On Friday morning, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they have locked up Morgan Rielly to an eight-year extension that carries a $7.5 million annual average cap hit (taking Rielly past his 36th birthday).

The Leafs have given Rielly a full-no movement clause that is effective immediately and also includes a modified No Trade (10-team list) in the final two years:

This answers one of the many questions hanging over the team at the moment and ensures that a good player won’t be walking for free in July 2022, as Zach Hyman did last summer.

There are a number of first impressions on the deal that came to mind. They break down accordingly:

  • Morgan Rielly most likely took a little less money compared to what he would have got on the open market. Last summer alone, Seth Jones signed an extension with a cap hit of $9.5 million, Zach Werenski signed for just over that same $9.5 million figure, Dougie Hamilton signed for $9 million, Charlie McAvoy signed for $9.5 million, Darnell Nurse signed for $9.25 million, Cale Makar signed for $9 million, and Miro Heiskanen signed for $8.45 million. Now, all those defensemen are either better, younger, or both. Some veteran defensemen that signed bigger deals recently include Torey Krug at $6.5 million, Alex Pietrangelo at $8.8 million, and Jared Spurgeon for $7.5 million.
  • While Rielly has endeared himself to the market with strong playoff showings (as the rest of the core has generally struggled) and is one of the true voices of reason on the team, the fundamental question is what is he as a player.
  • Rielly has generally led the team in minutes played but is not their primary/preferred option to handle the toughest matchups and there is little evidence that he would be successful in that type of role. For the sake of boiling it down, he’s really been a second-pairing defenseman that can handle big minutes and is a power-play quarterback. That’s a lot of money to pay for eight seasons for that type of role regardless of any playoff success, leadership/character, etc. The price of business means any max-term contract is going to age poorly for a pending UFA, but this one could take a real turn, especially if someone (like Rasmus Sandin) legitimately starts eating power-play one time in any of the coming seasons.
  • With this deal, Kyle Dubas locks in another core player at a big number. For the next two seasons, the Leafs are going to have over $58 million tied up in just Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, and Jake Muzzin. In a flat-cap world, that’s going to leave somewhere around $25 million for eight other forwards, three other defensemen, and a goalie just to ice a starting roster — let alone a backup goalie and some spare players. Unless they have a number of players breakthrough on entry-level contracts, they can’t possibly build any real depth and this is a roster that already lacks depth.
  • Rielly is 19th in points per game among defensemen the last three seasons and 30th in raw points, 31st in even-strength points (Jake Muzzin is actually 21st). That kind of production is going to get you paid. He’s a legitimately productive defenseman that drives offense and is also used as such (he just came off his highest percentage of offensive zone starts at even strength in his career last year). Whether the Leafs should be investing heavy dollars into an offensive defenseman is probably the real question.

In the offseason, Dubas said the following about his core:

“For better or worse, I believe in this group and I believe that they are going to get it done and I believe that they’re going to win. I understand that comes with certain doubt because of the fact that we have not broken through in the playoffs, but it’s my belief that they will.

I believe in them as players, I believe in them as people, and I know that decision lies on me and what the risk is for me. We’re going ahead that way. So, I’m comfortable with it. I believe that we’re going to see the best version of this group next season that we’ve seen yet and I’m willing to bet everything on that.”

This is a further move to quadruple down on the core. Dubas is beyond all in on them at this point, and now we wait to see if they will one day reward him for his unconditional love and belief.