The Toronto Maple Leafs and Morgan Rielly must go their separate ways, and it has to happen sooner than later. This statement is not a reflection of Rielly’s play or his commitment to the blue and white. It’s not an assertion the team doesn’t want him or doesn’t appreciate his service. It just comes down to the cold hard facts, including the most significant truth of all: money talks.
Not only does money talk, but it also seems to fly. The amount of cash thrown at defensemen since the free agent signing period opened has been astonishing. I’m sure there were jaws on the floor in the Maple Leafs’ front office as each contract was announced. Meanwhile, the dollar signs were getting more prominent in Rielly’s eyes.
Defensemen Are in Demand
After the initial shopping spree slowed down around the League, there was still an outside chance Toronto could find a way to extend their longest-serving player. That all ended before the ink dried on Darnell Nurse’s contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Nurse signed an eight-year extension worth $74 million, an average annual value of $9.25 million. Nurse is now one of the highest-paid defensemen in hockey. Is he worth it? It doesn’t matter.
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The point is that Rielly is undoubtedly in the same range as Nurse. They are both key contributors to their team, top two pairings and minute munchers against the opposition’s best players. The difference is Rielly is currently making $5 million a season.
Nurse is just one of several big deals for defensemen. The Colorado Avalanche re-signed Cale Makar for six years and $54-million. Seth Jones signed an eight-year, $76-million extension with the Chicago Blackhawks. Finally, Dougie Hamilton, who has the same agent as Rielly, agreed to a $63 million, seven-year deal with the New Jersey Devils.
No Discounts in this Market
Leafs Nation knows all too well the economics of the situation after watching Zach Hyman land a big contract with the Edmonton Oilers. The local boy was believed to bleed blue and white; many thought (or hoped) he would take a hometown discount to be part of the Maple Leafs’ future. Not even close. Hyman was given the green light to talk to other teams even before that window opened. Clearly, if Hyman can go, anyone can. Frederik Andersen also walked after five seasons in Toronto. The goalie struggled last season and could’ve taken a team-friendly deal to back up Jack Campbell and fight to earn the starting job back. Instead, he also took more money and signed with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Dubas Has a Difficult Decision
It’s painfully apparent Rielly’s time in Toronto is ticking down. That’s why Kyle Dubas has to make a move now. The general manager, and the rest of the front office, must be feeling the heat. Indeed, the Maple Leafs have to be better next season and make it out of the first round of the playoffs to offer some job security. Trading Rielly, an alternate captain, a top-pair defenseman and a minute leader, could hamper the team’s chances of playoff success. So here is the situation Dubas is faced with to advance the team and keep his job.
Unfortunately, this has been the franchise’s stance for the last four seasons – and it has cost them repeatedly. Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Tyson Barrie, Hyman and Andersen are a few players who could’ve been shopped for rentals at the deadline. However, Toronto has been in the same situation for years, seemingly on the brink of taking the next step, making it very difficult to trade away talent.
Trade and Shop
Adding a wrinkle to the situation, Rielly has a modified no-movement clause. As a result, he can submit a list with ten teams he would refuse to be traded to. That said, a trade for high draft picks, and highly touted prospects may be easier to pull off. In addition, there are still a few pretty good defensemen on the market that could be signed with the savings from getting Rielly’s contract off the books.
Trade and Tap the Farm
Of the 15 contracts the Maple Leafs have signed this offseason, three of them are defensemen. Of course, none of them are at Rielly’s calibre, but Toronto does have options in the system on the blueline. Rasmus Sandin had several flashes of good moments last season; with some more consistency, he could become a top-four d-man. Then there is the Leafs’ first-round pick from 2017. It’s time for Timothy Liligren to step up. This move would also open up options for Dubas to trade for picks and prospects and keep some cap room for the trade deadline.
Trade for a Contract with Term
Perhaps the most difficult to pull off, but a player-for-player swap may be in the works as well. First, Toronto needs to find a trade partner who is confident they have the cash and will re-sign Rielly. Then, the Maple Leafs will need to get a player in return who still has some term left. Regrettably, Toronto’s financial situation can ill-afford to add another free agent question mark next off-season.
Training camp is right around the corner. There will be more than enough questions around this team after last season’s disappointing end. The Leafs can’t have this situation hanging over the players. It would be more advantageous to start the season with the defensive core decided and eliminate the uncertainty around the roster. Suppose Rielly is not moved before or even during the season. In that case, it will indicate Dubas is pushing all of his chips to the middle of the table – again. No matter the results for the Maple Leafs, Rielly will be getting paid next season, and it won’t be in Toronto.
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.