The NHL season is a month away, Chris Johnston has a new job at the Star, and he got it going with a piece on Morgan Rielly.

Opinion | Has the new defence market created a salary bridge too wide for the Maple Leafs and Morgan Rielly to overcome?

That’s a very good question he poses, and he answers it with some discussion of the kinds of contracts other top defenders have gotten, and he touches on the tight cap space all teams are facing. He suggests that the Leafs have shown a willingness with Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen to treat expiring UFAs as “own rentals” while letting them play out their contracts.

But what he doesn’t get into, and what most people like to leave out of the conversation when they talk about this question of retain or extend is this: If you let them go, then what?

The reason the Hyman situation was so difficult for the Leafs, when it seemed patently obvious they were never going to be able to retain him, was that their “and then what” answer is pretty weak. There was no chance at all they could replace the value of Hyman on the ice for the cap hit they could afford. They chose to add a surfeit of fringe top-six wingers instead, in the hopes that one shakes out who can fake it well enough with one of the best centres in the NHL. That really was their best choice overall, even if it’s a less than joyful roster to gaze upon right now.

Frederik Andersen was an easier equation. They found someone for less who might be better, and at worst, won’t be a lot worse (we hope).

The argument against extending Rielly is that he would need big term and big AAV to not be tempted by other offers, and he’s already so weak defensively that his offensive value isn’t wouldn’t worth it now, far less far in the future. To hear this entire argument made better than I’m going to do, go here:

Back to Excited Episode 153: Questions Facing the Leafs

I agree with all of this line of thinking. Rielly would need to get eight years to get the AAV down to the $8 million range, and that is, by the way, exactly the deal the Evolving Hockey contract predictor has for him if he signs with the Leafs now. Eight by eight is a terrible deal for a player so flawed, and it’s not a surprise that Kyle Dubas has already started mentioning Colton Parayko and Torey Krug — five by $5.5 (this should be 8 by $6.5) and seven by $6.5 — as the comparables he sees.

Wouldn’t we all like that better? The Parayko situation is a special case, since his results have been poor at a very bad time to negotiate, and he might have thought less term was in his best interests, but Rielly is never going to get more than he’ll get next summer as a UFA, so it really does seem like a no-brainer to just throw a teary party when he’s done, and then what?

That’s why the Rielly problem is more like the Justin Holl situation than the Hyman one. Someone has to play those minutes, and the Leafs defensive depth is not that inspiring right at the moment. And just like with Holl, the UFA market isn’t going to come with cheaper options.  If the defender prices have gone up for big minutes/big points UFAs, then the price for lesser defenders will have gone up too. And the trade price for a player on an older bargain contract will also have risen.

The alternative to extending Rielly has to exist as more than a hypothetical you use to win an argument. The Leafs can’t actually play a huffily said, “I don’t know who, but there’s someone out there,” 20 minutes a game.

To believe in an in-house solution, you have to bet it all on one of Travis Dermott (26 in 2022), Rasmus Sandin (22) or Timothy Liljegren (23) as a genuine top pair defender in the NHL. That’s a gamble that demands major growth from whoever you bet on, and that’s far from a sure thing. Also not very plausible is picking a random third pairing guy with good stats and declaring him ready for the top four. Someone else’s Dermott in other words.

Waving goodbye to Rielly is not a big bonanza of new cap space to spend because you can’t suddenly pivot to forward upgrades with that money unless you do believe in one of those three on defence. So, what can you get for $5 million on the back end?

Active NHL defenders sorted by points per game in 2020-2021 with a cap hit of $3.75 million to $5 million in that season:

  • Tyson Barrie
  • Jakob Chychrun
  • John Klingberg (UFA in 2022 as well)
  • Sam Girard
  • Morgan Rielly
  • Alec Martinez (signed for three by $5.25 at age 34 this summer)
  • Charlie McAvoy (UFA in 2022 as well)
  • Justin Schultz
  • Devon Toews
  • Zach Werenski (signed for six by $9.5)
  • Matt Grzelcyk
  • Mikhail Sergachev (signed to a Tampa-sized bridge deal)
  • Shayne Gostisbehere
  • Mattias Ekholm
  • Will Butcher (UFA in 2022 as well)
  • Brett Pesce
  • Jonas Brodin (signed to a team-friendly 7 by $6 million)/

The Leafs could get Butcher, but they’d likely have to overpay him. If they did take a chance on him, given his recent results, he’d be cheaper than extending Rielly, but that’s about the best I can say about him. Trading for someone still under contract comes with costs, and the prospect cupboard is getting bare, and the pick pile is even thinner.

Phil Kessel is also a UFA next summer which means, along with a $1 million increase in the cap ceiling, the Leafs would have $7.2 million to get another defenceman and whatever else they need. The only other meaningful UFA is Jack Campbell, and it feels like the situation with him and Petr Mrazek will come down to only one comes back. But that’s not enough to add a defender and also add another goalie of some kind and also improve at forward.

Remember Lou’s line about how you can’t improve one place by digging a hole somewhere else.

Right now, it’s very hard to like either option to solve the Rielly problem.

The question isn’t just should the Leafs stick with Rielly, but can they afford to replace him. I just looked at points, but maybe the right path is to find someone with a flip of Rielly’s skills, and just get a defender who defends well and whose offence is not in the stellar realms Rielly inhabits. Another Muzzin/Brodie, in other words. That’s also easier to say than to do, considering the cost and the years it took to find them. But this is the real issue the Leafs have to grapple with — who are they? What kind of player do they want, and what can they afford? Also, just to make this harder — does Rielly take up the offensive slack necessary to cheap out on top six wingers?

The scary thing is, the Leafs can rearrange their depth chairs (on the Titanic) and pay Rielly eight by eight. The scarier thing is they might decide they have no other viable choice.

Oh, and in the offseason management shuffle, new hire Eric Joyce is in charge of pro scouting and as of now, he has a staff of three pro scouts. No pressure on finding a way out of this little problem languishing on some other team.

Whatever the Leafs do, the longer you look at this, the more obvious it is they should not decide anything now.