Why Morgan Rielly’s 2nd contract could prove difficult and expensive

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Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman / USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly will need a new contract before next season.

The young defenseman – Rielly turned 22-years-old last month – is on the final year of his entry-level contract and is still seen a cornerstone piece for Toronto’s future, as well he should be. Though Rielly’s defensive game isn’t top-of-the-lineup quality yet (though admittedly it has been this season when he’s played with any partner except Matt Hunwick), the Vancouver-born blue liner has been consistent and productive while playing major minutes and handling matchup-type deployments this season. 

Because of how productive Rielly has been and because of how many minutes he logs, he’s going to cost the Maple Leafs a pretty penny on his second contract. That is unless the Maple Leafs opt to go with a bridge deal, which is almost always a mistake when it comes to a player with star potential.

Let’s get into some of the issues that are likely to impact Rielly’s second-contract valuation.

The RFA class of 2016

Rielly’s contract situation is complicated anyway, but it could get even more complex because he’s about to be part of a cohort of high-end restricted free agent defensemen coming off of their entry-level contracts. This is an impressive class of players and includes Seth Jones, Hampus Lindholm and Jacob Trouba. 

Elliotte Friedman reported his belief that the Maple Leafs and Rielly were working on an extension back in February, but we haven’t heard anything since. That’s in keeping with Lamoriello/Shanahan’s usual modus operandi. It seems likely that the two sides are still talking, or will talk again shortly after the conclusion of this season.

It might behoove the Leafs to get Rielly’s deal done promptly, because the market value of a long-term Rielly extension could be influenced by deals that are handed out to the likes of Jones, Lindholm and Trouba. You’d much rather be talking about Justin Faulk and John Klingberg as comparables, than Oliver Ekman-Larson and Dougie Hamilton. And if Jones or Trouba get into Hamilton territory, or better, with their next deals; then you’d have to think that would make it tougher for the Maple Leafs to keep Rielly’s annual average value down.

Just as an exercise, let’s see how Rielly stacks up in comparison with these other young top-four defenseman. 

Offensively speaking, Rielly is probably the second best offensive defenseman in this group behind only Lindholm. Certainly he’s been the second most productive so far in his NHL career:

First 3 seasons GP G A Pts Points/G PPP EV P/60 EV Primary A/60
Hampus Lindholm 232 23 69 92 0.4 25 0.92 0.41
Morgan Rielly 232 18 72 90 0.39 28 0.8 0.25
Seth Jones 236 17 64 81 0.34 32 0.68 0.24
Jacob Trouba 208 23 48 71 0.34 14 0.71 0.17

In terms of two-way impact, Lindholm is once again the class of this group. Anaheim should basically just hand him a blank check and agree to whatever he wants. Rielly is, it would seem, not really in the same weight class as Trouba, Jones and Lindholm are in terms of his two-way game:

First 3 seasons TOI/G in 3rd season Team-Rel Fenwick% Team-Rel Corsi%
Hampus Lindholm 22: 00 3 3.8
Seth Jones 22: 02 2.2 2.1
Jacob Trouba 21: 59 1.6 1.8
Morgan Rielly 23: 08 -0.7 0.3

There’s a few things to keep in mind here. The Maple Leafs are probably aware of Rielly’s less-than-dominant impact on the run of play, but it’s pretty hard use those underlying metrics in negotiations – especially negotiations about the value of arbitration eligible restricted seasons (good luck explaining unblocked shot attempt differential to an arbitrator in the time allotted).

If the Maple Leafs are trying to sweat out Rielly’s defensive deficiencies, or use them as a reason why he isn’t worth $x-million, the easy counter is just “then why does he play more minutes than these other so-called better defensive options?” The stats that generally determine contract value remain goals and assists and time-on-ice is a crucial one for defenseman, especially at arbitration. By all of these metrics, Rielly shows better than Trouba and Jones, and nearly as well as Lindholm.  

How the Maple Leafs navigate this bears watching, but it’s a bit of a dangerous game. Lindholm is the class of this group and will get paid, Jones has leverage over the Blue Jackets (who need a win after the way Ryan Johansen’s situation unfolded) and Trouba has already asked for the moon. 

Rielly similarly is in a good spot, what with the Maple Leafs all-in on selling hope in this marketplace. He could be in an even better spot depending on how these other talks unfold. If the Maple Leafs were to move quickly and set the market with a Rielly deal, I’d suggest that could be a wise approach. 

Valuing RFA defensemen

If we look at the contracts that young, top-four defensemen have signed in recent years, we can get a breakdown of what sort of range Rielly’s value likely falls into over the next few years. 

