Now that John Tavares is in the fold, the mass pontificating in Toronto has shifted to the youngsters who helped entice Tavares to the franchise in the first place: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Matthews and Marner have another season on their entry-level deals, while Nylander needs a new pact this summer as a restricted free agent. None will come cheap, based on their resumes. But I don’t think those contracts will put Toronto in cap hell.
Even with Tavares hauling in $11 million per season, the Maple Leafs are in a fine position. GM Kyle Dubas has already said he can and will get all the kids under contract. There’s no reason to doubt him.
Though Toronto’s defense has been maligned, it at least has the advantage of being inexpensive. Morgan Rielly has the biggest cap hit at just $5 million and everyone is signed through 2018-19 already. Jake Gardiner is eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer, but would he ask for substantially more than Rielly to stay in Toronto? I can’t see that. Otherwise, the Leafs have a host of young, cheap options that are positioned to provide better performances than the departed Roman Polak. Travis Dermott is built for today’s game for example, while Justin Holl showed well in his brief NHL tryout this past season. Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman and Igor Ozhiganov can also make their cases in training camp; all of whom come in with a cap hit below $1 million.
Given that Toronto’s forward corps is even more stacked than before thanks to Tavares (not to mention the potential in AHL playoff MVP Andreas Johnsson), the defense corps doesn’t have to be excellent anyway - it just has to be competent. Get the puck up the ice and let the possession games of Tavares, Matthews and company do the rest. I look at the Kris Letang-less Pittsburgh Penguins blueline that won the Stanley Cup in 2017 and see a perfect template for success.
As for the contracts themselves, the kids are going to get their money and that’s fine. Word around the campfire is that Nylander is hoping for $8 million, but that is likely the starting point in a negotiation. The slick, sharpshooting right winger also seems to be the most likely of the three to go for a bridge contract, so perhaps that’s the way to bring down the average annual value of the deal. That’s what Nikita Kucherov did in Tampa Bay and betting on himself is going to pay off now that the Lightning star is up for a new contract again, with a 100-point season under his belt.
Matthews and Marner both seem like locks for long-term deals. Marner led the team in scoring this past season and was the team’s best player in the post-season, while Matthews was a point-per-gamer during a sophomore campaign truncated by injury. Divide it up however you want, but you’re probably looking at around $21 million, give or take a million, for the pair. Eight-year deals seem prudent for both, too. Let’s conservatively say Nylander does a bridge of two or three seasons at $6 million. Toss in Tavares and you’ve got $38 million committed to four players - but not until 2019-20.
The salary cap will likely continue to increase in the next couple years thanks to Vegas, but also with Seattle coming in. All that helps a team such as the Maple Leafs, where spending to the ceiling is not an issue. But thanks to all the entry-level contracts Toronto is playing with now and even in the season after that, I don’t even see that as a problem. Ditching Matt Martin’s contract on the Islanders was the latest smooth move by Dubas and I’m sure there are more to come in the future. The Leafs have the talent up front and in the boardroom. Cap space will not be a deterrent to success.