TORONTO (Apr. 13) — It was good asset–management today by the Maple Leafs to lock up a pair of their most important players for the next six years. Center Nazem Kadri and defenseman Morgan Rielly — each selected early in the first round of the National Hockey League draft — signed affordable, long–term deals with the hockey club. Kadri’s pact is worth $27 million, including an annual salary–cap hit of $4.5 million. Rielly will make $30 million and consume $5 million of cap space. Each has a limited, no movement clause.
THE LEAFS HAVE LOCKED UP DEFENSEMAN MORGAN RIELLY FOR SIX SEASONS.
Rielly’s contract is of particular intrigue, for it verifies an assessment made earlier this season by coach Mike Babcock, who referred to Rielly as “a real good number–two [defenseman].” This was no blight on the young, smooth–skating rearguard — elevated to No. 1 status on the Maple Leafs upon the Feb. 9 trade of captain Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa. Rielly will play a significant role in the club’s planned ascent toward playoff and Stanley Cup contention. It is indisputable, however, that archetype No. 1 defensemen in the NHL earn more than $5 million per season. In fact, 32 NHL blue–liners were paid more in total salary (base and bonuses) during the 2015–16 schedule. Here were the top ten:
SHEA WEBER, Nashville — $14 million.
RYAN SUTER, Minnesota — $9 million.
DUNCAN KEITH, Chicago — $7.5 million.
JOHNNY BOYCHUK, New York Islanders — $7.5 million.
KRIS LETANG, Pittsburgh — $7.25 million.
BRIAN CAMPBELL, Florida — $7,142,875.
DREW DOUGHTY, Los Angeles — $7.1 million.
JEFF PETRY, Montreal — $7 million.
ERIK KARLSSON, Ottawa — $7 million.
ZDENO CHARA, Boston — $7 million.
Marc Staal, Dan Girardi (New York Rangers) and P.K. Subban (Montreal) also earned $7 million.
Clearly, there were over–payments among this group, and the 32 defensemen that earned more than $5 million. But, the cream–of–the–crop — the Norris Trophy candidates — all pulled in at least $7 million. Most assessments would include, in that collection, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Kris Letang and Duncan Keith. As such, Rielly’s $5–million stipend places him appropriately among No. 2 NHL defensemen; the best example being Brent Seabrook of Chicago, who earns the same amount (with three Stanley Cup rings).
This, again, proves Babcock’s point — and the essence of my blog here on Monday (http://bit.ly/1S5Tdzr) — that the Leafs must acquire a blue–line “horse” before moving into legitimate Stanley Cup contention. Rielly is an exceptional skater and an above–average puck–handler; still young and prone to defensive gaffes, but undoubtedly a vital component of the Maple Leafs. In my view, however, he isn’t big or rangy enough to be a true No. 1, nor does he possess a physical edge and/or mean streak. Say what you want about Keith’s over–the–top use of his stick but few opponents care to mess with him in the playoffs. Rielly, also, does not have a Grade–A shot from the point — nowhere close to that of Weber, Suter, Karlsson, Doughty, Subban and Chara (though his snap–shot off the rush is quick and deceptive).
So, Rielly is slotted in accurately by the Maple Leafs. He’ll be a big part of all game facets moving forward — powerplay and penalty–kill included — but he needs to be partnered with a Hall–of–Famer.
NAZEM KADRI HAS FINALLY EARNED A MULTI–YEAR CONTRACT WITH THE LEAFS. Toronto Star Photo
Kadri is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Babcock likes the way he plays, as do I.
Darcy Tucker was a popular figure on Pat Quinn’s good Leaf teams of the early–2000’s. Like Kadri, he embellished contact and often drew opposition penalties. Like Kadri, he found himself in disfavor among referees for such embellishment. And, most like Kadri, he played “bigger” than his size. Tucker is fondly remembered by the overwhelming majority of Leaf fans. Kadri should be similarly appreciated today. What he isn’t, however, is a prototype No. 1 center. The Leafs would be well–served by adding a large and skilled middle–man to compliment their posse of small, talented forwards — Kadri among them.
In summary, though, this was a good day for the Maple Leafs.
STICKING WITH KINGS vs. PENGUINS: There were several moments during the 2015–16 National Hockey League schedule when I vehemently doubted my pre–season pick for the Stanley Cup final. Which likely isn’t all that unusual in the course of six months and 1,230 games. With the playoffs beginning tonight, however, I’m confident in my selection from this blog (http://bit.ly/1WNNkc3) of last Oct. 7. Indeed, folks, it will be the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings clashing for the silver mug in June.
The choice is logical on two counts: a) Though Washington was the indisputable top team throughout the regular season, Sidney Crosby has virtually always had Alex Ovechkin’s number in the playoffs. Crosby may have been the NHL’s top performer in the final two months of the schedule; much of it with Evgeni Malkin sidelined. And, b) In the remarkable rotation of the 2010’s, it is Los Angles’s turn to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup final (we’ll save Chicago for next year). Otherwise, predictions are simply for fun… and rarely accurate (in this corner, anyway). Still, you can keep track, if you wish.
My two upset picks in the opening round are mild. Though Tampa Bay will not have Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman in the line–up against Detroit, the Red Wings looked mostly awful down the stretch; a 1–0 loss to the Maple Leafs on Mar. 13 at Joe Louis Arena may have been the worst Detroit performance I’ve seen since the mid–80’s. I suspect Tampa will survive the opening round with a good performance by goalie Ben Bishop. And, I won’t pick St. Louis to beat Chicago until I see it happen. The Blues were terrific in the second half (25–10–2 after Jan. 9) and wrested home–ice advantage for this series. But, St. Louis has been a chronic underachiever in the playoffs; Chicago a mini–dynasty. I’m sticking with the Hawks.
Here are my first–round predictions (logos courtesy sportslogos.net):
FLORIDA in 7
TAMPA BAY in 6
ANAHEIM in 5
CHICAGO in 6