Morgan Rielly (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
With captain and veteran defenseman Dion Phaneuf shipped out to Ottawa, the Maple Leafs' blueline unquestionably belongs to Rielly. He's a pending restricted free agent and is in line to score a very nice payday.
Maple Leafs fans probably got a chuckle out of Dion Phaneuf's debut struggles with Ottawa last night, watching the veteran blow a tire on a Gustav Nyquist rush and then getting ventilated by Henrik Zetterberg for a goal, but there are more pressing matters in Toronto.
For example, locking down Morgan Rielly for the long-term.
Rielly has quickly become Toronto's cornerstone for the future and is already one of the best players in the present. The third-year defenseman is on pace for new highs in points and shots on net, while playing top minutes with one of the toughest quality of competition marks on the team (alongside partner Matt Hunwick).
And there is ample reason to believe that the youngster will only get better. Rielly has always been a gifted skater and that's the No. 1 attribute for a defenseman in today's game. With more experience, more strength training and more guidance from coach Mike Babcock, next year will see Rielly continue to ascend in Toronto.
So now it's time to pay him.
Rielly is in a near-perfect situation right now, as it's obvious the team will build around him on the blueline – many of Toronto's best prospects right now are forwards such as William Nylander and Mitch Marner, though Travis Dermott is already looking like a pretty good defenseman in Erie.
But GM Lou Lamoriello isn't naive, either. I don't suspect we'll see Rielly get a blockbuster contract just yet, but as with Seth Jones, the Dougie Hamilton deal seems like a good starting place. Hamilton's average cap hit is $5.75 million and runs for six years. Now, maybe Rielly doesn't make quite as much as the Calgary Flames rearguard, but it's a decent comparable based on the market. I'm thinking that the range for Rielly is $4.5 million on the low end and $6 million on the high end.
I don't believe he'll go for the maximum eight years, for the simple reason that those unrestricted free agent seasons are so valuable and Rielly still has potential to unlock. Add on to that the current economic situation in the NHL, where it doesn't appear that the cap will go up much in the next year or two, and patience may be key for the Maple Leafs blueliner.
What I'm getting at is that a five- or six-year pact would give Rielly the chance to evolve into an elite defenseman, thus giving him the chance to cash in again when he's 27 at a much higher rate (while allowing the Leafs to "buy" a couple of his UFA years from him). By that time, the cap could be a lot higher (clearly I'm speculating here) and the Maple Leafs in the midst of a serious playoff window (again, speculating). So why have yourself locked in at $5.5 million for those years when you could be worth $8.5 million by then?
These are all considerations for both Rielly and the Maple Leafs to factor in, but I feel like the young blueliner's value for the here and now isn't too hard to pin down. Now it's just a matter of when it happens.