Ever since Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and later John Tavares signed big contracts, the Leafs have watched talented players leave the organization each offseason. Most recently, Zach Hyman and Frederick Andersen left for Edmonton and Carolina respectively. The year before that Tyson Barrie packed his bags for the Oilers as well. Jake Gardiner left a few years ago, and even before him the Leafs lost Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. Some of these players left before the big contracts were handed out to the Core Four, but all those players were lost because the Toronto Maple Leafs ultimately knew they couldn’t afford to keep them without giving up on Toronto’s four stars.
The problem that the Leafs have run into as they watched all that talent walk away, is that they have yet to win anything. They’ve made it to Game 7 a couple of times and been the favorites to win a couple more, but they have never left the first round of the playoffs with the current core of the team. They’ve traded draft picks to bring in help at the deadline, or to get rid of overpaid players like Patrick Marleau, but time and time again they lost assets with nothing to show for it. The bleeding had to stop.
Eight. Mo. Years.#LeafForever— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) October 29, 2021
By signing Morgan Rielly, the longest serving Toronto Maple Leaf and rightful captain if you ask me, the Leafs have signaled that they are no longer willing to let talent walk for nothing. They have removed a story the media would have eaten up as the playoffs approached; the Leafs can’t afford to lose in the first round and then watch Rielly walk. It’s a move that strengthens the stability of this team that is still quite fragile. And it’s an amazing deal. Rielly is signed for 8 years at $7.5 million per season, which he likely would have eclipsed on the open market. The longest serving Leaf, the rightful captain of the team, takes a hometown discount when nobody else would.
Not all problems are solved with Rielly signing, though. In fact, some are created. The Leafs are currently paying Rielly $5 million per season. This is a flat-cap league and the Leafs are hard against it. Someone must go to make room. The obvious answers are that Nick Ritchie likely goes if he doesn’t drastically improve. Justin Holl could be out if we can get some growth from Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Alex Kerfoot could go if Nick Robertson is ready to make the leap. There’s room to fit this contract in, but the thing fans have been begging for is a shakeup of the Core Four. What does that even look like?
Well, Matthews is staying, and so should Nylander on his now incredible deal. John Tavares is the captain and has a No Movement Clause, so he’s staying put if he wants to. That leaves Mitch Marner, but players like him don’t grow on trees. He’s an elite talent that you don’t just replace.
In the end, the Leafs had to sign Rielly. They had to give the fans of this team something positive to chew on right now. They made the right move, but the question that now presents itself is whether they will make the right moves to make that contract fit. All I know is that if the Leafs get bounced in the first round again, there’s likely to be a lot more cap space available than there is right now.