maple Leafs in 2012, made his home debut for the Marlies Saturday in a 4-3 victory over the Abbotsford Heat.
“It’s like having any other player on our team,” Eakins said of the rookie defenceman after the game Saturday. “He’s a young player, he’s come in [and] played well for his age.”
Watching Rielly for a few shifts, it’s fairly easy to spot the strengths in his game. He has quick feet, generally makes smart decisions with the puck and isn’t afraid to use his speed to join the rush. And while he’s only been with the Marlies for six games Eakins is already trying to find situations where Rielly can build on his strengths. He plays the point alongside Joe Colborne on the team’s first powerplay unit and that’s where he was able to pick up an assist on Brad Ross’ first period goal Saturday.
“Obviously he sees the game offensively very well,” Eakins said. “He’s in a battle defensively, the guys are bigger, stronger, faster so we’ll just keep moving along like we do with all young players. “Listen, I know he [was] our number five pick in the draft, but to me he’s another prospect. We’ll put on slow bake and [we won’t] rush.”
And there will undoubtedly have to be adjustments made to his game along the way as he learns what he can and can’t get away with at the professional level, much like Kadri did. In the game Saturday for example, Rielly was speeding down the right wing just over halfway through the first period, but his inability to take a pass from teammate Jamie Devane led to a turnover and an eventual Abbotsford goal.
But the mistakes he’s made haven’t stopped him from enjoying the time he has spent with his new teammates.
“It’s been a great experience obviously,” Rielly said. “I joined the team halfway through last week on the road and the guys were great. They were open with me and helped me along the way, but I was pretty happy to get back to Toronto and get a chance to play here and it obviously went well with the win.”
It’s been a season full of ups and downs for the 6-foot, 200 pounder. He had plenty of individual success this season with the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he tallied 54 points in 60 games, but his team missed the playoffs.
And while he had the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the IIHF World Junior Championships, the team failed to medal for the first time in 14 years.
“When I got a chance to play for team Canada that was a huge honour, I had the chance to play with some pretty high-end guys over there,” he said.
But with both those experiences having come and gone Rielly is now focused on working hard and trying to become a more well rounded professional player, and Eakins feels there’s only one way to do that.
“For Morgan it’s going to be about to be about playing at the pro level and then getting stronger and getting used to playing against bigger and stronger guys,” Eakins said. “[He] is getting his feet wet here and hopefully one day he’ll get his feet wet with the Toronto Maple Leafs.”