Morgan Rielly's future with the Toronto Maple Leafs was already an off-season topic as the 27-year-old defenseman enters the final season of his contract. His contract status will continue to hover over Rielly and the club through 2021-22.
Rielly currently earns an annual average value of $5 million. The Toronto Sun's Steve Simmons recently pointed out young defensemen such as Colorado's Cale Makar, Chicago's Seth Jones, Edmonton Darnell Nurse and Dallas' Miro Heiskanen inked long-term extensions worth well over $8 million annually. Earlier this week, the Toronto Star's Chris Johnston cast doubt expressing doubt on Rielly accepting less than that on his new contract.
Johnston believes it's between Rielly and Dallas' John Klingberg over which one becomes the top defenseman in next summer's unrestricted free agent market. He favorably compared the Leaf blueliner's career point-per-game production (0.53) to that of New Jersey's Dougie Hamilton and Washington's John Carlson over roughly the same period of career games.
Cap Friendly shows the Leafs with over $67.78 million tied up in 14 players for 2022-23. With next season's salary cap expected to rise by only $1 million to $82.5 million, they won't have much room to keep Rielly in the fold when they've also got Jack Campbell and Rasmus Sandin to re-sign.
Johnston speculates Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas could take several approaches. He could sign Rielly now and deal with the salary-cap headache later, he could take a wait-and-see approach to the season, or treat the big-minute blueliner as an “own rental” and let him walk next summer.
The Leafs' performance this season could also determine Rielly's fate. Another first-round playoff exit could result in big changes, including bidding farewell to their best defenseman.