The Toronto Maple Leafs entered training camp with Morgan Rielly still on the team. Despite not re-signing him in the offseason, the organization remains hopeful they will keep the longest-serving Maple Leaf around beyond the 2021-22 season. However, simple mathematics suggests this is impossible given the current contracts and the salary cap restrictions. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that significant changes are coming. This is likely the farewell tour for the core four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander.
Rielly is entering the last year of his contract with the organization. He is currently paid $5 million a season, an incredible deal for the Maple Leafs considering the lucrative agreements handed out to defencemen in the offseason. However, don’t hold your breath that the smooth-skating blueliner will take another team-friendly contract. He was blunt when asked if it’s his desire to be a Maple Leaf beyond this season. “I think you all know how I feel about being Leaf, but there is a business aspect to it. I’m going to take care of myself. I feel great, and I’m prepared for the season.” It’s an honest answer when comparable players are now getting more than $8 million a season.
Last Season for Maple Leafs Core Four
In August there were rumours that the Leafs’ front office has been preparing for this situation, and the core four would be broken up. My colleague, the Old Prof, dove into the speculation that went as far as suggesting Matthews could be traded. Quite frankly, the only way Rielly stays on this team is if one of the big four contracts are moved.
The four forwards take up half of the salary cap for the entire 23 man roster. Matthews makes $11.6 million per season, Marner earns $10.9 million, and William Nylander is $6.9 million. In addition, John Tavares has a no-movement clause, so his $11 million contract is staying on the books until the end of the 2024-25 season. Removing one of those deals would certainly elevate some of the budget constraints. It’s been a problem since the contracts were signed, but it’s about to get much worse. Not only is Rielly a free agent at the end of the season, so are Jack Campbell and Ilya Mikeheyev. Plus, Rasmus Sandin is a restricted free agent.
Simply put, one of the core four has to be traded, and the groundwork is being arranged. Dubas was asked a question that used the term core four “we don’t refer to them as that,” said the general manager with a slight chuckle and grin. “I think the core of our group is much more than four players.”
Maple Leafs Expand Core Four
If that is true, he will have to figure out a way to sign the other players who make up the roster, which will not be easy. Dubas would not get into the negotiations with Rielly, “that is a personal matter for Morgan and a private one for us,” said the general manager. But he did reiterate that the flat cap is a significant challenge, “you want to see where things go throughout the year with the cap. Maybe it goes up. Maybe it doesn’t. The situation with Morgan, as we did last year with our players becoming UFAs we will keep them private until we have to make an announcement on the one way.”
One way or another does not sound as confident as his answer just a few weeks ago on the Bob McCown Podcast, “Morgan has been an excellent person and player for us. I don’t see any circumstance for us where we wouldn’t want to keep him.” Perhaps he does now.
The reality is that Dubas could be trading one of the current big contracts just to sign a similar contract with Rielly. That result would put the Leafs no further ahead on the salary cap issue. It’s plausible that Toronto could trade one of the core four and still not re-sign Rielly. With that said, fans should enjoy this talented roster while they can.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.