Toronto Maple Leafs: Can the team afford a Morgan Rielly contract extension?

Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

It is no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs salary structure is top-loaded. The team is paying its top four forwards in excess of $40.5 million annually. Another key player is due for a raise on defence.

A new Morgan Rielly contract should be one of the top priorities for Toronto. If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to extend Rielly’s time in Toronto, it likely will come at a premium price tag.

The Leafs have made some moves in the offseason to bolster their depth, but the expiring deal for Rielly hangs over the team. Getting him extended or looking for value in trade is likely at or near the top of General manager Kyle Dubas’ to-do list.

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Extensions for top defensemen have been eye-popping this offseason. After acquiring Seth Jones from Columbus, the Chicago Blackhawks inked the defenseman to an eight-year extension with a cap hit of $9.5 million. The Colorado Avalanche then agreed to a six-year extension with 22-year-old Cale Makar that comes with a $9 million cap hit.

Whether or not the Leafs have to get into that salary range with their best defenseman is debatable but he certainly will command more than his current $5 million average annual value. With that contract, the former number five overall pick would be attractive in a trade to potential suitors.

If the team does not get an extension done before next Summer, they risk losing him for nothing as an unrestricted free agent. Can Toronto figure out a way to make a Morgan Rielly contract extension work? Would it require breaking up the top forwards?

Estimating the price of a Morgan Rielly contract extension

The longest-serving Leafs player is coming up on the final season under the six-year deal he signed in 2016. That contract became a bargain for a player who would eventually don an ‘A’ on his jersey. In many ways, it helped allow the team to sign massive deals for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, while bringing in John Tavares as a free agent.

The Vancouver native is popular in the dressing room and in the stands. The Leafs are not getting a discount on his next deal. It likely will come at a term of at least six years. Toronto may simply be priced out if they maintain that Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and William Nylander are not going anywhere. There is a real debate as to what the Maple Leafs can and should do with Rielly.

James Mirtle and Jonas Siegel of The Athletic broke down some comparable defensemen back in June. Their findings would indicate that the 27-year-old is due roughly 8.86 percent of the cap – which is $7.22 million per year currently. That was before the Jones and Makar signings but anything in their neighbourhood seems very unlikely.

Since signing his current contract in 2016, Rielly is 14th among defensemen in points. The former first-round pick has averaged nearly 22 minutes of ice time per night in his career. He has played as the team’s number one option for years and that alone will ensure a hefty payday. He is not in the realm of Victor Hedman or the elite NHL defenseman but Rielly is a top pair player.

Tight cap and large contracts on books make Morgan Rielly contract difficult

The flat salary cap for this season may still be around in 2022-23 when Rielly is set to hit the market. That is even with a return of fans in the stands and a new TV deal in the US. Commissioner Gary Bettman was clear that the cap would be flat, or increase modestly, for the immediate future when he spoke in March.

"“As part of that the salary cap is basically going to be flat until we recover the overpayments through the escrow that we have build up in both the Return to Play and this season where obviously there is a major escrow building up because of the fact that there’s no attendance and attendance directly and indirectly accounts for roughly half our revenues,” said Bettman to reporters."

Toronto already has nearly $67.8 million on the books in 2022-23 for 14 players. Assuming a modest increase of the salary cap to $82.5 million, there is not much wiggle room to fill out a roster if Rielly is making north of $7 million. There would be no shortage of teams interested in his services if he hits the market, many of whom currently sit in a better financial picture than the Maple Leafs.

These are the kind of inflection points a franchise faces when having a roster so top-heavy in contracts in a hard-cap league. Dubas has to figure out a way to get Rielly signed to a number fair to the player and team, find value in a trade or risk losing him for nothing. That may come from trading someone else on the roster in order to keep Rielly. It is a simple math problem that the Leafs have made complicated.

Toronto Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly
Morgan Rielly #44 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates a goal. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

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What do you think of the Morgan Rielly contract situation? Will the Leafs be able to get him signed or should they look at trades? Let us know in the comments below.