Let’s be clear about one thing. The decisions facing the Toronto Maple Leafs after this season, as difficult as they will be, are much more welcome than the ones they faced only a few years ago. There was a time not long ago when the most vexing off-season decision facing this franchise was whether or not to raise ticket prices.
Oh, you can bet your bottom dollar, which is what it takes for most people to get into games in the Center of the Hockey Universe™ these days, they will do just that this summer. Because they can. That one will be a no-brainer. But with William Nylander finally signed to a six-year deal after an epic contract imbroglio, the difficult decisions for the Leafs and GM Kyle Dubas are just beginning.
There are some who believe devoting $6.96 million in cap space to your sixth-most important player is an outrageous thing to do. Of course, those people never built rosters where the sixth-best player was anywhere near as good as Nylander. It was a case of either signing Nylander to this deal or having him sit on the sidelines in a season when the window to win a Stanley Cup is gaping. So, Nylander gets his money and good for him.
But it begs the question: Where do the Leafs go from here? It’s all well and good that they got Nylander under contract, but how are they possibly going to accommodate all their top young players starting next season? Again, it’s a really, really good problem to have.
Let’s start with what we know right now. As of now, the Maple Leafs have $33.7 million in cap dollars earmarked to seven forwards for the 2019-20 season. They have $10.2 million devoted to three defensemen, which would rise to about $11.9 million if all three of Travis Dermott, Justin Holl and Timothy Liljegren find their way into the lineup next season. And they have a further $5 million in cap space taken up by goalie Frederik Andersen. And remember, there is also $1.2 million in cap space the Leafs are retaining on Phil Kessel’s contract. Remember him. Put that all in a blender and the Leafs are on the hook for about $51.9 million for 13 players.
And this is where things get really interesting. At this point, it would seem the absolute least the Leafs can hope to get away with paying the duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner at this point is $23 million per season - $13 million for Matthews and $10 million for Marner. And that’s only if Matthews decides he doesn’t want to become the first $16-million man in NHL history. So if the Leafs get those two signed for that amount, the total now rises to $74.9 million for 15 players. Now 15 players is plenty for a beer league team, but it’s eight short of a quorum for an NHL team.
The salary cap this season is $79.5 million, which means the Leafs had better hope revenues are sky high and the NHL Players’ Association votes to trigger its inflator. The salary cap last year was $75 million. If it rises the same as it did last summer, that would put the salary cap at $84 million for 2019-20. That may or may not be a tall order. The New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, who were until recently shoo-ins to sell out their buildings 41 times a year, are not doing that this season. The Ottawa Senators crowds have been embarrassing. The Florida Panthers had two crowds under 10,000 last week alone and the New York Islanders have been below the 10,000 mark five times this season. That’s not great news for a league that derives most of its revenues from ticket sales.
But let’s assume everything is rosy here. The cap goes up to $84 million and Matthews and Marner sign for a combined $23 million. That would leave the Leafs $9.1 million to fill out the other eight players on their roster, one of whom is Kasperi Kapanen, who used Nylander’s absence to drive up his own price. Josh Leivo, Andreas Johnsson, Igor Ozhiganov and Garret Sparks all have arbitration rights. And then there’s pending unrestricted free agent Jake Gardiner, who takes turns going from maligned to praised. Unless the Leafs make some major moves, Gardiner will be unloading his valuable piece of Toronto real estate after this season.
Kapanen is not arbitration eligible so he has ‘Bridge Deal’ tattooed to his forehead at the moment, unless of course, he is emboldened by what Nylander did this fall and decides to do the same. Gardiner may be convinced to stay with a team that will have a legitimate shot at a Stanley Cup for the next eight years for a huge discount, but probably not with the payday he’s potentially going to get. Who knows? Perhaps the San Jose Sharks would be willing to take Patrick Marleau back for the final year of his deal if the Leafs were willing to pick up some of the cap hit.
These are problems any GM would take in a second. Dubas has proved to be more than capable in his first year at the helm, but the heavy lifting is just beginning. But if that is accompanied by the opportunity to lift a 34.5 pounds worth of the most beautiful trophy in the world, it might not seem all that difficult.
(Ed. note: Leivo was traded Monday morning to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Michael Carcone.)