As a diehard fan of the Bruins, there are few things I enjoy more than laughing at the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans. Their cap situation just so happens to be one of the things I can laugh at. It’s also one of the only ones I can talk about and not have a lot of people accuse me of bias (and if they do, it’s because they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about). All it takes is a basic knowledge of the NHL’s salary cap and a typical salary distribution on a team to know that the Leafs are in a really bad situation. And by really bad I mean they have no hope to improve much without drastic changes. Here’s why. All salary numbers are courtesy of CapFriendly.com. You can see the full breakdown of the Leaf’s cap situation here.
The LTIR Saved the Leafs Last Year But Won’t This Year
The NHL’s LTIR is an incredibly complicated mess. It takes significant effort to fully understand it. I could explain the details of it here, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary. If you’re cruising for a headache, you can check out all the details here. I warned you though, so don’t blame me if you chuck your device across the room because you get frustrated trying to understand all the little details.
But anyway, the way oversimplified version of the LTIR is if you put a player on it, you’re allowed to go over the cap ceiling by the amount of the contract. However, if they are no longer eligible to be on it, you have to clear that cap space immediately. So, it’s not overly useful unless you know there’s no chance the player comes off it. Again, there’s so much more to it, but that’s really all you need to know about it for this situation.
What the Leafs Did
In a desperate attempt to retain then-RFA winger Mitch Marner, Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas decided to get creative. He made a trade with Vegas that sent then-Toronto back-up goaltender Garret Sparks to the desert in exchange for forward David Clarkson. However, Clarkson hasn’t played in a game since the 2015-16 season due to degenerative discs in his back. He’s been on the LTIR ever since then. But, that’s exactly why the Leafs acquired him. Clarkson carries a $5.25 million cap hit, which meant that they can go over the cap ceiling $5.25 million.
The Leafs also acquired Nathan Horton from the Columbus Blue Jackets back in 2015, who was on the LTIR at the time and has been ever since. He hasn’t played a game since the 2013-14 season for the season reason Clarkson hasn’t. He carries a $5.3 million cap hit.
So, between those two, the Leafs were able to go over the cap a whopping $10.55 million last season. However, both of their contracts are up at the end of this year, so that won’t be allowed to happen this year. The Leafs will have to shed all of that salary to be cap compliant this season. They’ll do it easily right now because they have a lot of contracts expiring. But, they’ll still have to re-sign or replace all of those places with a very limited amount of money.
There’s a Mere $7.8 Million to Re-sign Numerous Players
With all of the expiring contracts this season, the Leafs will have exactly $7,791,467 in cap space to re-sign all their players. There are currently 16 players under contract for the Leafs next season, and that’s based on their current roster, which has 14 forwards, nine defensemen, and two goalies on it. Every team has to have 20 players to play, and most carry at least 22 (and most carry the limit of 23), especially on road trips, as injury or bad play insurance. That means the Leafs absolutely have to get at least four more players under contract for next season, and they really should get more considering some of those guys are probably not NHL-ready yet.
Barrie, Dermott, and Ceci Headline the Group
Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie are the two most notable players in need of new contracts. They carried $4.5 million and $2.75 million cap hits, respectively. Neither player will take a pay cut, and Barrie will want a raise. Ceci might look for one too but it won’t be much considering he wasn’t great this past season. Leafs fans want both of these players gone, particularly Ceci, and replaced with better guys. But, that’s not going to happen. The defense was terrible as it was last year, and they have a very limited amount of cap space. Do you really think you’re going to get a better player for less money? If you do, with all due respect, you’re delusional.
The only players who will come at a lower cap hit than that and that are better are young players. They will not come cheap via trade, especially considering everybody knows how bad the Leafs’ situation is. They’re going to have to way overpay, which Dubas will not want to do. So, you might want to get that idea out of your head. At the very least, forget about Alex Pietrangelo or Braden Holtby in free agency. Those players will command at least a couple million more than your available cap space, leaving you with a roster that’s too small and even more cap-strapped than you are now. It’s just not happening. It’s not possible to clear enough cap space to let it happen without making the team significantly worse.
Travis Dermott is another player in need of a new deal that’ll demand a significant raise. He’s coming off his entry-level contract, on which he made $863,333 a year. Current projections have him getting around $2 million a bridge contract for his new deal. So, he won’t be huge money, but that’s a significant chunk of what the Leafs have left to give. So it’s certainly nothing for them to sneeze at.
Depth Forwards Round it Out
Evan Rodrigues, Kyle Clifford, Ilya Mikheyev, Dennis Malgin, Jason Spezza, and Frederik Gauthier are the other players in need of new deals. They’re all depth forwards, so they aren’t huge money. But, that doesn’t mean the Leafs can afford them all. The only one of those guys who made over $1 million this past season was Rodrigues, as he made $2 million. He’s the only one they might be able to get to take less money, but I wouldn’t count on it. He’s an arbitration-eligible RFA, meaning he’ll be able to force the Leafs hand if he wants to unless they let him walk. He had ten points in 45 games this year, which isn’t a lot by any means, but he might be able to get his current $2 million again in arbitration, or at least close to it.
As for the other players, there’s no chance any of them take a pay cut. In fact, almost all of them will be looking for raises. They won’t be big raises, but the Leafs really can’t even afford to keep all of them at their current cap hits. So anything but a pay cut means trouble for Toronto. Even though all of these players would be well under $2 million in all likelihood, that adds up very fast, especially for a team like Toronto. Say every player got $1 million. That’s already most of the available cap space, and Barrie, Ceci, and Dermott would all still be without contracts. The numbers just don’t work out as they are right now.
If the Leafs Want to Improve, One of the Big Guys Has to Go
Now that I’ve gone over all of the hurdles the Leafs are looking at just to be cap compliant with a full-roster next year, here’s the really fun part (for me at least). If the Leafs want to improve and get closer to being Cup contenders, they have to trade one of the “big four” forwards. Toronto currently has exactly $40,489,366 per year tied up in John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. I said it when they did it and I’ll never stop saying it: you can’t have half of the salary cap tied up in four players, especially at the same position (meaning forward or defense, not their exact position like center). It doesn’t end well.
Yes, the Leafs can score a lot of goals. But because they spent so much in order to do that, they can’t stop many of them. Their defense is incredibly porous, as they have no money left over to get stud defensemen. Defense wins championships. It’s cliche but it’s true. It’s why the Leafs can’t win a single playoff series to save their lives. In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter how good your forwards are. If your defense sucks, you’re going to be a quick exit. It’s just too easy to expose and exploit that as a major weakness over the course of a series.
The only way for Toronto to even have a chance of fixing this is to sign a top-tier defender. But, they can’t do that unless they trade one of those forwards. Dubas has said numerous times he can keep the group together and turn the Leafs into Stanley Cup contenders. But he can’t. It’s pretty much undeniable at this point. It’s time for him to realize that (although I’m quite happy he hasn’t yet as I have way too much fun making fun of them).
So, Which One Should Go?
If any of the four get traded, I feel like Nylander will be the one to go. He has the lowest cap hit of them, which means trading him will help them out the least. But, that fact also makes him the most easily traded, as there are a lot more teams who can take on a $7 million cap hit than an $11 million one. Plus, he’s the least productive of the bunch, although not by enough to justify the gap in cap hits. However from a strictly statistical standpoint, if they’re looking to trade the player with the least offensive impact, that’s Nylander. However, trading him won’t solve all of the Leafs problems. It’s still a horrible idea to spend $33 million on three forwards. This move alone will not give them enough cap flexibility to do what they need to do.
But, I still feel like Nylander will be the odd one out. Tavares has a full NMC, so he would have to waive it to be traded, and there’s no way he would. Even if he did, there’s no team that can afford to overpay him like he is that he would want to go to. Plus, he’s their captain, so despite him being the most overpaid of the bunch, there’s no way he gets traded. As for Matthews and Marner, I truly don’t believe Dubas has the guts to trade either of them. There’s a slightly better chance Marner gets traded but it’s very unlikely in my opinion. They put themselves in this position just to keep him. They would’ve traded his rights away if they didn’t intend to have him stick around long-term, as they had to have known this situation would happen.
To put it simply, the Leafs are screwed as they are right now. No team will help them out by giving them LTIR money this year. If any did, Toronto would be paying through the nose for it, to the point where it likely wouldn’t be worth it. They have no choice but to make moves to clear cap space to even have a full roster and be cap compliant this year, let alone improve. One of the “big four” forwards has to go if they want any hope of becoming a Cup contending team in the near future. They spent far too much on those four players, and they’re certainly paying the price for it now.
However, all of that being said, from a selfish standpoint, I hope they don’t get themselves together and continue to flounder. It’s quite fun to watch as a Bruins fan. It’s going to be a very interesting offseason in Toronto, and I’m curious to see it all unfold. I have a feeling it’ll be fun to watch as they scramble to get everything done and get screwed by other teams in the process. There’s definitely something to be said for having a GM who’s good with money, as well as players who are willing to take discounts just to stay with the team. It says a lot about the culture of the teams (and hint: the Bruins have a better one). So, sit back, relax, and enjoy, Bruins fans (and other Leafs haters). I know I will!
-Lydia Murray (@lydia_murray12)
Featured picture courtesy Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo via Getty Images
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