For his two remaining pre-arbitration restricted seasons, for example, Rielly is probably looking at something between what John Klingberg is making this season and next ($2.5 million on average) on the low end and what Oliver Ekman-Larson earned ($3.75 million on average) for his two pre arb. restricted seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Most of the recently signed young defenseman that you’d consider Rielly comparable to fall within this range, including defenders like Nick Leddy ($2.7 million) and Justin Faulk ($3 million).

Once a player gets arbitration rights their leverage – and their contract valuations – explodes pretty significantly. Which is why the ranges for young defensemen’s arbitration eligible restricted seasons are more volatile and harder to project. Klingberg’s arbitration eligible RFA seasons are worth $4 million on average, while Ekman-Larsson’s deal is again the high water mark – his arbitration eligible restricted seasons are worth $6 million each. Hamilton ($5.75 million), Faulk ($5.5 million) and Leddy ($4.5 million) all fall into this range.

If we assume that Rielly will be valued somewhat more like Faulk than like Ekman-Larsson – which seems reasonable and a safe bet, even though Rielly has been a much more productive offensive player than Ekman-Larsson was in his first three seasons – we’re still looking at about $4 million on average over four years ($3M, $3M, $5M, $5M) just to walk him to unrestricted free agency. And that’s speaking very conservatively.

Maple Leafs would be well served to disabuse themselves now of the notion that Rielly is going to come cheap. Once you tack on the fifth and sixth or maybe even the seventh year of this deal, the annual average value should easily exceed $5 million. 

Comparables

We’ve touched briefly on players like Ekman-Larsson, Faulk, Klingberg and Hamilton, but let’s get into how those players actually stack up when compared with Rielly. And, of course, because we’re analyzing this as a ‘bet’ we’re not looking at those players now – we’re looking at how they’d performed at the time they signed their extensions.

Klingberg isn’t a perfect comparable here, because he played just one season – actually he was in the midst of that season – when the Dallas Stars signed him to his extremely team-friendly contract. That deal could be one of the biggest steals in the sport, but Klingberg’s relatively shallow track record explains why it’s so affordable relative to his peers. Dallas took on a greater deal of risk when signing that contract, which restrained the total value. It’s the same logic that allowed Nashville to sign Roman Josi to that excellent, super team-friendly long-term extension. 

Rielly’s track record is mature enough that the Maple Leafs aren’t likely to be able to mimic those sorts of deals.

In Ekman-Larsson, Hamilton and Faulk’s cases even, they all lost a bunch of games to lockout shortened seasons during the course of their entry-level deals. They just didn’t have as many games under their belt as the current crop of restricted defenseman will have. 

Offensively speaking, Rielly’s performance in his first three years compares favourably with everyone in this group except Hamilton. In his first three years in the league Rielly outscored Ekman-Larsson and Faulk on both a per game and on a per 60 minutes basis, and he did so while logging major minutes.

It’s on the defensive side of the puck where Rielly gets a bit left behind by this trio, something that the Leafs will have to factor into any bet they make on their bluechip young defenseman. By team-relative unblocked shot differential – which I prefer to raw shot-attempt differential when evaluating defenseman – Rielly is the only player in this group who had a negative impact on their teams ability to control the run of play during the course of their first three seasons.

Though Rielly’s two-way results are the worst of this impressive group by the underlying numbers, his profile is pretty similar to Faulk’s overall. 

First 3 seasons GP Pts Points/G EV P/60 TOI/G in 3rd season Team-Rel Fenwick% Team-Rel Corsi%
Morgan Rielly 232 90 0.39 0.8 23: 08 -0.7 0.3
Justin Faulk 180 69 0.38 0.69 23: 24 0.1 0.5

All of which is to say, I’d look at Faulk’s deal – $29 million over six-years – as the minimum that Rielly would sign for on a six-year pact. And that’s if he is in fact amenable to selling unrestricted years this early in his career.

Conclusion

Figuring out Rielly’s second contract could prove enormously difficult for the Maple Leafs. He’s a premium asset and a top-of-the-lineup calibre player on offense already. On some level though, the Maple Leafs will be gambling on his defensive game rounding itself out.

Which is fine. You pay for future performance when you’re buying out restricted free agent years, and you pay a premium for those seasons in order to buy unrestricted years at a relative bargain price. This is how you get something that approximates Duncan Keith’s deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, except in an environment where the maximum length of a contract is capped at eight years. 

Ultimately it seems like Rielly is unlikely to get into that Ekman-Larrson, Hamilton range on his second contract, but he could get close. I would fully expect Lindholm and Seth Jones, for example, to get into that range (and maybe Trouba too, he was reportedly looking for $56 over eight years in initial talks and is easily the most imposing physical player in this group), and considering Rielly’s superior counting stats, you’d wonder if that could have an inflationary impact on Rielly’s next deal. 

