Prized prospect Rielly: ‘My goal is to make the Leafs this year’

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Morgan Rielly has lofty aspirations heading into this season.

“My expectations for myself are pretty high,” Rielly told CBC.ca. “Obviously my goal is the make the Leafs this year. I’ve been training hard and I’ve been on the ice a lot.

“My goal is to play in Toronto this year.”

Rielly, 19, was the club’s first-round pick (fifth overall) at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, putting him among the elite in the deepest defensive draft the league has seen in years.

Eight blueliners went in the first 10 picks, with only Columbus’ Ryan Murray (second overall) and the Islanders’ Griffin Reinhart (fourth) going higher.

Rielly also got a taste for NHL hockey during Toronto’s abbreviated training camp last season before being sent back to WHL Moose Jaw. Leafs GM Dave Nonis praised Rielly’s play, but said the youngster’s lack of game experience (there were no exhibitions last season) and Toronto’s defensive depth were the deciding factors.

The latter part of that explanation, though, has changed.

Several of the guys ahead of Rielly last season are now gone. Mike Kostka signed in Chicago, Mike Komisarek was bought out, Ryan O’Byrne jumped to the KHL and Cody Franson remains unsigned.

At the time of writing, Toronto had seven defensemen under contract for next season — Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Mark Fraser, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer, John-Michael Liles and Paul Ranger.

Holzer fell out of the rotation last year and didn’t dress after Mar. 16; Liles only played 32 games and was a healthy scratch in the playoffs; Ranger hasn’t played an NHL contest since 2009-10.

So you can see why Rielly — who played 14 regular-season and eight playoff games with the AHL Marlies — is now gunning for a gig with the Leafs.

“I’ll just try to play my game, play with confidence,” he explained. “Hopefully I’ll be able to make a good impression.”