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Toronto Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammates in Pittsburgh, on Monday, Dec. 16, 2013.Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press

The questions have become an annual rite of passage for young Toronto Maple Leafs players, especially those coming off a strong rookie season.

Luke Schenn faced them in 2009.

Jake Gardiner got them in 2012.

And, this season, it's Morgan Rielly's turn.

But he would like this idea of a "sophomore slump" being floated his way to stop. As soon as possible, preferably.

"I'm trying to avoid it and not think about it," Rielly said. "But with you guys asking me every day, it's tough sometimes … I'm not worried about it."

The good news when it comes to Rielly, the 20-year-old defenceman from West Vancouver, is the questions are coming with a caveat. Nine games in, "slumping" is hardly how you'd describe his game, especially after what was perhaps his best one in the NHL yet in a 4-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.

The Sabres were a limp opponent, but that allowed coach Randy Carlyle to play Rielly more than ever, giving him the second most minutes of his career (22 minutes, 27 seconds).

In response, Rielly rang up two assists – including a beauty cross-crease pass on James van Riemsdyk's goal – and was all over the puck generally, generating nine shot attempts.

That propensity to shoot has been Rielly's biggest shift from a year ago. The coaches want him putting more pucks on the net, and he has responded in dramatic fashion, with 2.8 shots a game compared to 1.3 in his rookie year despite similar ice time.

Even more impressively, Rielly leads all NHL defencemen in generating shot attempts, with 21.6 per 60 minutes at even strength, meaning he's getting a look at the net roughly every 2.5 minutes he's on the ice.

He's winding up more frequently than not only every Leafs defenceman but every Leaf, including shot demon Phil Kessel, something that's helping drive Toronto to respectable totals on the shot clock most nights.

Entering Friday's game against the injury-plagued Blue Jackets in Columbus, the Leafs have been outshot, but only by one: 281-280.

"I told myself this year that I would shoot more," Rielly said. "I think I've been able to do that so far, but I think I can keep creating opportunities for my teammates by putting the puck on net."

There are whole host of things that are going into Rielly – a scoring star in junior in Moose Jaw – being more involved in the offence. The coaching staff is giving him primarily offensive minutes, including the most starts to shifts in the offensive zone on the team, which helps drive shot production.

He's also been able to play his natural side of the ice more often and has rotated between only two partners – Jake Gardiner and Roman Polak – instead of the revolving door of blueliners he had a year ago.

In addition, Rielly admits to being more confident overall, with nothing left to surprise him in the NHL.

Well, almost nothing.

"We've got a few jerseys on the ice," he said. "That's been a surprise. Other than that, no."

For his part, Carlyle said the coaching staff is trying not to put too much pressure on Rielly. In addition to the favourable zone starts, he hasn't faced other team's top lines and has settled into the No. 4 or 5 spot on the blueline in terms of minutes.

Carlyle said that two things that are allowing Rielly to excel in the NHL at a young age are his skating and his conditioning, noting that while he's not tall at a little under six feet, he weighs in at about 215 pounds of mostly muscle.

Rielly's friends, meanwhile, marvel at his strength in the gym.

"Oh yeah," said teammate Mike Santorelli, who trains with him in B.C. every off-season. "He outlifts all of us. His power cleans are pretty impressive. He cleans a lot of weight. His jumps are pretty good as well. He's powerful."

"He's a big solid kid," Carlyle added.

As for all those shots so far, the coach has liked what he's seen.

"It's the comfort zone," Carlyle said. "That's always one of the things."

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