Between Sportsnet and TSN us Leafs fans are put through constant worry about our cap situation. Well, allow this article to maybe act as a calm amidst the storm we’re currently in (Leafs and life related).
Today, I’d like to take some time to talk about Morgan Rielly. What specifically about him? Well, the new contract he’ll be needing in two years. I know there are lots of variables and uncertainty at the moment with the NHL salary cap, but there are a few tools and comparisons that we can use to help us determine what a fair cost for Rielly would be. Things to consider are the salary cap, his age, team situation, and his comps.
But before we do that I think it’s important to review just how good Rielly has been for the Leafs over the last three seasons (17/18 – 19/20).
It’s no secret that Rielly struggled this season. He never really looked right out there and admitted to playing injured earlier in the year. Also, Connor McDavid breaking his ankles back in January didn’t help his confidence. And if that wasn’t enough, he broke his foot in a game against the Florida Panthers a couple of weeks after and missed eight weeks. He didn’t score in his only game back before the NHL shut down, but he did look more like himself rushing the puck up ice.
Either way, Rielly and this entire Leafs team had an extremely weird season. I like breaking the season into three blocks. The first 23 games under Babcock (9-10-4), the first 20 games under Sheldon Keefe (15-4-1) and the injury-riddled mess that occurred from January 6th until the stoppage (12-11-4)
A large portion of Rielly’s reduced offensive production this year is because of the Leafs’ PP being bad to start the year. And then being relegated to PP2 in Keefe’s effort to rebuild Tyson Barrie’s confidence.
I wouldn’t read into Rielly’s 19/20 season too much. It’s well documented what the 26-year-old defender is when he’s healthy and playing at his best. A lethal offensive puck rushing Dman that pushes back defenders and makes dangerous passes, but struggles defensively at times. He’s the Maple Leafs’ best offensive weapon on the blue line and probably second best defender overall next to Jake Muzzin. Although, that’s just my opinion.
Over the last three seasons (17/18 – 19/20) this is how Rielly stacks up against other defenders in the NHL in terms of just simple counting stats.
There are two very important players on this list other than Rielly who we’re gonna touch on a bit later, but not too shabby for our homegrown boy.
So having said all of that, what’s a fair contract for Rielly? Well, he’ll be eligible to sign an extension as early as July 1st, 2021, and be 28 years old when it kicks in. I’d suspect the Leafs will look to pounce on the opportunity to get that deal done as soon as possible. If not that offseason then during the 2021-2022 season for sure. It’s one of the things I like about Kyle Dubas, he does housekeeping year-round. Just like they did with Muzzin before this year’s trade deadline.
In this hypothetical scenario, I am going to be operating under the assumption the salary cap holds at $81.5M for a few years. I’m not saying it will or won’t but just for the sake of this article lets compromise for now.
Using information from Puckpedia, we can establish a healthy range for Rielly based on the most recent signings for defencemen.
So, from looking at the recent contacts and considering signing age, we can safely say Rielly will fall between Jared Spurgeon ($7.575M) and Roman Josi ($9.059M). Closer to Spurgeon, though.
Taking the lower end of that range and considering signing age (Rielly will be 28 years old when he is due for an extension) we can narrow down that range and place Rielly somewhere between Spurgeon and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (OEL). Ryan Ellis’ deal with the Predators from the summer of 2018 is probably one of the more team-friendly deals in the NHL and would be an outlier to us in this situation. Now our range is between $7.575M to $8.25M. But we need to convert those amounts to match the percentage of the cap hit. Spurgeon at 9.29% and OEL at 10.38% of an $81.5M salary cap would create a range of $7.57M to $8.46M for Rielly.
Next, I think it’d be beneficial to take a look at the contracts of both Spurgeon and OEL. OEL has a full no-movement clause (NMC) throughout his whole deal, but Spurgeon does not and it’s also worth noting their bonus structure.
