Jake Gardiner was the Toronto Maple Leafs' breakout star last season when he established himself as an important part of the blue line, and to find the team's next breakout star, fans should look at another first-round defenseman.
Morgan Rielly, who was taken with the fifth pick in the 2012 draft, hasn't failed to impress Leafs management and fans this season with his strong performances for the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors and his selection to Team Canada's 2013 World Junior Championships roster.
Rielly's offensive production has been excellent this season. He has scored seven goals with 21 assists in 31 games, which ranks eighth among all WHL defensemen in scoring. His 28 points tie a career high he set in his only full season in Moose Jaw (2010-11), and he's played in 32 less games thus far.
One part of Rielly's game that has improved this year is his discipline. Among the 10 highest scoring defensemen in the WHL, only Rielly has less than 12 PIM. That doesn't mean that his defense has been subpar, however, Rielly has actually been quite strong in that aspect for the Warriors.
He's not afraid to play physical, he goes into the corners, he wins puck battles along the boards and he is almost never out of position. Rielly's defensive intelligence will also be a huge asset to his game when he arrives to the NHL.
When will he become a permanent fixture on the Leafs' roster? Don't expect Rielly to make his NHL debut in 2012-13, even if the lockout ends and we get a shortened schedule.
The best decision that Leafs general manager Brian Burke can make is to let him finish his third season in Moose Jaw, then bring him to Toronto for 2013-14 where he can benefit from a full training camp and preseason.
If Rielly reaches his full potential, he will become a top-tier No. 1 offensive defenseman who will be a beast on the power play and regularly finish among the leaders in scoring among blueliners. His speed is just phenomenal and his skating is already quite polished. His playmaking skills are also fantastic.
Rielly doesn't have to dominate when he finally arrives for his rookie season, he just needs to be consistent offensively and responsible defensively. Given his improving two-way game, he should be a success in Randy Carlyle's system soon after he joins the Leafs.
The future is extremely bright for Rielly, who might have been a top-three pick in last year's draft if he didn't tear his ACL during the 2011-12 season.
There will be lots of pressure on him to perform at a high level when he does come to the NHL, as well as comparisons to Boston Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton, but Rielly has the mental toughness needed to excel in a hockey market like Toronto.
Anyone who works as hard as Rielly and plays with the level of effort he does is going to be a quality player at the NHL level.
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