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Amid the turmoil that has been the Toronto Maple Leafs season, defenseman Morgan Rielly has been one of the positivesTom Szczerbowski

To put Morgan Rielly's season in context, you really have to whittle things down to his comparables.

And there really aren't a lot given (a) how young he is and (b) how much he is playing.

There are only 18 defencemen in the NHL this season that are 22 and under and who have played in 50-plus games. Of those, only 12 are skating in 20 minutes a night, a group of elite young blueliners led by Justin Faulk in Carolina, Aaron Ekblad in Florida, Jacob Trouba in Winnipeg and Jonas Brodin in Minnesota.

Rielly is there, too, albeit amid the turmoil that has been the Toronto Maple Leafs season.

On Tuesday, he scored his eighth goal of the season, picking a corner over Tampa's Andrei Vasilevskiy using a shot he's worked on considerably and that he's used with more frequency this season. It was also Rielly's 28th point, one more than his rookie season and enough for a tie for 51st in scoring by NHL defencemen, tied with Dion Phaneuf and Danny DeKeyser.

That's top pairing level offence, but what was more impressive was what his coach and teammates said about him after the game.

"His confidence is great," coach Peter Horachek said. "Even when he [doesn't do well] he's able to come with a positive attitude the next day… Morgan has a great personality that allows him to come back and be ready to love hockey again the next day.

"Sometimes people, if they have an off game, they're not able to do that. They need to be propped up again. He loves the game."

There hasn't been a lot of that love in the Leafs dressing room the last couple months. Many of the team's veteran are going through the most difficult half season of their careers, and it's worn them down.

That's what you see (or don't see) on the ice some nights.

The Leafs are lucky in that it hasn't done the same to their youngest, and brightest, player.

What's interesting about Rielly is that his role has grown dramatically under Horachek. He is second to only Phaneuf in ice time in the last 37 games (nearly 22.5 minutes a night) and is tied for the team's scoring lead with Phil Kessel with 16 points in that span.

Defensively, Rielly's game certainly can still improve, but that's part of why management has placed former defenceman Steve Staios on the bench to serve as a tutor of sorts through this half season of learning.

There have been video sessions. There's been talk of better control of their gaps – the space they allow incoming forwards to manoeuvre.

And there has been an emphasis placed on both of the team's young defenders, Rielly and close pal Jake Gardiner, playing with an increased ferocity in their own end.

Gardiner, in particular, has had his possession stats skyrocket since the coaching change, even as the team has bottomed out in so many other areas.

It may be one small positive in a sea of a lot of negatives, but it's something the Leafs can carry forward nonetheless.

"We wanted them to play with the same passion that they have on the offensive side on the defensive side," Horachek explained. "They've both done a very good job."

In at least this sense, this lost Leafs season hasn't been lost for Rielly. He's played more than he would have on a contender – and more even than on a team desperately trying to stay in the playoff race, as they were a year ago – and likely learned more, too.

Tough lessons, sure, but the ones to come may feel easier as a result. A lot of top NHL players have lived through these kinds of seasons early on – Lightning captain Steven Stamkos being one example – and been better for it down the road.

That's the gist of the message the Leafs are preaching these days, not just with Rielly, but everyone in that vital 25-and-under group.

"That's going to be important for all the young guys," teammate Nazem Kadri said. "Understanding this experience and taking the best from this hard situation we're in. In the future, I think it's going to be good for us."

Others believe they can see that in Rielly already.

"Riles is a good kid," netminder James Reimer said. "He's got a good head on his shoulders, and he's really mature. It's not easy to be in this situation, and I think he gets thrown into some situations [on the ice] that are pretty tough.

"To see him respond and grow throughout a tough season for the team speaks volumes. About his character and how well he was brought up."

It does. And the Leafs will need a lot of all of that in the years to come.

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