Why trading Rielly makes sense for the Leafs
It’s well known that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a need for a top pairing right shot defenceman and that they will be looking to sign 30 year old Alex Pietrangelo if he hits the open market.
In order for Toronto to do that, they would need to shed some salary to make room for the cap hit that Pietrangelo would demand. The hypothetical solutions fans and insiders throw around usually include trading the aforementioned Nylander, Kerfoot and Johnsson.
Nylander has always been the scapegoat for fans and insiders as his nearly $7,000,000 cap hit would create more than enough room for the Leafs to present a sizable offer to the stud UFA defenceman, but I believe moving Rielly would prove more beneficial for the franchise in the long run.
Toronto’s biggest strength over the last four seasons has been without a doubt their offence. Thanks to their young core of forwards and the addition of John Tavares, they finished second to Tampa Bay in 2020 in goals for. However, when their offence fails to get going, they struggle to keep the puck out of their own end. In the 2020 season, they finished 25th in goals against after finishing 20th in the same category the season before.
I have always believed that if the Leafs were to attempt to fix their defensive issues, they should look to do so without taking away from their biggest strength, in this case being their offense. It doesn’t make sense to me to move on from a player as young as Nylander when he’s only starting to show his potential. This year alone, he managed 31 goals in 68 games this past season. The Leafs have many options when it comes to quick puck-moving defenceman that could benefit from the extra ice time that would be open in Rielly’s absence.
Looking at what Toronto’s defence would look like without Rielly, not listed in any particular order, it would leave them with Jake Muzzin, Rasmus Sandin, Justin Holl, Mikko Lehtonen, Timothy Liljegren and Martin Marincin all under contract for at least one year along with Travis Dermott who is currently a restricted free agent.
Lehtonen is one player that stands out to me as someone who has the potential to make an immediate impact next season, and could be a legitimate option to step into that top four role within the next two years. He’s the same age as Rielly and might end up being an option on the Leafs top power-play unit as his work with Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL has been turning heads rather quickly. His offensive ability could be a massive gain for the Maple Leafs and definitely has the potential to be able to fill the hole that Rielly would leave if a trade were to occur.
Toronto also has Muzzin on the left side along with the highly touted Sandin, who will more than likely be a full-time Leaf come next season. There isn’t a ton of ice time to go around on Toronto’s left side at the moment and unless something changes, they’ll have to play one of those defencemen on the right side assuming they make the 2021 opening lineup. I think it would be a real missed opportunity for newer Leafs such as Sandin and Lehtonen to be deprived of minutes that they have shown they are both capable of playing.
The last and biggest reason I think the Leafs should look to move Rielly is the cap room it would create for them to really push for Alex Pietrangelo. It would be a no-brainer to me seeing as they would get a sizable upgrade on defence in Pietrangelo while adding strong futures in the form of picks and or prospects to their pool going forward.
The return Toronto would get for trading Rielly coupled with the possibility of signing Pietrangelo would be a huge splash come Friday for Dubas and the Leafs.
However, with that being a move I think the Leafs should consider in the coming days, it’s also the biggest cause for concern when considering this hypothetical.