Author's note: This concludes the 2015 edition of our Top 25 Under 25. We sincerely hope that you enjoyed it. I want to take a moment to thank our voters for participating and for assisting with the articles. I'd also like to thank Gus Katsaros, Kyle Cicerrella, Jeff Veillette, Jeff Cox, Corey Pronman, Mattias Ek and Juha Hiltela for contributing their thoughts.
And so our countdown ends.
For the second year we crown Morgan Rielly as the #1 Maple Leaf under the age of 25. Rielly's sophomore year showed progress, despite the Leafs abysmal season. As we've seen this week, the top of our list was significantly stronger than last year, and our extended voting panel was split between looking toward the future, and looking at where players are now.
Rielly's ability to bridge that gap, being a player that can contribute now but also young enough to continue to improve, made him a strong choice to take the title once again.
Entering Rielly's second professional NHL season, Leaf fans looked for improvement from 2012's 5th overall pick, identifying him as one of the key elements that would improve the defensive side of the Leafs' game. Although the season itself became a waste, Rielly was given a greater role, particularly after Randy Carlyle was replaced by Peter Horachek and Cody Franson was traded. As the season progressed, Rielly moved from playing around 17 minutes a night up to nearly 23 minutes after Carlyle was dismissed.
What will be of interest to watch this season is whether the increased ice time was a direct result of Franson's departure, or because of Rielly's development. Rielly is in his third season, and it will be a big test of his future as a cornerstone of the Leafs blueline.
Rielly's HERO chart shows that after two seasons he's ready to take on a greater role. Despite third pairing ice time, with his ability to move the puck forward by passing and his ludicrous skating ability, he outperforms his role in the lineup and generates shots at the level of a top pairing defender.
Rielly's defence obviously needs significant work. Having said that, it's easy to forget that a lot of 21-year-old defencemen in their second year of pro hockey struggle with the defensive aspects of the game. Along with playing on a historically inept defensive team, Rielly's continued need for improvement shouldn't be a surprise.
Last year Rielly topped the 4th edition of the list with the slimmest margin to date. This year, his margin of victory was just as small, with only 5 of 14 voters casting a 1st place ballot for him. As we discussed, it was Rielly's ability to bridge the gap in voter's minds between "Solid NHLer" and "potential for greatness" that saw him rise above the pack on most everyone's list.
Going into the Leafs plan to rebuild, if Morgan Rielly is capable of developing into a cornerstone defenceman, he represents one more building block along with the forwards that we expect to represent the future of the Maple Leafs going forward.