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Leafs sign Morgan Rielly to six-year contract worth $5M annually

The Leafs lock up their young starlet on defense to a long term deal.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Under GM Lou Lamiorello, the Leafs have become known as one of the most tight-lipped organizations in the league. The David Clarkson, Dion Phaneuf, and Phil Kessel trades were broken by the team's Twitter account, not any one of the many NHL insiders whose job it is to find these scoops.

So I guess it should be no surprise that the team beat everyone to the punch again on Wednesday, announcing 6 year contracts for defenseman Morgan Rielly and center Nazem Kadri, both of whom were restricted free agents (RFAs). Rielly's contract is worth $5M annually, while Kadri's is worth $4.5M annually, per Bob McKenzie. According to Elliotte Friedman, both have limited no trade protection.

This is a massive vote of confidence from the Leafs front office that they view Rielly as one of the crown jewels of their rebuild. Drafted 5th overall in the defenseman-heavy 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Rielly has wowed fans with his incredible offensive ability, while frustrating them with his frailties on the other end of the ice. Nonetheless, he is almost universally viewed as one of the best young defensemen in the league, and under Mike Babcock, he was used in a difficult role as the Leafs #1 defenceman in terms of playing time and matchups.

In 2015/2016, Rielly recorded career highs in goals, assists, and points. At just 22 years of age, he is likely not yet in his prime, and projects to be a high-end offensive defenseman for years to come. However, last year, Rielly was a negative relative possession player for the first time in his career (-1.61% Rel.CF%, per corsica.hockey), mostly fueled by poor defensive results. Rielly's score adjusted CF.Rel/60, was 2.15, but his score adjusted CA.Rel/60 was nearly 6 - essentially with him on the ice, the Leafs were a little more productive offensively, but far more porous on defense.

His mediocre possession results are in part explained by the difficult role he was placed in by the Leafs - playing the most minutes on a bad team with a subpar partner (Matt Hunwick) against the opponents best players. This can be seen in the graphic below from HockeyViz.com.

Rielly disproportionately faced the top forwards from other teams (indicated by the top right quadrant), and was frequently the most played leafs defenceman (note the red bar on the bottom left quadrant is the largest of its colour in row 1 - this indicates Rielly was most played as the Leafs #1D in terms of TOI).

This is in stark contrast to years prior, where he was comparatively far more sheltered (as would be expected of a young defenceman). 

His results are also hurt from playing with Matt Hunwick for a large portion of the year - his results were notably better when paired with Martin Marincin, with the latter pairing breaking even in terms of possession, according to Puckalytics' Super WOWY (though they are slightly below that 50% mark when adjusting for score).

An underlooked factor that also may have hurt Rielly is the fact that he was often tasked to play as the right-sided defenceman, which is his off side. Research by Domenic Galamini has shown that handedness is a fairly important factor in the success of defense pairings, meaning that Rielly's numbers may have been depressed by this effect. If the Leafs play him with a natural RD like Frank Corrado or the soon to be signed Nikita Zaitsev, we could see a real improvement in his possession numbers.

As for the contract itself, it is a massive show of faith by the Leafs. The safer option would have been to offer Rielly a bridge deal at an AAV lower than $5M that would allow them to obtain more certainty about his true worth. If they wanted to, the Leafs could have played hardball with Rielly, potentially even taking him to arbitration (EDIT: they could not take him to arbitration, as Rielly signed his first SPC under the age of 20 and hasn't yet accrued the four years of service to get arbitration rights under those conditions).

That they didn't is indicative of how strongly they feel about him. Rielly has three years of accrued service already, meaning that four more take him to unrestricted free agency (UFA). This contract therefore acquires two of his UFA years, meaning the AAV is necessarily higher than a deal that would only cover his RFA years.

That said, $5M is a very fair price for a defenceman as young and as good as Rielly. Despite his flaws (which I've discussed at length in other articles), he's undoubtedly a player you can comfortably field in your top 4 defencemen, and his age means he has ridiculous upside. His contract is in line with those received by Ryan McDonagh (6 years, 4.75M AAV, signed before age 24 season), Zach Bogosian (7 years, 5.14M AAV, signed before age 23 season), and John Klingberg (7 years, 4.25M AAV, signed before age 22 season).

Olli Määttä, a fellow 2012 draftee received a similar contract of 6 years at 4.08M AAV (it should be noted that the Finn has had some health scares that Rielly has thus far avoided). While Rielly's AAV is slightly higher than some of these players, as a percentage of the cap when signed, they are quite similar. As a side note, it will be interesting to see how Rielly's contract impacts the other RFA defenceman this year (Hampus Lindholm, Matt Dumba, etc.)

By giving him a long-term contract, the Leafs bear the risk that Rielly's development stagnates and they end up overpaying him. On the other hand, if Rielly's development continues (and the Leafs clearly expect that), they could have locked up a great player at a below market rate. Just as critically, the cap savings realized under the latter scenario are likely to occur 3+ years into this contract (when a theoretical bridge deal would expire), which is when the Leafs plan on being a real contender, and when cap savings are more valuable to the team.

It's a similar bet to the one the Leafs made regarding Jake Gardiner when providing him with a 5 year, $20M contract in the summer of 2014 - a bet that has paid off thus far. If Rielly continues his development, this deal can look just as good.

This is the first move the Shamiorello group has made to actually commit long-term resources and cap space to the future of the team. It's an incredibly vital deal that shows the Leafs are no longer just trying to tear down, but to build up - something that is much harder to do. How this contract is viewed in a couple years will go a long way into determining the success of Toronto's rebuild as a whole.