Depending on how it works out and the length of the deal Rielly’s side is looking to sign, it wouldn’t be shocking to see his cap hit balloon up to $5 million – and likely more – next season. 

That would still be a win for the Maple Leafs too, and a very good bet on an excellent young defenseman.

  • Harte of a Lion

    This is a tough situation given Rielly’s below average possession stats and I haven’t seen work in analytics give us any clearer answer. The tried and true – wait 300 games to see what you have in a defender – is as good as it gets. At this stage of rebuild, the leafs don’t want to be locked into a long term contract for a player they are unsure.

    But mostly I would hate to see how the analytically inclined leaf fans on twitter and elsewhere turn on Rielly if he continues to put up weak shot differentials after signing a big contract.

  • magesticRAGE

    With only a few days left in the regular season let’s check in on the Corsi League standings. Continuing their dominant play this year, the Toronto Maple Leafs lead the eastern conference, followed closely by the mighty Carolina Hurricanes. But with two top ten players in Marc Arcabello and Frankie Corrado, the Hurricanes will be hard pressed to catch the Leaf this late in the season.

    Another team that should be very happy with how their season has unfolded this year are the Montreal Canadians, who currently sit 5th in the Eastern Conference. Obviously the loss of star goalie Carey Price hasn’t hurt their standings at all.

    Things haven’t been as good for the Washington Capitals as they sit a mediocre 13th in the Corsi League, just behind the Winnipeg Jets. The Caps will find it hard to catch the Jets given that their highest paid player, Alex Ovechkin, currently sits 182nd in the league.

    Two other teams that have had horrible seasons this year are the Florida panthers who currently sit 20th in the league and the New York Rangers who rank 27th. For Florida it would seem that even drafting 1st overall defensemen Aaron Ekblad, hasn’t been enough to change their fortunes. If only they had picked up Frankie Corrado on waivers earlier in the year, maybe their season would have been different. Could an offseason trade of Ekblad + a 1st round pick be enough to pry Corrado away from the Leafs?

    Stayed tuned for next season to see if the Leafs can continue their dominant play, and remember Corsi matters…. because some blogger somewhere said so sometime!

    • Harte of a Lion

      You do realize that one stat does not tell the whole story right? That would be like saying that the team that scores the most goals is automatically the best regardless of anything else. Ottawa currently sits 9th in goals for this season, they are far from being the 9th best team in the league. In the same vein, the best possession team may struggle if they lack scoring talent or have underhelming goal tending.

      • Gary Empey

        I realize that one stat doesn’t tell the whole story but this stat doesn’t tell any story at all. One would expect Corsi and Fenwick to correlate with success in that goals for increase the stat and goals against decrease it. The real question is does the extraneous noise that these stats add in (blocked shots and/or missed shots) add any predictive value? The answer is unequivocally no.

        Some people just take it for granted that adding in missed and blocked shots is beneficial without testing their hypothesis.

        • Gary Empey

          Your analysis of Corsi is spot on. Corsi in it’s present form has as much value as plus and minus. When I think about it Corsi is nothing more than a more analytical look at plus/minus.

          Why when you point out that a lot of the top teams/players have a poor Corsi rating and some of the worst teams/players have a great Corsi folks here trash your comment.

          All that Corsi has proved so far is just like plus minus, the Corsi stats can not evaluate how good a team or player is at all.

          The other day I watch Rocco Grimaldi. I only see him with possession of the puck twice. Both times BOOM!!!!… A rocket right in the back of the net.

          Grimaldi’s kind of stats are the ones I value.

          As for Morgan Rielly’s next contract either pay him or piss him off.

          If you can’t afford to pay him then trade him for a 2 million dollar a year guy you can afford.

  • Harte of a Lion

    justin faulk comparison is perfect. if that’s who he turns out to be, that’s a huge win. faulk is an excellent young defenceman who deserves more praise. i hope we can offer sheet one of those other young defencemen. i don’t know if trouba remains a jet if his demands are that high. him and rielly would be a dominant pairing for the next decade. wow hampus lindholm is underrated.

  • magesticRAGE

    I would like to sign him for 6 years, $34M. I would structure it to be front heavy, and light at the back end. This way, it’s extra flexibility when the Leafs are yearly contenders. The more wisdom that’s applied in structuring contracts now, allows for extended runs with your most productive players. Especially if some of the later years can be subsidized with bonuses. With the Leafs “In Lou We Trust”

  • Harte of a Lion

    If management genuinely believe he could be as good as some of us do I’d love to see them put their balls on table and try lock him down 4-4.5×6-7 years. Try and get some really good value on him.