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Will Toronto walk Morgan Rielly to free agency?


So. Many. Questions.

The Toronto Maple Leafs do one thing better than any other hockey team: keep their fanbase searching for answers.

So it was of little surprise that our first opening of the team’s 2021-22 mailbag summoned an immediate and overwhelming response.

Great variety was found in your queries, so thank you.

Morgan Rielly’s uncertain future, forecasting the opening night lineup plus the Atlantic Division standings, the do-over management wished it had and another round of P.K. Subban trade rumours…

Let’s dive in.

Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner, Tyson Barrie, Zach Hyman, Frederik Andersen… Morgan Rielly?

The go-for-it mindset of the Maple Leafs’ current administration loves itself an “own rental,” letting important players skate out the final year of their contracts with neither extension nor trade.

A reasonable fear bubbling in Leafs Nation — judging by the number of Rielly questions for this column — is that the team’s No. 1 defenceman will seek his dollars elsewhere in July and depart. Yet another asset walking without return.

“Morgan is a huge part of what we do here,” general manager Kyle Dubas said this summer when asked about Rielly’s looming free agency. “Throughout the league (in 2021), there was a lot of going all the way to the end with it, with key players and captains on some great teams.”

Dougie Hamilton, Alex Ovechkin, Gabriel Landeskog and Philipp Grubauer are great examples. Two stayed, two left.

Hamilton, the best D-man of 2021’s UFA class, is represented by J.P. Barry.

Barry is Rielly’s agent, too.

He negotiated Hamilton’s $63-million whopper with the New Jersey Devils this summer, Tyler Myers’ $30-million windfall with the Vancouver Canucks in 2019 and may or may not have salivated when Seth Jones earned his $9.5-million cap hit from the Chicago Blackhawks.

There’s the high bar. Rielly falls under that, but with top defencemen so coveted, the Leaf’s $5-million AAV this season is a steal.

Dubas preaches patience, sometimes to the roster’s detriment. The window to trade Rielly would’ve been at the draft, when Ryan Ellis and Rasmus Ristolainen were fetching nice returns.

So, Dubas doubles down on his belief in the current core, and Rielly stays put for one more season at excellent value.

“I don’t necessarily think we can look at what Chicago, Columbus (with Zach Werenski’s extension) and Edmonton (Darnell Nurse) did and say that we have to follow suit with them,” Dubas told The Bob McCown Podcast.

“We know what our limitations are going to be. We like Morgan a lot, but we’ll keep all the contents of that private between J.P. Barry and myself.”

Unless the Leafs play themselves out of a playoff spot by the deadline, we suspect the whole thing plays out as it did with Hyman.

Team loves the player, the player loves the team. Team can no longer afford the player, the player must set up his family with life-changing money.

Rasmus Sandin, your time feels near.

Tampa Bay Lightning
Boston Bruins
Toronto Maple Leafs
Florida Panthers
Ottawa Senators
Montreal Canadiens
Detroit Red Wings
Buffalo Sabres

Seventeen.

Those passionate Montreal fans (some of whom tracked me down on Facebook to, um, critique my writing) will relish bringing up this prediction if I’m incorrect. But I see the Habs — 18th place in the 2020-21 regular season, remember— taking a step back in 2021-22.

Captain Shea Weber and Phillip Danault are important pieces to subtract. Jonathan Drouin will be quite the X-factor. And it will be a tall order for Tyler Toffoli to finish seventh overall in goal scoring again. I don’t have the 2021 Cup finalists making the dance in 2022.

That said, the NHL is a better league when the Habs are in the race, so I’ll be happy to be wrong.

Take it to the bank, like grandma.

A healthy Matthews has a legit shot to become the first 60-goal scorer in a decade (Steven Stamkos, 2012) and the third of this century.

Over his past 82 regular-season games, Matthews has scored 62 times. His goals per game have increased in each of his five seasons, from 0.49 as a rookie to 0.79 in 2021, when he terrorized the rest of Canada.

Provided recovery from his August wrist surgery goes smoothly, there’s no reason why Rick Vaive’s 54 won’t be downgraded in the franchise record book and 60 (or more) becomes the new standard.

Agreed. That’s typically the formula, Paul. And the two-time defending champs certainly meet all the criteria. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov have each won the ultimate individual trophy for their respective positions. (Brayden Point isn’t a slouch, either.)

As for the Leafs? Well, the “elite forward” category shouldn’t be an issue. They just need to stay healthy — and actually score in the post-season.

No, they won’t dress a proven Vezina candidate. The late-blooming Jack Campbell and the streaky Petr Mrazek will battle it out all winter, and a short-leash net should go to whoever’s playing best. After witnessing Jordan Binnington come out of nowhere, get scorching hot in 2019, then quickly slide from “great” to “good,” we can’t rule out a phenomenal run from an unsuspecting netminder.

