In the doldrums of the off-season—that space between the end of the season and the draft—it’s always a fun exercise to think about what shiny new toys the Leafs could acquire on July 1st. In order to do that, though, we need to figure out how much cap room the team actually has to work with.
Currently, the Leafs have about $59.5m committed for next season to nine forwards, six defencemen, and one goalie (plus a whole bunch of dead cap space). Assuming a $73m salary cap (a conservative estimate), that means that the Leafs have about $14m to: 1) pay bonus overages, 2) re-sign important RFAs, 3) sign UFAs.
Here’s the Leafs’ cap situation as it sits today. Some of this is still flexible (for example, I assume that Kasperi Kapanen makes the team and that Eric Fehr gets buried in the AHL) but who is or isn’t the 13th forward shouldn’t have too much of an impact on the dollar amounts here.
2017-18 Salary Cap via Cap Friendly
|Van Riemsdyk, James||28||$4,250,000|
|Total cap hit||$59,447,500|
There’s one final piece to this cap puzzle to put in place before we can determine how much money the Leafs have to spend on players: bonus overages. The amount they’ll pay in overages next season is not yet set in stone (the all-rookie team is not yet announced), but we can calculate approximately how much the Leafs will have in bonus overages on the 2017-18 cap.
For those unfamiliar, most standard entry-level contracts have performance bonuses that players can earn if they hit a certain mark (for example, scoring 60 points). Some players on non-entry level deals can also have performance bonuses in their contract, if they meet certain criteria.
The bonuses are not added to cap calculations until they’re earned. Teams have a bonus cushion—a set amount over the salary cap that the earned bonuses can take up. So, for example, Auston Matthews’ $925,000 cap hit does not include any performance bonuses he could potentially get. At the end of the season, those earned bonuses are charged against the team’s cap.
If, at the end of the season, any bonuses players have earned exceed the amount of cap space a team has, the difference gets counted against next season’s cap in the form of bonus overages. You can’t use any LTIR room to pay for bonuses.
This is the situation the Leafs find themselves in: their ELC players were spectacular and racked up a lot of bonuses. According to Chris Johnston, the Leafs are on the hook for $5.37m in bonuses right now:
Assuming that the Leafs ended the season using the LTIR, they could be paying out as much as $5,582,500 in bonuses. Now, the Leafs ended the season a tiny bit under the cap (around $200,000). So, subtract that from the total bonuses and add them to the cap and you get an overall cap hit of around $64,800,000.
The Leafs only have two RFAs who are guaranteed to be on the roster: Zach Hyman and Connor Brown. Brendan Leipsic is also RFA and may take someone else’s roster spot. For now, though, the Leafs have 10F already under contract plus two RFAs.
So what would they likely make?
Arvind already took a cursory look at some possible comparables. MLHS also took a look at what they could make. The consensus here looks to be something in the realm of 4.5m total for the two of them. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick with that figure, although TLN has Connor Brown making as much as $3-4m on his own.
At this point, the previously large amount of cap room the Leafs have to work with is rapidly shrinking. We’re already up to $69.3m used up without factoring in the free agents the team needs to sign.
Barring any trades, it looks like there will be at least three positions up for grabs that the Leafs can’t fill via promotion. They need a fourth line centre, a defenceman (ideally a top-4 RHD), and a back-up goalie.
Anyway, this is the fun part of the exercise. Who will the Leafs sign to replace Roman Polak? The possibilities are endless. Except not really, because they don’t have a tonne of money to work with.
My calculations here have been a bit on the pessimistic side of things, so it’s possible that their cap picture is rosier than I’ve made it seem. As it is, though, they have a little under $4m to work with, assuming a $73m cap.
That’s, sadly, not enough money to go after a highly sought after defenceman without off-loading some salary. $4m is a decent amount of space to work with if you want to be boring and pay for some useful depth. The Leafs can probably find upgrades on Polak and Ben Smith at that price.
$4m is less than ideal if what you want to do is get the biggest, shiniest name on the market.
There is one other well that they can tap if they really want to spend some money. In the off-season, teams can exceed the cap by 10%. If they’re willing to go this route, they would have to start the season on LTIR.
The Leafs have two obvious LTIR candidates in Joffrey Lupul and Nathan Horton. If either or both of them are placed on the LTIR at the start of the season, that would open up a whole lot of cap space for the team. Importantly, though, they can’t go more than 10% over the salary cap during the off-season—and thus won’t be able to utilize the totality of their LTIR room.
The real question becomes: can the Leafs afford Shattenkirk without going 10% over the cap?
There are a couple other moving parts that could affect the Leafs’ cap, including one that could hurt the Leafs a season or two down the line.
Firstly, the expansion draft. The Leafs will lose a player to the expansion draft and they’ll need to fill that hole. It’s hard to predict how this will affect the cap without knowing what the Leafs’ protected list looks like. It seems likely that they’ll lose a guy that they could have lost on waivers anyway (ex. Josh Leivo) or an easily replaceable depth player.
One more thing about LTIR: it doesn’t immediately let the Leafs off the hook. For one, Remember those bonus overages? They won’t pose too much of a problem for the 2017-18 season but they could in a season or two.
If the Leafs end the season without enough cap space to cover the bonuses, those overages get punted down the line, when the team expects to make deep playoff runs and cap space is going to be more valuable. It’s something to be conscious of, long term but it’s not a dire concern: a lot of dead space comes off the cap at the end of the season (Lupul, Gleason, and Cowen) and the amount of potential performance bonuses owed decreases.
Using LTIR for the duration of the season has some other downsides: you can’t bank cap space during the season, for example.
So, here’s the tl;dr of the Leafs’ 2017-18 salary cap: they probably have less room on paper than it seems at first blush. They are far from handcuffed, though. Utilizing the LTIR might not be ideal, but it means that the Leafs have the room to park a dump-truck full of money in someone’s driveway on July 1st.