The Toronto Maple Leafs are at a crossroads on many fronts this season. As a group, they’ve got to shake off their humiliating first-round playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens last year. As a financial unit, they’re under a salary-cap crunch that likely won’t subside in the immediate seasons after this one. And as individuals, they have four key players – forwards Ilya Mikheyev and Jason Spezza, goalie Jack Campbell, and blueliner Morgan Rielly – who will be unrestricted free agents next summer.
Of those four, Campbell and Rielly are the biggest pieces of the Leafs’ future. But because the cap isn’t going to rise far beyond the $82 million ceiling anytime soon, it’s possible Toronto will be without them for the 2022-23 campaign. The Leafs have covered their bases when it comes to goaltending and Campbell by signing veteran Petr Mrazek to a three-year, $11.4 million contract. When it comes to Rielly, though, there is no adequate replacement for the calm and skill he brings.
Rielly led all Leafs in ice time last season with an average of 23:36 per game, and was Toronto’s top point-producing defenseman, generating 25 assists and 30 points in 55 games. In his eight years as a Leaf, Rielly has grown into a dependable, all-around performer. He set career highs in assists (52) and points (72) in 2018-19, and he is in his prime. He’s been earning $5 million per season in each of the past five years, and he’ll likely get the biggest contract of his entire career when he makes it to market next year.
Losing Rielly via unrestricted free agency would be a notable blemish on Leafs GM Kyle Dubas’ scorecard. Rielly will likely be looking for something in the area of $9 million per season, and that’s probably too rich for Toronto. If he cannot re-sign Rielly, he has to move him before the trade deadline. But two Leafs’ youngsters could make Dubas’ decision much easier: if blueliners Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liligren thrive this year, Leafs’ brass can allow Rielly to move on, and possibly get prospects to bolster them over the long term.
Neither Liligren nor Sandin have earned raves at Leafs’ training camp this year, but both of them have the tools to succeed. If they can turn up the pressure on Toronto’s defense corps, head coach Sheldon Keefe won’t need to lean so heavily on Rielly (especially in an Olympic year that could see Rielly represent Canada). And, just as importantly, if Sandin and Liligren meet or surpass expectations, Dubas wouldn’t have to spend the little cap room he has on a D-man next year. He’d have a full slate of six blueliners under contract, and could use Rielly’s cap space to deepen his collection of forwards.
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It should go without saying that the ideal scenario for Dubas and Rielly is a contract extension at a reasonable price. But Dubas has shown he’s willing to walk away from a key cog’s future if they price themselves out of his range. Just look at what happened to winger Zach Hyman; the Leafs knew they weren’t going to pay Hyman at least $5 million per season, but some team would – and sure enough, that team was the Edmonton Oilers. Similarly, there would be no shortage of suitors for Rielly. But allowing him to move on, without getting anything in return, is a different animal altogether. Veteran Leafs D-men Jake Muzzin, T.J. Brodie and Justin Holl could eat up some of the minutes in the wake of a Rielly departure, but no one could replace Rielly’s skill set.
This is why it’s so important for Sandin and Liligren to solidify their spot on Toronto’s back end. If both of them raise their games at the NHL level, they (a) allow Dubas to make a deal involving D-man Travis Dermott; and (b) ease the pressure on Muzzin, Brodie, and Holl. But it’s the effect on Rielly’s situation that would matter most. Their development would be something Dubas can hold up to Leafs’ fans and say, “Yes, we had to move our most-utilized blueliner, but look at these two kids! Sandin is 21, and Liligren is 22! We’ll have them in Blue and White for a decade!”
Liligren and Sandin have been in the Leafs’ organization long enough to understand the big picture. An injury or two may well force Keefe to use both of them. If they can excel, they know their contractual status makes them more appealing for Dubas and his grand plan. Liligren may start the year with the American League’s Toronto Marlies, but he should be determined to be the first call-up. Sandin is more likely to start the season in the NHL, but he also should be determined to improve on the 14:09 he averaged in nine games with the Leafs last year.
Keefe and Dubas will happily make room for the two Swedish D-men, but they aren’t simply going to hand Sandin and Liligren the jobs. They need to push and push some more and force Leafs’ fans to confront the likelihood this is Rielly’s final year in Toronto. It doesn’t have to be as bleak as it sounds, but moving Rielly may be inevitable. The more talent that steps up behind Rielly, the easier it is to move on from him.