TORONTO — Morgan Rielly was all smiles as he stepped onto the sheet at the Ford Performance Centre for practice Friday, as those off the ice got word the longest-tenured Maple Leaf had inked an eight-year, $60-million extension with the club.
For those on the ice, word didn’t come until practice wrapped up, head coach Sheldon Keefe breaking the news to the group as they huddled around the whiteboard, causing a raucous, cheering mass of hugs and stick taps to form around No. 44.
“I didn’t know,” John Tavares said of the deal after practice. “I don’t think many of us did, so it was a big pick-me-up after a day off and getting home from the road. Great news, great way to end practice. We were giving it to him afterwards — he kept it pretty quiet.”
If it had been Rielly’s choice, it would’ve been kept quiet a bit longer, still.
“I talked to him a little bit about it because I was told it was going to be announced basically while we were on the ice. He said ‘Ah, I don’t want to make a big deal of it,’” Keefe said of the on-ice celebration with a laugh. “He’s a modest guy. But I felt it was important to give him that acknowledgement.”
So too did Kyle Dubas and Co., whose eight-year commitment to the 27-year-old serves as the most poignant acknowledgement of all, making clear just how pivotal Rielly’s become to the Maple Leafs’ cause. Not only because of what he’s done so far in Toronto, but also the heights the team believes he’s yet to reach.
“I think Morgan continues to grow as a player,” said Dubas Friday, noting that Rielly’s desire to stay and willingness to sign on for less than market value was key in the deal getting done. “His role continues to expand, he continues to improve defensively. He’s usually one of the top offensive defenceman in the league in terms of production, but defensively, specifically in the last number of years, he’s continued to grow and evolve — now he’s taking on more on the penalty kill.
“He’s going to have a lot of pride in himself, as he said to me last night, in carrying his end of the deal as well, and performing throughout those eight years. A lot of people you can hear that about and you don’t know. With Morgan, you know. He’s going to bring it every day, and in the off-season continue to make sure that he’s doing the work necessary to maintain his level throughout the term of the agreement.”
For his part, Rielly said he’s simply glad it’s all out of the way, and his future with the only NHL club he’s interested in suiting up for secured.
“It just means a lot,” the $60-million man said of his new deal. “I’ve gotten to that point here in Toronto that it really feels like home. So, it’s a pretty cool feeling. … It’s a pretty special place to be.”
While the term of the deal is evidence enough of the faith the organization has in Rielly and his capacity to continue evolving as the club’s blue-line leader, the agreement is just as significant a sign of Rielly’s belief in the Maple Leafs, of the club’s potential to take the next step, even after a few years of heartbreak and scrutiny.
“I think the faith goes both ways,” Rielly said. “I believe in the group we have here, in the people that we have in our locker room. I think for the team to offer me that notion of faith is pretty special too, and I look forward to holding up my end of the bargain, and trying to accomplish the ultimate goal.”
That the Maple Leafs are doubling down on Rielly’s leadership now is particularly significant given the complexion of their defence corps moving forward. Twenty-one-year-old Rasmus Sandin has already taken on a greater role this season. Twenty-two-year-old Timothy Liljegren will continue to get a chance to show what he’s got at this level, too.
Leaving space for the young rearguards to grow into bigger roles was a conscious commitment from the Maple Leafs front office in the off-season, Dubas said, one that requires a steady leader like Rielly to show the way.
“I just think everything that he brings inside the room every single day, but most importantly what he brings on the ice, we just thought it would’ve been difficult to really replace. And we’re hopeful that Rasmus can continue to develop and they can complement one another in those roles,” Dubas said. “Because we can’t just have one guy doing that, we need multiple players to play in that style. So, our hope is that the two of them grow together and form that element on our back end, and roll from there.”
Judging by the impact Rielly’s already had on the other young hopefuls who came through with wide eyes and heaps of potential, Sandin appears to be in good hands.
“He helped me a lot my first couple years. We’re extremely close,” Auston Matthews said of Rielly’s impact on his own early development. “To have somebody to kind of help me go along in my early years here, and kind of show me the ropes — he’s a great leader. He shows up every day and he works hard. His voice carries a lot of weight in the room, and we all look up to him — he’s a big part of this team and what we’re trying to do here.”
Rielly showed little hesitation in using that voice to hold his blue-line group to account Friday, following an opening eight-game stretch that’s left much to be desired from the defenders around him.
“I think as a group, our D core needs to be better. There’s no two ways about it,” he said. “I think as a group of five we can play better defensively, but that has to start with our D core. So, I think in order to do that we’ve got to get some confidence, we’ve got to play with lots of speed and take time and space away from the other team’s top guys. I don’t think we’ve been doing a good enough job of that.”
They’ll get another shot Saturday against the visiting Detroit Red Wings, and with a new look for that struggling D core.
Out is Justin Holl, who will sit as a healthy scratch and see his usual spot next to Jake Muzzin filled by T.J. Brodie. Travis Dermott will move up to play alongside Rielly, with Liljegren sliding in beside Sandin. Petr Mrazek makes his return behind them, playing his first game since going down with injury in his season debut earlier this month.
Consider the blue-line shuffling simply another opportunity for Rielly to lead, to demonstrate why he believes this group can pull themselves out of the familiar hole they’d begun falling back into.
“The talents and abilities he has are a huge part of what he brings, but there’s all those other intangibles,” Keefe said of the importance his star blue-liner’s leadership. “You know, there’s a reason why, [as] the organization’s gone through a number of changes over the years, he’s the one guy that has lasted and has been here, and loves being a Leaf.
“That passion and commitment that he has for the organization comes through with how he conducts himself every day.”