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Morgan Rielly, a defenceman, after being chosen fifth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the NHL draft on Friday, June 22, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)
Morgan Rielly, a defenceman, after being chosen fifth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the NHL draft on Friday, June 22, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

world junior championship

Toronto prospect Rielly earns the right to wear a leaf of a different colour Add to ...

The Twitter universe for the average junior hockey player is a couple of hundred followers, and that’s where Morgan Rielly sat for most of last year. It was a lost year of sorts for him, a knee injury early in the Moose Jaw Warriors’ season limiting him to 18 regular-season games and five more in the playoffs after he nagged his way back into the lineup.

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But Rielly’s draft stock stayed high, and when he went to the draft combine, he gained a couple of hundred more followers. Then came the day the Toronto Maple Leafs made him their first pick, fifth overall, and boom, it exploded.

“On draft day, I had almost a thousand – maybe,” Rielly said, “and after the draft, I looked at my phone and it was something like eight or nine thousand. It’s about 12,000 right now, and it’s plateaued there, but it’s still pretty cool.”

Rielly (@mriles4) is actually at 12,167 followers, but the real measure of his rising fame is that there is now also a fake Morgan Rielly Twitter account, created after the Leafs drafted him, something that truly measures his arrival on the scene. And on Thursday, after he made Canada’s world junior team, he tweeted “whatta dream come true .. lost for words.”

Altogether, there were five members of the NHL’s draft class of 2012 trying out for Canada’s world junior team, but only Rielly and Griffin Reinhart made the cut. Rielly has been paired in camp mostly with Dougie Hamilton, a player the Boston Bruins chose with a Toronto draft choice (acquired in the Phil Kessel deal), and they will likely be the No. 1 pair.

Leaf Nation is going to want to monitor that pairing because isn’t it fun to play what might have been?

Rielly’s value to the world junior team greatly increased after Everett Silvertips defenceman Ryan Murray was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury, because Murray likely would have drawn the assignment to play alongside Hamilton.

But Rielly, who is scoring a point a game for an offensively challenged Moose Jaw team, has the sort of skill set that will translate well on the big ice. He also has the ability to defend without taking a penalty. In 33 games this season, he has not had a single minor penalty, and has only one five-minute major.

Overall, team defence figures to be a strength on this Canadian team, with Scott Harrington back for another crack, along with three other 19-year-olds new to the team this year – Xavier Ouellet (Blainville-Boisbriand), Tyler Wotherspoon (Portland) and Ryan Murphy (Kitchener). Apart from his “world-class” skill set, what coach Steve Spott particularly likes about Rielly is the fact that he has the puck most of the time.

On this team, with Hamilton playing the stay-at-home role, Rielly will get a chance to go to the attack. “I trust him,” Spott said this week. “We’ve won with him before.”

There has been progression in his game too. Rielly says it took a few games at the start of the season to get back into the rhythm of playing, “but I’m extremely happy to be healthy again. I knew I had some high expectations of myself and that I had to play hard and play well every night. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I knew I had to prove myself after my injury – that I can play at a high level still – and I’ve kind of been trying to do that all year, and I think things have been going well for me.”

No matter what happens with the NHL lockout, the Leafs have assured Rielly he will be with the Canadian junior team for the duration. He also understands that his life will never be the same after getting drafted by the Leafs, and that Toronto is just different from any place else in the known hockey world.

Pressure and scrutiny are facts of life for all high draft choices, but in about two-thirds of NHL precincts, they can disappear into the woodwork if they choose to do so, and live a relatively normal private life. In Toronto, that’s more challenging and something the Leafs need to factor into their player evaluations.

Not everybody is cut out to play in Toronto, but Rielly looks as if he is. There is a steadiness about him that comes through, the kind of even-keel personality you need to play the brand of hockey that he does – which is a dynamic, all-over-the-ice offensive presence. In short, there is a bit of Erik Karlsson in him, but in a stockier frame. His junior coach, Mike Stothers, thinks Brian Leetch is a more apt comparison.

But however the future looks, Rielly says he got a glimpse of what life as a Leaf would like at their July prospects camp and he’s good with it.

“When I went to the camp there after the draft, I had a chance to see what it’s all about,” Rielly said. “I had to do quite a few interviews. I knew what to expect after I got drafted, that an aspect of playing in Toronto is dealing with that kind of stuff. I’ve never had a huge problem with it. I do it. I’ve embraced it a little bit and you know what? It’s enjoyable for me.”

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