The Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to make a number of changes in the offseason in reaction to their fifth straight opening round defeat to the Montreal Canadiens, but the question over the next month will be what changes and who of the current group will not be in Blue and White when next season begins in October.
The current reality is that the Leafs with only 15 players under contract and just under $12 million in cap space available, that GM Kyle Dubas may be priced out of the market for pending free agent Zach Hyman if he gets over $5 million per season as has been rumored.
Insiders such as Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston continue to hint that Dubas will make some sort of consequential move that will impact the Leafs roster, but that kind of move would seem impossible if Toronto sticks with their stance of not trading any of the “Core Four” forwards; John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
One possible mechanism to opening up cap space may be to expose Alex Kerfoot in the Seattle expansion draft next month, which would open up $3.5 million in salary over the next two seasons. The other move could potentially be trading defenseman Morgan Rielly with a year remaining on his contract.
After posting a career-high 72 points in 2019, the Vancouver, BC native struggled with injury in the COVID shortened 2020 campaign with 27 points in 47 games, but was healthy and bounced back with 35 points in 55 games (averaging out to 52 points in a full year) and formed a solid top pairing with TJ Brodie.
While Rielly’s lack of a big shot from the point was a key factor in the Leafs struggles on the power play in the second half, the 27-year-old is solid top pairing defenseman who logs major minutes and is a team leader in the locker room.
The question is will Dubas be able to extend Rielly before the start of next season? Does he want to re-sign with Toronto or does he want to go into next season with the possibility of walking away and hitting the market in the summer of 2022? And if that is the case, will Dubas preemptively move him this summer or before the deadline.
In theory, the return for Rielly should be sizable, since his salary for next season is quite reasonable (possibly a pair of younger, inexpensive NHL roster players), but the market for top end defenseman appears loaded with Dougie Hamilton and David Savard unrestricted free agents and names like Seth Jones, Rasmus Ristolainen and Oliver Ekman-Larsson available in the trade market.
Depending on what big move Dubas plans on making, it is hard to imagine the Leafs defense not taking a major step back if they move Rielly out. Even if Rasmus Sandin is as good as some think he can be, Toronto’s blueline will be weaker if they do not keep Rielly or add another defenseman of equal ability to take his place.
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