The Toronto Maple Leafs’ star defenseman Morgan Rielly has another year left on his contract. The numbers on that contract matter both to Rielly and to the Maple Leafs – the team that drafted him fifth overall during the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and that he’s made no bones about wanting to play for into the future.
In fact, Rielly’s been not only a good professional NHL player; he’s also been a good professional in every other way. He’s a guy who represents his team and his adopted city well. Rielly’s the kind of player any team would hope to have as a roster fixture. He’s one of the good guys, both as a player and as a person.
That’s where the numbers matter. How many dollars can Rielly legitimately look for with his next contract? The answer is probably lots.
Everything Considered, Good Defensemen Are Getting Paid Well
In the most recent edition of THW Maple Leafs’ Lounge, host Kevin Armstrong noted that if an up-and-coming hockey player wanted to get paid handsomely he should forget about becoming a scoring center. Instead, he should become a defenseman.
Because, despite the downward pressure the pandemic and its frozen cap are putting on contracts, good defensemen, especially those who can put points on the board, are signing some very hefty contracts.
Prior to this offseason, four NHL defensemen were making $9 million or more. The highest-paid NHL defensman was the San Jose Sharks’ Erik Karlsson at $11.5 million. The Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty was second at $11 million. The Nashville Predators Roman Josi was at $9 million. And, the New Jersey Devils’ PK Subban was also at $9 million.
Ironically, with the exception of Roman Josi’s contract, each of those other contracts is considered by most to be really bad for everyone but the player.
The $9 Million Contract Is Becoming Standard
Despite the fact that the contracts above are seen to be problematic for the teams that signed them, five additional teams ponied up this offseason to sign defensemen to multi-year contracts for $9 million or more.
The new $9 million men include:
|Player||Age||Contract Length||Amount Per Season|
|Zach Werenski||24||6 years||$9.58 million|
|Seth Jones||27||8 years||$9.5 million|
|Darnell Nurse||28||8 years||$9.25 million|
|Dougie Hamilton||28||7 years||$9 million|
|Cale Makar||23||6 years||$9 million|
Where Does that Put Rielly?
Rielly will be 28-years-old when he signs his next deal. But, what does that really mean for his next contract? Even if you think Rielly isn’t of the same caliber as any of the above players, is he that far behind?
During the last full pre-pandemic season (2018-19) the NHL played, the chart below shows how the production of those five players compared. [Note: Because Makar was only 22-years-old then and had only been in the NHL for two seasons, we didn’t include him in the comparison.]
That was, however, three seasons ago. Rielly’s 72 points was 20 points higher than any season, before, or after, and could be looked as an outlier.
If we look at their numbers for this past season, they look like this:
What the Charts Suggest about Well-Paid NHL Defensemen
At only 22-years-of-age and having played the last season at a point-a-game place, Cale Makar is obviously in a class by himself. Of the rest, Hamilton produced the most this season, but he also produced the least three seasons ago.
Other than Makar, the rest of these good defensemen (Nurse, Werenski, Hamilton, and Jones) produced points at a lower rate three seasons ago, and either at the same rate, or lower rate, this past season.
The one thing all four players have in common with Rielly is that (perhaps except for Nurse) they’re known for their offense and not their defense. But, that’s the point. The highest-paid defensemen generally get paid for producing offense. If they can provide offense and are adequate defensively, they get paid well in today’s NHL.
What’s Rielly’s Contract Likely Worth?
If all these defensemen signed deals that average just over $9 million per year for seven years, it would seem silly to believe Rielly won’t be offered close to the same money from some team in free agency next offseason. There is already speculation that the Seattle Kraken could be interested in offering Rielly such a deal.
With that being the case, even if Rielly were to give the Maple Leafs a discount to re-sign with the team, it doesn’t seem reasonable he’d be willing to leave $10 million plus on the table over the full term of a contract.
Needless to say, it appears that Maple Leafs fans need to get used to the idea that Rielly’s days in the Blue and White Toronto uniform are numbered.
If This Is Accurate, Now What?
With all this in mind, what do the Maple Leafs do with him?
Many fans and some media people believe the Maple Leafs should trade Rielly, now. The problem is that the Maple Leafs are in the “Win Now” mode. Time is running out on the present contracts for Matthews, Marner, and Nylander.
Usually, when a team is dealing a player on an expiring contract, it does so for draft picks and prospects. That helps the Maple Leafs financially, but also puts the team a step backwards coming into the present season. The expectation would be that the team will be better in the future; but, when now is the future, that doesn’t work.
In short, the Maple Leafs can’t afford to give up a season for the future. They’re playing for the present.
Exploring the Market for Rielly
Should the Maple Leafs explore the market for Rielly? Definitely. If they can make a deal involving him that makes them better today, we believe they should go for it. However, that’s easier said than done. No team is going to do the Maple Leafs a favor in a deal.
Another possibility is for Dubas to give teams the go-ahead to negotiate with Rielly on a new deal, then do a sign and trade so his new team could sign him for eight years. The problem there is, knowing such a process is in the works would be a huge distraction, not only for Rielly, but the whole team.
The Best Rielly Decision Is Probably the Most Unpalatable
While we know that many fans would be upset with this idea, if the Maple Leafs can’t get a player back who could help them now, they might just be better letting Rielly’s contract expire and keep him as their own internal rental.
Keeping Rielly as a player at least offers the Maple Leafs another season to make a Stanley Cup run with Rielly. It also gives Rielly incentive to have a great season and to maximize the return on his next contract – wherever that might be.
It isn’t a perfect solution, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
[Note: Again I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]
The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf