Quick Shifts: Maple Leafs must make call on Morgan Rielly soon

Maple Leafs top dman Morgan Rielly hasn't spent a lot of time thinking about his contract situation, focusing more on what happens on the ice, and believes the business side of things will take care of itself.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Everything’s coming up Buffalo!

1. Do the Toronto Maple Leafs have an own-rental problem?

Consider some of the regulars that walked out of the door toward free agency for no return:

2018: Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk
2019: Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey
2020: Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci
2021: Zach Hyman*, Frederik Andersen* (*maybe)

Of course, this is a function of retaining useful players in the moment, supplementing them with outside rentals, and “going for it” every year they’ve dressed Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

And while hindsight makes us wonder if the franchise would’ve been better off with a few recouped draft picks instead of the scar tissue its core has gained from five first-round post-season exits, it would be difficult in the throes of the unknown to argue that sapping talent from the dressing room is the wise course.

Trading away familiar talent is, at best, a vote of non-confidence. At worst, it can be a culture-crusher.

Which brings us to Morgan Rielly.

The longest-tenured Maple Leaf, alternate captain, and best-performing defenceman in their 2021 playoff series against Montreal has one more season on the team-friendly contract he signed with Lou Lamoriello back in 2016.

Does Rielly — an integral and passionate piece of this core — skate out 2021-22 as an “own rental” and participate in one of GM Kyle Dubas’s final three Cup attempts with Matthews and Nylander in the fold?

Does the No. 1 defenceman get moved before his price shoots through the roof?

Or is there an extension to be negotiated with Rielly’s agent, J.P. Barry, starting July 28?

“We haven’t had much discussion on that yet. Morgan is a huge part of what we do here,” Dubas said Wednesday.

Make no mistake: A decision on Rielly — what he wants and what the Leafs are willing to pay him under a flat cap — is more important than decisions on the expiring Hyman and Andersen.

“As with the aforementioned names in Zach and Fred, with the salary cap situation and different things brought on by the pandemic — on the league’s side and PA’s side to get it up and rolling — it is going to be a flat cap. It is probably a little bit slower on extensions. Throughout the league this year, there was a lot of going all the way to the end with it, with key players and captains on some great teams,” Dubas said.

Alex Ovechkin, Dougie Hamilton and Gabriel Landeskog would be the top three examples. The difference in Toronto is cap space. Or, rather, lack of it.

Not unlike JVR in 2018 or Hyman this July, the 27-year-old Rielly will have a chance to set himself up financially for the rest of his life.

He’s a smart guy. A loyal soldier who has battled through enough bruises, strains and breaks to know that earning years are limited.

“[My next contract has] obviously crossed my mind, but it’s not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Rielly said Wednesday.

“Especially after a playoff loss, you don’t really think about that as much. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But right now, it’s more just trying to deal with what happens on the ice. I have to take care of myself and just prepare for next season and get going. But in terms of the other stuff, that tends to take care of itself over time.”

Rielly is a dynamic playmaker and smooth skater in his prime. He could fetch a superior return to any of the Maple Leafs’ past “own rentals.” He’s also been usurped on Sheldon Keefe’s top power-play unit by the emerging and cap-kind Rasmus Sandin. That could diminish his point production as a Leaf in 2021-22.

You won’t find a better $5-million defenceman on the open market than Rielly. And his value may never be higher than now.

But if the brass isn’t shaking the core, walking their best D-man to a 2022 payday comes with a risk of its own.

“You never want to do that if you don’t have to with guys that are a key part of your team,” Dubas said. “Patience is a good thing. That said, we will investigate it here as we go onto the summer. We will definitely have a conversation with J.P. about where they may be at and what Morgan may want to do.”

Patience sounds nice, to a point. One way or another, Toronto needs to be proactive here. The Rielly decision could define next season.

2. Asked this week on The People’s Show if the NHL plans to continue with the host of sponsorship add-ons introduced in 2021 — helmet decals, superimposed advertisements on the glass, on-ice logos below the red lines, the branding of divisions — deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “some number if not a majority will” continue for 2021-22.

