Maple Leafs’ Extension of Rielly Has On-Ice and Off-Ice Benefits

On Oct 29, the Toronto Maple Leafs shocked their fanbase by signing longtime defenseman Morgan Rielly to an eight-year contract extension with an average annual value (AAV) of $7.5 million.

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This news certainly came out of nowhere, and I think myself and most fans were surprised to see the deal happen. Between Zach Hyman walking in free agency following last season and the open market for defensemen right now, it didn’t really seem like there was any chance Rielly would be returning to Toronto.

William Nylander, Morgan Reilly
Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly celebrates with teammate William Nylander. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hans Deryk)

Obviously, that proved to not be the case. And while some may argue that the $7.5 million is too expensive for Rielly, I like the deal for both sides. We’ve seen in recent offseasons how much teams value their defensemen, and while Rielly hasn’t quite lived up to his 72-point season in 2018-19, he’s looked much better through the first few games of the 2021-22 season. Besides, the contract goes beyond just the on-ice product.

Rielly Remains Maple Leafs’ Longest-Serving Player

Think about the Maple Leafs’ team from 2013-14, Rielly’s rookie season. He remains the only player from that roster, and has been a Maple Leaf for the good, the bad, and the ugly. He’s worn a letter on his jersey ever since the 2016-17 season, when he was only 22 years old. He spent his first four NHL seasons working on the defensive side of his game, and really started to let his offensive side shine through in 2017-18.

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As previously stated, his career season was 2018-19 where he finished with 20 goals and 72 points in 82 games. He took a slight step back in 2019-20, finishing with 27 points in 47 games before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season, and slightly improved his numbers in 2020-21 with 35 points in 55 games. His defensive game seemed to have taken a step back last season, but he’s looked way more comfortable through the first eight games of the season, albeit a small sample size.

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We’re talking about a guy who was here when Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf were still core pieces of the team. A guy who sat through the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, where the Maple Leafs’ ownership officially gave management the green light to start a proper rebuild. A guy who was, for lack of a better term, a veteran to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in their rookie seasons.

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To me, the only way Rielly was ever going to leave the Maple Leafs was if he wanted to. And if he wanted to price himself out of Toronto, I wouldn’t have blamed him and I don’t think anybody should have. But by signing this deal, even while he watched players around his skill level such as Seth Jones and Dougie Hamilton get around $8-9 million, it speaks volumes about his love for the team and the city.

Maple Leafs’ Signing of Rielly Won’t Move the Needle Much

The salaries of the Maple Leafs’ top players has been a polarizing topic of discussion in recent years. And with the Maple Leafs committing $7.5 million to Rielly, there’s obviously going to be some concern about how the deal ages. And realistically, this contract won’t actually make much of a difference in terms of how it affects the Maple Leafs’ salary cap going forward.

After this season, Phil Kessel’s contract will be up, meaning that the annual $1.2 million the Maple Leafs owe him will be off the books. Factor in the expectation that the cap will rise by $1 million, and Rielly’s current AAV of $5 million will accumulate an increase of $300,000 towards the cap.

This was an easily attainable deal, and one that made sense for a player who wants to be here. For himself, he’s getting a raise that he would have gotten regardless of who signed him, and the raise realistically doesn’t affect the Maple Leafs’ cap as much as it might look on the forefront.

Rielly is a Big Part of the Maple Leafs’ Culture Chase

Ever since the Maple Leafs lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens in 2020-21, the culture of the team has been a recurring topic of discussion. And, to me, you can make all the arguments you want about how Rielly’s contract didn’t reflect his on-ice play and how that money could be better spent elsewhere, but one thing you have to consider is what losing Rielly may have done to the mood of the dressing room.

Rielly himself knew he wanted to stay in Toronto right from the get go. He told reporters “I’ve just gotten to that point in Toronto where it really feels like home. It’s a pretty cool feeling”. Meanwhile, Matthews said called Rielly a “big voice” for the team and said the whole team was excited for him.

The captain John Tavares chimed in as well, saying the team was “fired up” when Sheldon Keefe gave them the news. “Extremely happy for him. No one embodies this team, playing here, better than him. Such a great player & person and someone I look up to & rely on. Obviously, our whole team does”.

It’s obvious how much Rielly means to this team. Like I said, he’s a guy who’s been there through it all and somebody who has the respect of his teammates, his coach, his general manager, and just about everybody else in the organization. You can argue all you want about whether or not the dollar value is worth it, but there’s also an argument to be made about how his departure would have affected the dressing room if he left, be it through on his own terms or not.

Rielly Contract Sets a Good Example For Future Negotiations

We talk so much about how the team needs to develop a winning mentality, and in order for it to work, everybody has to buy in. With this contract, you’re looking at a guy who more than likely could have gotten more from another team, but chose to stay with the Maple Leafs. And by signing this deal, he’s sending the message that if this team accomplishes anything over the next eight years, he wants to be a part of it.

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At the very least, this deal should set an example for younger players in the negotiation process. An example that arguably would have been nice to have before certain contracts on this team were negotiated. While nobody is obligated to take less to stay in Toronto, it was nice to see somebody stay for the love of the team alone. And in the end, having Rielly’s presence in the locker room should go a long way.

The Maple Leafs have a tough stretch in their schedule next week with games against the Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Boston Bruins. Now that Rielly’s contract is in writing and no longer a distraction, hopefully it impacts the overall mood of the team in a positive way.

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