Maple Leafs in a Tough Spot with Defenseman Morgan Rielly

From my perspective, the Toronto Maple Leafs seem to have two choices. The first choice is to keep Morgan Rielly on the roster and try to re-sign him (although the question of where that money would come from is up in the air); or, they could let him leave Toronto.

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If the organization decided to let Rielly leave, there would be two choices. Trade him while he’s tradable, or simply let him walk at the end of the season, which would make him an internal rental. Neither seem the best of all possible worlds because, either way, the team would likely lose.

Here’s What Maple Leafs’ Fans Know about Rielly

What we do know – at least most Maple Leafs’ fans would agree – is that the roster is better with Rielly on it than if he were gone. In short, the team needs a defenseman like Rielly on its roster. Right now, the two closest players to Rielly on the roster are Rasmus Sandin and newcomer Brennan Menell. Both are young and inexperienced, and Menell is largely unknown.

Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Rasmus Sandin (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

In addition, because the Maple Leafs have been so successful since the 2016-17 season, they’ve also put themselves into a bind that almost forces them to hold on to players through the playoffs and then let them walk without return. That’s what happened with Zach Hyman and others before him. And, it might happen to Rielly at the end of this season as well.

A trade is further complicated because no NHL general manager is going to help their Maple Leafs’ counterpart Kyle Dubas out. Leveraging your colleague’s problems is simply part of being a smart NHL general manager.

Outside Predictions about What Will Happen with Rielly

Last week Lyle Richardson of Bleacher Report outlined a number of predictions about what would happen to upcoming NHL free agents. Rielly was among them. To cut to the chase, his prediction was this: “Prediction: Rielly departs the Leafs and signs a seven-year deal with the Kraken worth $9 million per season.”

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So, let’s work backwards from this prediction to see if there’s anything possible to dredge up from this situation.

Working up to that prediction, Richardson outlined reasons why the Seattle Kraken would want to go after Rielly – other than the obvious fact that he’s a strong player. First, Richardson noted that the Kraken could be after a top-pair left-side defenseman if Mark Giordano retires or departs via free agency next summer. He also noted that Seattle has “only” $54.5 million invested in 14 players. That would allow the Kraken enough salary-cap space to make some big deals in next season’s UFA pool just as they had this season when they signed goalie Philipp Grubauer and left winger Jaden Schwartz.

Richardson also outlined the Maple Leafs’ own salary-cap woes, which is not news to fans of the Blue and White. He then outlined reasons why Rielly deserved a raise from his six-year, $5 million contract. And he rightly noted that the 27-year-old Rielly had been a bargain over the past few seasons, especially when the recent signings of top-flight defensemen have been bumping into the $9 million range. Given the state of play, Rielly deserves more than the bottom line on his current contract.

Is There a Way for the Maple Leafs NOT to Allow Rielly to Walk for Free?

The question remains, could the Maple Leafs and Kraken become trade partners before the end of the 2021-22 season, when Rielly would walk for free? One thing notable about the Kraken’s expansion draft choices is that so many of them were defensemen. That leaves the Kraken with some players the Maple Leafs might be interested in.

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The Kraken are also an interesting team in that, more than any other NHL team, they really have no idea how good they will be this season. Being students of Vegas Golden Knights’ history, the team would have to believe it would have a chance to make the Stanley Cup Finals. If that were the case, they might be willing to pull in Rielly without fleecing the Maple Leafs too badly.

And, not being fleeced is important. If the fleecing is too painful, might as well keep Rielly and take your chances.

General Manager Kyle Dubas Is Not Dealing from Strength

Other NHL general managers also know that Maple Leafs’ general manager Dubas is not dealing from strength and would low ball him on any trade offer for Rielly. There the Kraken might differ. If they see themselves as more than simply a competitive team, but even as a playoff contender, they might want to use some of their salary-cap space to add Rielly to their roster earlier rather than later.

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

Then again, the Kraken might not believe they’d have a chance for a Stanley Cup run. Certainly, Seattle’s general manager Ron Francis understands that – at least for the first few seasons – simply having a team is gold. Being competitive is gravy – nice but not necessary. And, if the Kraken don’t see any need to go for the entire prize this season, there’s no reason not to wait for Rielly during the offseason and get him for nothing but his salary.

All this Logic Aside, Is There a Wild Possibility?

As the title notes, the Maple Leafs are in a hard place with Rielly. However, if a trade with the Kraken might be possible, is there any chance 24-year-old Mississauga-native left-shot defenseman Vince Dunn could be available? He might be a nice replacement for Rielly and he has an addition year on his $4 million contract.

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What we do know is that Seattle picked up a number of defensemen at the expansion draft. The Maple Leafs could certainly use one of these defensemen if Rielly were to be moved. The issue, as it always seems to be with any successful regular-season team with little salary-cap space, is whether it’s better to move a really good player you know you can’t re-sign or keep that player and go for the Cup.

That’s the tough spot the Maple Leafs are inhabiting at this moment.

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