It wasn’t a matter of if the Toronto Maple Leafs would find a way out of the final season of Patrick Marleau’s contract, it was a matter of when and how. And now we know the answer to both.
On Day 2 of the NHL draft Saturday, the Maple Leafs swung a cap-dump deal with the Carolina Hurricanes that essentially allowed Toronto to free themselves of the full brunt of Marleau’s $6.25-million cap hit in exchange for sending a conditional 2020 first-round draft choice – it becomes a 2021 first-rounder if it’s a top-10 selection next summer – and a seventh-round pick in the same draft to the Carolina Hurricanes. In return, the Maple Leafs landed a 2020 sixth-round pick. And just like that, Toronto has freed up a considerable amount of spending room.
The additional financial flexibility won’t last long, however. TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported restricted free agent Kasperi Kapanen is nearing an extension in the three-year range worth upwards of $3 million and TSN’s Darren Dreger followed that up with a report that fellow RFA Andreas Johnsson is nearing a deal worth similar payment over a four-year term. Of course, this is to say nothing of a potential pact with Mitch Marner, either. Reports throughout the campaign and into the early off-season have indicated that Marner is seeking a contract commensurate with other top RFAs in recent years, and chances are his cap hit will be at or above $10 million when the ink dries on his deal.
So, while Marleau was the first domino to fall, it’s likely there will be others in short order in Toronto. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who carries a $4.5-million cap hit, is a lock to be on the move at some point in the near future, and the rumors surrounding pivot Nazek Kadri aren’t going away. With a cap hit that mirrors that of Zaitsev, moving Kadri might prove to be a necessity if the Maple Leafs are determined to keep Marner, who has all the makings of a prime offer sheet target.
As for Marleau, it’s likely this isn’t the end of the line. The expectation at the time he signed his contract ahead of the 2017-18 season was that he wasn’t going to last all three seasons in Toronto, though the Maple Leafs’ signing of John Tavares to a seven-year, $77-million deal last summer all but ensured the 39-year-old winger’s time was up come season’s end. But even though Marleau has lost a step and is coming off of a modest 16-goal, 37-point campaign, there’s little doubt he’ll be able to find a new home next season. That home, however, won’t be in Carolina. All indications are that the Hurricanes plan to buyout the final year of Marleau’s contract, which will come with a $6.25-million cap hit.
The obvious destination for Marleau? San Jose. Though the Sharks are facing a cap crunch of their own with somewhere in the $15-million range available and several important contracts to iron out, including potential deals with captain Joe Pavelski, veteran Joe Thornton and up-and-comers Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc, Marleau seems a no-brainer option. That’s particularly true if he’s willing to accept a deal worth close to league-minimum in order to return to the franchise with which he spent nearly 1,500 games before signing with Toronto.
Heading back to San Jose would be the perfect way for Marleau to cap off his career, too. To this day, he’s the franchise leader in games played, goals and points. He’s a lock to have his No. 12 raised to the rafters in the wake of his eventual retirement. And if there’s any way he was supposed to go out, it was in teal. Now, he has that chance.
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