Maple Leafs Should Try to Sign Rielly Early

Here’s what we know about Morgan Rielly’s current contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs: it’s for $5 million per season and it’s for two more years. He won’t need to be re-signed until the end of the 2021-22 season, which means that he and general manager Kyle Dubas won’t need to start negotiating in any serious way for at least two years – unless, of course, they choose to.

The Question Is a Sign of the Times

Why, then, are we considering Rielly’s contract now? Until a few days ago, in my research on Maple Leafs news and rumors, this question wasn’t on my radar. But, it was on the fans’ radar because on May 4, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox was asked by a fan in a mailbag post to address the specific question of Rielly’s possible extension. And, Fox – who’s a key Maple Leafs commentator – took the question seriously and addressed it.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I also wish to address it in this post because I think the question emerges as a sign of the times. The question, in some ways, asks us to look into a future that currently – in the fog of the COVID-19 pandemic – seems exceedingly blurry. We thought we knew what might happen with life as we know it, but we’re really coming to understand we’re no longer certain.

What Will It Cost to Keep Rielly in a Maple Leafs’ Uniform?

Let me start with a given: Rielly’s a keeper. Not only is he a great defenseman who plays both offensive and defensive sides of the ice skillfully, but he’s a natural leader who represents the organization well within the community. As a fan, you don’t get the sense that Rielly’s a self-focused egotist. He’s a team-oriented guy who cares about the community and fans.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Forgotten Ones – Mikael Renberg

The second given is that the Maple Leafs hope to sign him. Although I believe Rielly will seek a fair contract – and general manager Kyle Dubas will seek to comply – I can’t see those contract negotiations being nearly as contentious as teammate Mitch Marner’s were last season.

A third given is that it’s going to cost the team to keep Rielly in a Maple Leafs uniform. Although, as I noted, Rielly’s current contract does not expire until 2022, Maple Leafs fans are already interested in the answer of Rielly’s new contract. I’m sure Dubas is thinking that far ahead as well.

How Much Will Salary Numbers Matter?

When Fox looked around the NHL for comparisons, he started with the Arizona Coyotes’ Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s eight-year, $66 million deal. He also noted that the Boston Bruins’ contract with Torey Krug and St. Louis Blues’ contract with Alex Pietrangelo would impact Rielly’s negotiations.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson Arizona Coyotes
Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, given the times and what I’ve noted about Rielly, I have a feeling it isn’t simply about contract numbers in the typical way we’ve thought about them.

First, we are so currently embroiled in this COVID-19 “thing” that it’s difficult to see how or when a real resolution will take place. In other words, we currently have no idea when we’ll get “back to normal,” or even what that might look like.

Second, Rielly seems like a cerebral player. Given his thoughtfulness, there might be other things the Maple Leafs could do to re-sign him. Specifically, they could cement his continuing relationship with the team by offering him a longer-term contract.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Andersen, Cujo & Resuming the Season

Depending upon how normal life might be in summer 2021, who knows what psychological thinking might prevail. Perhaps COVID-19 is then a distant memory and we return to exactly how things were – give or take the repercussions of the bubble that COVID-19 was – and this question simply becomes unimportant. However, if we’re still hoarding toilet tissue, what then?

How Are Unrestricted Free Agents Feeling Right Now?

If you’re a star NHL player whose contract expires on June 30, 2020, you suddenly are not in as enviable a position as it seemed you would be only three months ago. For example, Taylor Hall has let it be known that he’d rather sign a longer-term deal with a club this summer, even if it meant taking less money in the long run.

Taylor Hall Arizona Coyotes
Taylor Hall, Arizona Coyotes (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Even a player as good as Hall (he won the 2018 Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player) must know it’s difficult for teams to see past the impact of COVID-19 on revenues lost because regular-season games were canceled; he’s seeking security.

Related: NHL Rumors: Blues, Golden Knights, Flames, Oilers, Maple Leafs, More

Players like Hall who are seeking new contracts might be in a pinch if teams shy away from signing big-number contracts in the face of an uncertain salary cap or even assurance there will be games in the fall. In fact, it’s no longer such a preposterous question to ask when the 2020-21 season will even begin.

Where Does That Leave the Maple Leafs and Rielly?

Perhaps it’s too soon to speculate about what the Maple Leafs might have to do to sign Rielly to his next contract. Although Rielly’s from the Vancouver area, what if he really wants to stay in Toronto? Is he willing to ensure that scenario sooner rather than later?

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I don’t think it’d take much for the Maple Leafs to sell Rielly on the fact that he’s a core player the organization hopes to build the future of its franchise around. Furthermore, given the turbulent times augured by the global pandemic and the lack of knowledge about how accessible money might be in the future, signing Rielly long-term sooner rather than later might be a win/win for the team and for the player.

Again, this post can only speculate about (a) where NHL life might in the aftermath of COVID-19, (b) how much Rielly desires to stay in Toronto with this core of teammates, and (c) if there’s a return to normal over the next year. Because Rielly’s contract ends on June 30, 2022, he’s eligible to sign a new contract on July 1, 2021, in little more than a year.

Would Rielly Consider Signing Earlier?

Rielly might consider taking less money by signing on July 1, 2021. Although salary-cap funds might be tight, as they’ll likely continue to be then, he wouldn’t have to worry much about his future. Normal hockey considerations also apply – that is, like other hockey players, should he have a major injury, he’ll still be paid for the term of his contact.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Nylander, Matthews, Keefe & AHL Signings

If both the Maple Leafs and Rielly are amenable, the team gets a chance to sign him at a discount price – assuming revenues begin to trend upward towards where the natural progression of the salary cap would have been.

Rielly deserves to be paid and, except for injury, will be paid regardless. Even if everything works out for both player and team, the bottom line is that the Maple Leafs won’t have saved many millions of dollars. However, because Toronto always faces a salary-cap crunch, every savings counts.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs center Mitch Marner celebrates with teammate Morgan Rielly (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

Should Rielly play towards free agency, as he probably would have under normal conditions, another strong season would likely mean a contract in the area of $9 million-plus per season. But, if the team could sign him for longer-term at $7.5 or $8 million, would Rielly agree? I think there’s a chance he would and it’s worth asking.

If on July 1, 2021, Rielly’s asked and says yes, Dubas can make things happen with a million dollars or so – as Maple Leafs fans have seen by the recent signing of Mikko Lehtonen.