TORONTO - Mike Stothers has no problem acknowledging it.
Morgan Rielly bugged him toward the end of the 2011-12 season.
But it’s not what you might be thinking, and Stothers, the head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
As Rielly, selected fifth overall by the Maple Leafs on Friday night in the 2012 entry draft in Pittsburgh, was nearing the end of his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, he would make daily stops in Stothers’ office.
“Every day for about three weeks, telling me he was ready to get back in the lineup,” Stothers recalled with a chuckle on Sunday afternoon. “I had to keep telling him we had to wait for clearance from the doctors. The scary thing was, he would be practising and he would be doing things that were unbelievable (for someone coming off knee surgery). And we couldn’t play him until we got the word.”
For Stothers — a former Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers defenceman who has coached in various capacities in the NHL, AHL and major junior since 1991 — it’s hard not to think of what Rielly might have done had he been healthy for the entire season. The smooth-skating defenceman had 18 points in 18 games before he was hurt on Nov. 6 after crashing into the net during a game against Calgary, eventually returning in April for the end of the Warriors’ playoff run.
But it’s clear the Leafs have a prospect who brings a lot more than a point-a-game pace. Stothers couldn’t have been more adamant about that.
“I can’t say enough about him,” Stothers said. “I’ve had a lot of kids in junior, but his combination of talent, commitment, personality … you hear it a lot, but with him, you’re really not going to meet a better kid.”
Whether Rielly was home in Vancouver during periods of rehabilitation or in Moose Jaw, his presence around the team was constant. If he was not in touch with his teammates through texting or other form of social media, it would not be uncommon for the Warriors to return from a trip in the wee hours of the morning and see Rielly waiting in the parking lot.
The hockey player that the Leafs drafted is one, Stothers believes, who is finely suited for the game today. Rielly compared himself to Kris Letang when he met with reporters in Pittsburgh, and Stothers dropped the names of Erik Karlsson and Brian Leetch into the conversation on Sunday.
Big expectations, yes, but that’s what happens when you are taken fifth overall.
“He can get up the ice and make plays and then come right back and not miss anything defensively,” Stothers said. “It’s something every coach is looking for, the ability to play that way. Morgan’s skating is a gift.”
In Stothers’ mind, it’s not just on the ice that Rielly will one day have an impact for the Leafs. Toronto scouts could have attended every Warriors game this past season and talked to the kid afterward, but still not have had a full grasp of his personality.
Stothers, hired by the Warriors last summer, saw it up close.
“Humble and a great sense of humour,” Stothers said. “Infectious. One of those kids who walks into the dressing room and everybody is happy to see him. Down to earth. A real love of life.
“And his passion for the game — you don’t always see it with a kid who is that talented. But with Morgan, you do.”
It’s not to say Rielly is perfect and will be a Norris Trophy contender from the first shift he skates with the blue Maple Leaf on his chest. Not unlike any other 18-year-old defenceman, there is plenty to learn, an education that will come only with experience.
But the encouraging indications are that Rielly badly wants to take it all in. The hockey words for someone such as he are “highly coachable.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, the Leafs aren’t going to regret taking him,” Stothers said. “He’ll do anything in his power to improve. And he’s old-school, not the rah-rah type. He’s just a leader in the way he plays the game.”