Seemingly out of absolutely nowhere in the middle of a Friday afternoon, the Toronto Maple Leafs Twitter account announced that the Leafs had re-signed Morgan Rielly to an eight-year, $60 million contract with an average annual value of $7.5 million. The suddenness of the move is a bit odd. I mean, you had all summer, and now, seven games into the season, you felt it was time to pull the trigger on a massive deal. It’s not like things have been going swimmingly for the Leafs so far this year, and I get you to want to lock him up before you have to think about potentially trading him. But perhaps we should wait and see if the Leafs end up just not being very good? Maybe by February, it would’ve made sense to move him due to his pending free agent status and the Leafs being out of the playoff hunt. But, I digress, as it’s clear that Dubas is going all-in with this group, and Morgan Rielly is, at the very least, a massive part of the core of this team.
Despite all of what I just said, none of it has anything to do with the actual contract and if it is fair or not. So let’s dive into what Rielly is good at, what he’s bad at and what his contract looks like compared to his peers.
If you’ve paid any attention to the Leafs or Morgan Rielly the last nine seasons, you’ll know by now that Rielly is one of the very best offensive defencemen in the league. Since the start of the 2016/17 season, he ranks fifth in the NHL amongst defensemen in even-strength points per 60, and his ability to drive play is undeniable. Over the past three seasons, at five on five, the Leafs have scored 193 goals when Rielly is on ice, which puts him third in the league amongst the players at his position. In addition, 44 is a great skater and is far and away the best puck-moving D-man the Leafs have. He exits and enters the zone at a great rate, whether by passing the puck or skating it himself.
His transition play is fantastic going forward, and he is an expert at helping the Leafs create chances off the rush; the first Leaf goal against the Blackhawks Wednesday is a perfect example.
Rielly turns a harmless three-on-three into an odd-man rush for the Leafs and opens up a passing lane for Marner, who finds Tavares, who finishes it off.
His offensive ability alone makes Rielly immensely valuable in today’s NHL. Specifically relating to the Leafs, he does things offensively that other defencemen on the team simply cannot do. So, from that perspective, the contract makes a ton of sense. Dubas has consistently stated his belief in this group, and his dealings in various offseasons have shown that he wants to make it work with this nucleus.
Finally, it has to be said how important Rielly is in the dressing room and as a leader for this team. The guys obviously love him, and he’s the longest-serving Leaf on the team, which means something.
Say what you want on if he should’ve been given this deal by Toronto, but undoubtedly would’ve gotten at least $8 million on the open market and likely more. Instead, he took a discount to stay in the only city he’s ever played professional hockey in, something that others on this team didn’t do. He deserves plaudits for that.
Now, the weak side of Rielly’s game is his work in the defensive zone, and boy, is it weak. Last season he ranked last amongst Leaf defencemen in expected goals against and scoring chances against despite playing with T.J. Brodie. His whole career, he and his D partner have been caved in their own zone, yet still, Rielly is so good offensively he’s consistently maintained a positive xGF share. He doesn’t kill penalties, thankfully for our eyes, he doesn’t defend against top lines, and when the Leafs are protecting a lead late in the third period, Rielly isn’t usually the guy that Sheldon Keefe calls on to be out there. He just cannot be relied on defensively, and for a guy who is considered your number one D-man, that’s not ideal.
The worry about the contract is the term because typically, as you age, the first thing that goes is your legs and quickness. There are very few defencemen in their late thirties who drive play offensively because they just physically can’t continuously jump in the rush and be active in the offensive zone while also maintaining their defensive responsibilities. Rielly already struggles to keep his defensive responsibilities, and it’s only going to worsen as he gets older. Once his offensive powers dwindle, he’s going to become a human turnstile who gets paid $7.5 million a year. The hope for the Leafs is that Rielly doesn’t start to suck until at least year seven or eight of his contract, at which point the no-movement clause expires, and the Leafs can trade him off.
The deal looks phenomenal in comparison to Rielly’s peers. The best example of this is Darnell Nurse; the Oilers defencemen signed for $9.25 million annually for eight years this offseason. Nurse and Rielly are practically the same players other than the fact Nurse is a year younger.
They’re both talented offensively but have shortcomings defensively, and without getting into a detailed analysis comparing the two, I’d say it’s more than fair to assume that Rielly could’ve gotten what Nurse got if he went to free agency. Yet, he’ll be making $1.75 million less over the next eight seasons.
In conclusion, the Leafs are in a challenging situation, this much we know. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket, and now they don’t have any flexibility, but this contract, in a vacuum, is a good move by Dubas. Yes, Rasmus Sandin looks like he’s going to be really good, but at the same time, Jake Muzzin looks like he will be really bad by the end of his contract, and probably sooner. You kept Rielly at a rational number without having to move anyone out yet. If Rielly can get back to anyone near to the level he played at in 2018/19, the deal could end up being one of the biggest bargains in the league.
Of course, there is also the emotional side of this, which cannot be ignored when you’re a fan of the team. If the Leafs ever win a cup, I’d want Rielly to be there while they do it. He represents the Leafs’ performance over the past decade so well, and he’s been through all of the bad times and the few good times while he’s seen teammate after teammate and friend after friend walk out the door.
No matter how the Morgan Rielly and Toronto Maple Leaf story ends, I’m thankful that for now, it’s going to continue.