Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly has spent his entire career with the organization, but it’s not out of the question that the partnership could come to a close.
Having played 572 games for the Leafs over eight seasons, Rielly has put up 59 goals and 246 assists in Toronto for a total of 305 points.
From an offensive standpoint, Rielly’s production in Toronto has consistently been among the league’s best. His 20-goal, 52-assist season in 2018-19 saw him finish fifth in the Norris Trophy voting as one of the NHL’s top defencemen.
But it’s no secret that there are a number of flaws in Rielly’s game, as he’s never really developed into a true top-pairing two-way player.
As the only member of the Leafs who’s been around the organization since the infamous 2013 Game 7 collapse against Boston, Rielly’s time in Toronto has yet to see any sort of true level of team postseason success.
If the Leafs were looking to cut ties, it wouldn’t be all that hard to either trade Rielly mid-season or simply let him walk in free agency come next summer.
Here are a few reasons why 2021-22 could be the last ride for Morgan Rielly in Toronto.
1. It’s the last year of his contract
Back in 2016, Morgan Rielly signed a six-year contract extension worth an even $5 million per season. Fast-forward five years later, and Rielly has plenty of individual accolades to show for it, as it’s been a good value contract for a staple of the Leafs’ blueline.
From the first game he played under his new deal on October 12, 2016 (coincidentally Auston Matthews’ infamous four-goal NHL debut), Rielly is the only defenceman who still remains with the Leafs, having played 110 games more than any Leaf d-man in that timeframe.
Rielly also has five years of playoff heartbreak to go along with it, with first-round playoff losses to Montreal, Columbus, Boston (twice), and Washington mounting up over the years.
Rielly’s playoff performances haven’t been abysmal from a statistical standpoint, as he’s put up 19 points in his 32 playoff games. At even strength, he’s been on the ice for 23 goals for and 21 against in his playoff career, a more than adequate performance for someone who’s often going up against other teams’ top lines.
But Rielly (along with the rest of the Leafs’ core) still hasn’t done enough to get Toronto over the hump of winning a playoff round.
Publicly, both Rielly and the team would always say they’d love him to sign in Toronto long-term. But the reality is that unless Toronto goes on a deep playoff run this season, six consecutive postseason disappointments would be hard to fathom for any player.
2. Fit with the Leafs’ future
There’s certainly a case to be made that the Leafs might be better off using potential money they could spend on a contract for Rielly elsewhere on the depth chart.
Rielly, who averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time last season, will be looking for a long-term deal to be paid as a top-pairing defenceman.
New Jersey’s Dougie Hamilton signing for $9 million per season or Edmonton’s Darnell Nurse signing for $9.5 million per year highlights the upper echelon of players that Rielly would likely want to see his contract be in the realm of.
Last season, Rielly was remarkably on for 920 shot attempts for at even strength… and 920 shot attempts against as well.
Any offensive contributions he brings to the table are mostly cancelled out due to his weak defensive play. It’s been a consistent theme throughout his career — over his last five seasons, Rielly’s corsi-for percentage — a measure used to provide a proxy for puck possession — has hovered between 50% and 51% each season. On a whole, everything sort of ends up evening out in the long run.
Rielly did pot 20 goals in 2018-19, but that largely looked like an outlier rather than the norm.
Under this contract, he’s yet to hit more than six goals in a single season outside of his Norris-contender year.
This isn’t to say Rielly is a bad NHL player by any means, just a flawed one. And if the Leafs don’t find a contract number that’s in their best interests to keep Rielly around long-term, they could simply look for alternative options internally and externally to fill out a top-pairing role.
3. Rielly’s age and potential for decline
Morgan Rielly is set to be 28 years old at the end of this season. In a former era of the NHL, that might seem like the perfect age for a defenceman to hit his prime and sign a big deal. But more than a few cautionary tales have come up recently about fleet-footed rearguards who have failed to age well.
Cases like San Jose’s Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Chicago’s Brent Seabrook, Montreal’s Shea Weber, and even Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty are all great examples of players who have failed to age well later in their careers, dealing with various injury issues as well as an overarching general fatigue after playing many seasons in the NHL.
For a skater like Rielly, who relies so much on his offensive game to bring value to the club, it’s worrisome to imagine what his already weak defensive abilities might be like five or six years from now. For that reason alone, it might be a wise move for Toronto to either look for a mid-season trade partner or simply give Rielly a “thanks, but no thanks” offer come next offseason.