As the summer sped by without meaningful negotiations on a Morgan Rielly contract extension, his case for a major payday only grew stronger.
These last few weeks saw an undeniable shift upwards in the market for defencemen who eat big minutes and drive offence. And the shift may have created a divide between the Maple Leafs and their longest-tenured player that will ultimately prove too wide to bridge.
Shared history and sentiment aside, where exactly is the wiggle room here?
This is the most important contract of Rielly’s career. And in a flat-cap NHL environment general manager Kyle Dubas must weigh the merits of any significant salary commitment against what he’d need to cut away from the organization’s base in order to accommodate it.
That explains in part why there’ve only been a couple of surface-level conversations between Rielly’s camp and Leafs management to this point. The CBA has permitted them to sign a deal that would take effect in July 2022 for more than six weeks now, and during that period the marketplace has evolved.
Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cale Makar and Dougie Hamilton all signed long-term contracts carrying an average annual value at $9 million (U.S.) or higher — doubling the number of cap hits at that level for defencemen leaguewide.
Even if those players don’t serve as perfect enough comparables to vault Rielly to that lofty benchmark, it’s difficult to imagine his next contract coming in anywhere below $8 million per year given his productivity and the fact he’s logged more minutes than any other Leaf across the last five seasons.
There’s a limited supply of defencemen who do what he does. And either Rielly or John Klingberg would take billing as the top UFA blueliner next summer if they hit the open market.
Consider the company Rielly is keeping with .53 points per game across 572 career games: That’s a hair below Hamilton (.56 in 607) and John Carlson (.55 in 608) at the time they signed monster deals, but ahead of where Oliver Ekman-Larsson (.50 in 576), Jones (.49 in 580) and Victor Hedman (.49 in 470) were when putting pen to paper on their most recent contracts.
The lowest cap hit among that group is Hedman’s $7.7875 million, which came with the customary Tampa discount and accounted for 10.79 per cent of the cap when it was signed in 2016 — equating to roughly $8.8 million in today’s NHL dollars.
How Dubas navigates the organization’s most pressing decision bears watching.
The GM is summoning a “Last Dance” kind of vibe for the coming season, openly acknowledging that changes are inevitable if the Leafs don’t progress following five straight playoff exits without winning a round.
It could be that he wants to see how the team starts before engaging with Rielly’s camp. Or perhaps he’ll approach the situation similar to how he did with Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen last season — treating those long-term Leafs as “own rentals” while walking them straight to free agency.
As valued as those players were, though, they weren’t Rielly.
There isn’t an obvious succession plan for how his minutes would be absorbed if the Leafs moved on from the 27-year-old next summer, beyond perhaps thrusting more responsibility on Rasmus Sandin and Travis Dermott. And there’s a deeper attachment to consider with the fifth overall pick from 2012 who has worn an alternate captain’s A for several seasons and been a prominent figure in the community.
Even with the Leafs navigating a tight cap situation, there would be nothing to prevent Dubas from signing Rielly to a big extension now and putting off any corollary decisions until next summer since the new contract wouldn’t kick in until 2022-23 — buying time essentially to determine how to make room for his increased cap hit.
However, speaking generally this past week on the “Bob McCown Podcast,” Dubas noted that a number of contending teams have started letting players walk in free agency because of a salary cap not expected to grow much beyond $81.5 million for the next few years.
“I think you’re going to see more and more of that because you can’t just extend the players and hope that you’re going to figure out the cap stuff later. The cap isn’t going to go anywhere so you’re going to, I think, see a lot more guys playing out their UFA seasons,” Dubas said.
The Leafs certainly stand to derive significant value from the final year of Rielly’s $5-million annual contract in the months ahead. They’d no doubt love to see his next deal come somewhere close to the $6.5 million Colton Parayko and Torey Krug signed for in St. Louis, but that appears below market.
Rielly has invested more than any other current Leaf in turning this organization around and was one of the standout performers in May’s seven-game loss to Montreal, acknowledging afterwards that he’d started to think about his contract situation.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.
Training camp is now 10 days away and they haven’t yet reached the bridge. You wonder if they’ll ever really get there.
Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based independent journalist covering NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs for NordStar’s new gaming company. His work will also be appearing in the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris
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