“Will there be more? Sure,” he added.

Despite the Seattle expansion and juicy broadcast rights deals from ESPN and TNT, the salary cap is flat until further notice.

So, Daly assured, the league is absolutely in pursuit of new revenue generators.

3. Fourteen of the richest 15 cap hits in the NHL have been eliminated. (Montreal’s Carey Price is the lone exception.) So have 24 of the top 30 salaried players.

Just a reminder that hockey is the ultimate depth sport.

4. The NHL’s Elite Eight, broken down by traditional division lines:

Atlantic – 3 (Lightning, Bruins, Canadiens)

Metropolitan – 2 (Hurricanes, Islanders)

Central – 2 (Avalanche, Jets)

Pacific – 1 (Golden Knights)

Fast takeaways: The Atlantic will be vicious next season, and Seattle might have a shot at crackin’ the playoffs in its inaugural voyage.

5. The Maple Leafs inked 22-year-old prospect Pontus Holmberg to a two-year entry-level contract Friday. The SHL playoff MVP will return to his Swedish championship club, Växjö, for the 2021-22 season.

Here’s some highlights from the left winger:

6. Three of the division finalists with two wins in their respective series all have something in common: vicious power plays.

Colorado (11 goals, 44 per cent), Tampa Bay (11 goals, 39.3 per cent) and Boston (eight goals, 30 per cent) are absolutely burying opponents 5-on-4.

All three were top-10 power-play teams in the regular season as well. They’ve only sharpened and elevated.

Either you avoid taking penalties and they get more room at even-strength, or you obstruct and pay for it.

An incredible difference-maker.

7. After Vegas checker Ryan Reaves was slapped with a two-game suspension for yanking out a chunk of Avalanche defenceman Ryan Graves’s hair, his old pal in San Jose couldn’t help himself:

8. Quote of the Week.

Boston’s David Pastrnak on the giddy excitement of skating out to a full-capacity TD Garden for the first time in 448 days: “In the warmup, it felt like 22 players playing their first NHL game.”

9. When the topic of the July 21 expansion draft was raised during Dubas’s season-ending press conference, the GM didn’t sound too concerned.

“I don’t think our expansion equation is overly perilous, to the point where signing [one of our pending free agents] who deserves to be signed would have a big impact. If we can get those done, we will,” said Dubas.

He also noted the Kraken GM Ron Francis’s exclusive head-start negotiation window with free agents, which takes place July 18-20, after teams submit their protection lists.

“If you are a pending free agent, Seattle also has the right to engage in contract talks and potentially sign and then select. It is another team to provide leverage to the players,” Dubas continued. “I don’t know how much interest they will have [in our UFAs] without having conversations with Ronnie and the Kraken.”

(Fun fact: Ronnie & the Kraken was also a short-lived early-’60s soul quartet that scored a minor jukebox hit with their 45-inch single “Sea Monster for Your Love.”)

10. The NHL’s annual playoff docuseries, Quest for the Stanley Cup, dropped Friday, and it delivers another round of dressing room pep talks and mic’d-up action.

Fun stuff.

Among other things, we learn that Cale Makar’s Colorado teammates call him “Cale Juice,” and that they circulate a hilariously oversized dookie gold rope chain with an Avalanche logo as their player-of-the-game token.

11. Nick Kypreos reported that Corey Perry pitched hard to sign with the Maple Leafs as a free agent last off-season but that Toronto opted for hometown winger Wayne Simmonds instead.

Ironically, Simmonds turned down more money from Montreal last summer. Just as he did with Dallas last summer, Perry has once again elevated his importance in the playoffs, scoring two goals and five points through eight games.

Oh, and how’s this for good timing?

The Canadiens not only ripped through their first four-game win streak since January 2019, but with Friday’s 1-0 Game 2 victory, they now have their first five-game win streak since November 2017.

Everyone saw it coming!

12. Turns out, Max Pacioretty has always been a boss.

Confidence, kids. It’s a powerful tool.

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