No one will be placing Rielly as a Norris favourite in October, but we’re not all that far removed from 2018-19, when he scored 20, added 52 assists and finished fifth in voting. A contract year and the threat of one last shot with a core he loves should be plenty of motivation. Plus, with T.J. Brodie, Jake Muzzin and the emerging Rasmus Sandin, Toronto’s D-corps is solid.

I don’t believe the Leafs check all three boxes right now. But outside of Tampa and maybe the Colorado Avalanche (depending how high you rate Darcy Kuemper), who does?

Blue Moon.

The Wayne Train’s first tour as a Maple Leaf was divided into two seasons: pre-injury and post-injury. He wasn’t the same player, physically or mentally, after a puck cracked his wrist.

Simmonds had just popped off for five goals in a six-game span only to get sidelined for six weeks of recovery and rehab. And when he did return to the lineup, neither the confidence nor the joint was quite the same.

He scored only twice in 33 games post-injury.

“If you’ve ever broken your wrist, I think you probably know how hard it is to come back and still have the same hands and do the same stuff in tight,” Simmonds said upon re-signing for two more years.

“My game in tight, you need quick hands, and if you’re not fully healthy with your wrists and your hands, it’s a little bit tougher. I tried to adjust my game obviously to the (checking) role that I was given.”

With a summer to recuperate and the thought of playing in front of hometown fans (including his young daughter) to motivate him, we’re placing Simmonds’ over/under on games played at 70.

Hindsight tells us there is certainly more than one mulligan worth taking.

But in my mind, much of the Leafs’ self-inflicted cap constraints stem from the John Tavares deal — which, of course, felt like a grand slam at the time. This is no knock on the captain; he’s been excellent. Brendan Shanahan and Dubas likely thought their roster was closer to winning than they were, that they might make hay with Matthews and Marner on entry-level deals.

But what Tavares’s $11-million AAV did was set an internal bar Matthews had to clear. Then Marner needed to be in Matthews’ ballpark. No one took a discount, as is their right. The unforeseen flattening of the cap ceiling only exacerbated the issue, making it difficult (if not impossible) to build a supporting cast worthy of a ring.

Internal team caps probably don’t get enough shine. But when you look at how contenders like Tampa, Boston, New York and Colorado have structured their pay scale, it proves that driving a hard bargain with your superstars is risky but can pay off.

The best example is Steve Yzerman playing chicken with pending UFA Steven Stamkos in the summer of ’16, which had a trickle-down effect on Hedman, Kucherov, Point and Vasilevskiy.

Funny how expectations have changed. Lowered.

The one-off Canadian Division had seemingly clear-cut a path to the semifinals for a believed contender like Toronto. Now, another fumbled chance to advance has shaded everyone from the superstars to the club president under a cloud of doubt.

Fans now need hard proof to believe. A 3-1 series lead over a manageable opponent won’t even cut it.

In my mind, winning Round 1 would be a low bar in Year 6 of the William Nylander-Matthews-Marner era.

Anything less than winning two playoff rounds and a competitive showing in the Eastern Conference final isn’t a success — and there should be repercussions.

Anything more, and the city might explode.

No.

“I can definitively say that we have not thought a single thing about any player that’s going to be a free agent a year from now,” Dubas told McCown on Thursday, when asked about this rumour.

Subban is a free agent in 2022 who carries a $9-million cap hit.

“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” — Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The arrival of David Kampf should provide Alexander Kerfoot with an opportunity to excel where he’s best — on the wing. I was a fan of how he stepped up when Tavares went down in the playoffs, and I like his feistiness as a complementary asset in the top six.

That crash-and-bang Nick Ritchie was given more dough than Michael Bunting and Ondřej Kaše suggests he’ll be given first crack at “replacing” Hyman. I’d like to see a physical presence and net-driver riding shotgun with the elite skill.

All that said, expect Sheldon Keefe to experiment. The determined Bunting should get his chance higher up as well. Kase’s concussion history makes him more of a risk, and Toronto needs a jolt of fearlessness and abandon up front.

It’s a trap!

At the high risk of drawing these up way wrong and begging for an eraser in three weeks (and knowing full well coach-slash-chemist Keefe will have 82 games to tinker), here goes my best guess* for opening night:

Ritchie–Matthews–Marner
Kerfoot –Tavares–Nylander
Mikheyev–Kampf–Kase
Bunting–Spezza–Simmonds

Rielly–Brodie
Muzzin–Holl
Sandin–Dermott

Campbell

*subject to change



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