Spurgeon (Provided by Puckpedia)^
OEL (Provided by Puckpedia)^
Both players will receive relatively small amounts of their total dollars coming from signing bonuses. As we know, front-loading deals have been the style of the Leafs as of late with several players including Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander receiving the bulk of their money within the first three seasons. The idea is that more money upfront gets you a better deal in the long term. But it also makes players easier to trade later on, but I suspect Rielly will be given a full NMC throughout his deal. Even players like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson got this structure, both getting about 65% of their deals in signing bonuses compared to Spurgeon at about 15% and OEL at 14%.
No idea exactly how Rielly’s deal will be structured, but chances are he does receive a higher bonus structure than Spurgeon and OEL, which favours the Leafs in regards to Rielly’s eventual AAV.
I don’t know how comfortable I am or the Leafs would be with having Morgan Rielly on an eight-year deal, though. Eight years would take him until he’s 36 years old with his birthday being in March. Taking a look around the NHL there are not too many defencemen playing at that age, never mind players worth the money Rielly would command.
Defensemen who are 35+ years old in the NHL sorted by Cap hit. (Provided by Puckpedia) ^
There may be four or five guys on this list who are relatively still worth their contract. I’ll let you decide who they are for yourself.
This is why I was such a fan of the John Tavares contract when it was first signed. Tavares’ seven-year mega-deal will expire when he’s 33 going on 34 because of his September birthday. Much different than a hypothetical eight-year deal for Rielly, who would be 36 at the end of it. I’d be much more comfortable with a six-year deal, but that might not be possible in terms of the increase in AAV that would cost.
My proposed contract for Morgan Rielly would be $46.5M/6 = $7.75M a season. This would, of course, include a full NMC and a front-loaded bonus structure. A $7.75M cap hit might be too much for the cash strapped Leafs to handle in this economy, though. So, more realistically I think the deal ends up being closer to $52.5M/7 = $7.5M a season. If an eight-year deal would get him down closer to $7M a season, then I’d at least consider it. My reasoning is because you’re hoping to win at least one if not two or three Stanley Cups by the end of this hypothetical contract. And at that point, I don’t care if Rielly is old and an eyesore on the Leafs’ Salary Cap page.
But getting back to the players I mentioned we’d explore later on in this Article from this table
Barrie and Torey Krug. Two offensive-minded defenders, who are within the same territory as Rielly over the last three seasons. Both are set to be free agents this summer and would probably be better comparables for Rielly’s next contract than Spurgeon and OEL because of the timing of their deals. They’d both be signed in the post or current COVID era of the world.
If you want my opinion, I think Babcock’s plan from the start of this season was to expose Barrie and lay the blame for him not working out on Dubas because Barrie wasn’t the player Babcock wanted. That’s a total power move, and I respect it, but probably not the best idea when you’re trying to win hockey games. And expose Barrie he did, as it’s very clear he 100% needs to be sheltered heavily at 5 on 5 and spoon-fed PP time to be effective and that’s fine. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and Barrie is gifted offensively but struggles away from that. I think it’s very clear that Rielly is better than Barrie and Barrie’s eventual new deal will be lower than most people expect. Kinda like Kevin Shattenkirk’s deal with the Rangers a few seasons ago. So, I’d pay more attention to the contract Krug eventually signs this offseason.
Also, it’s worth noting that out of all the Maple Leafs I just have a gut feeling Rielly will be the one who takes a discount. I can’t justify the feeling, but it’s there. When the Leafs were deciding who they were going to name a captain this past September, Rielly was my second choice behind Tavares. Being the captain of the Maple Leafs means something, but leadership is done by committee. And Rielly is part of the Leafs’ leadership group. Rielly being drafted and with the organization since 2012 and being a huge part of the core for years, I just feel like Rielly understands what we’ve been through. I guess what I am saying is that I don’t think he will do us dirty. Being a sports fan is weird sometimes. Thanks for reading!