The Toronto Maple Leafs are a very weird team.
I read this tweet the other day and the few that preceded it mentioning the other teams in a similar comfortably flexible position:
It's remarkable how quickly TOR has turned its long-term cap situation around, from being in possibly the toughest situation three summers ago to arguably one of the best today.— Rob Vollman (@robvollmanNHL) June 15, 2018
When people say Lou Lamoriello did nothing as GM of the Leafs, I want to print that out, roll up the paper and bop them on the nose. With the paper. Honest.
A perusal of Cap Friendly’s front page shows that most of the teams with low numbers of roster players, a low cap hit and good SPC space are teams just beginning a rebuild like the Rangers and Canucks or are perennial cap floor teams like Carolina or the Devils, who are at least a year behind the Leafs in building back up.
The only playoff teams in a similar spot to the Leafs, other than the Devils, are Vegas and Winnipeg. And those teams have several expensive deals to sign this offseason.
The Leafs are weird because they can legitimately, and perhaps will, let every single UFA walk unsigned. They have one big and one small RFA deal that matters, and not one other player of note to sign. They have escaped the clutches of most of their dead salary, have no contracts likely to be buried in the minors that will exceed the buriable amount, and they have a host of players in the AHL all on $925,000 or less deals to swap in and out of open depth roster spots.
The only current RFAs due deals in the AHL who might break the million mark are Calvin Pickard and Martin Marincin, and that’s no sure thing.
This is the core 19 players who played reasonable amounts of the regular season last year:
Toronto Maple Leafs pre-draft Salary Totals
|Phil Kessel||Retained Salary||1,200,000|
You can toss Connor Carrick out and add in Andreas Borgman and Igor Ozhiganov, or you can trade Josh Leivo for a pick and bring in whatever member of the Marlies you like, none of that matters. It’s close to irrelevant to the cap space available, and for our purposes here, we can simply assume the four players needed to bump that 19-man roster to 23 all cost an even one million, so the total cap expenditure can be rounded to $59 million.
For purposes of calculation, I’m going to pay William Nylander $7 million and Andreas Johnsson $2 million. The total cap expenditure is now $68 million, and the estimated cap ceiling for the coming season is supposed to be around $80 million.
Bettman clarified cap number even further to somewhere between $79.5 to $80 million for next season, pending #NHLPA negotiation and approval.— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) June 20, 2018
That’s $12 million in cap space. And then remember that if the Leafs spend that on some number of players, and reach the cap ceiling, they have $5,300,000 of LTIR pool they can start using to add more players.
Let’s notice that I’ve likely overpaid Johnsson and rounded off the numbers and understand that the space available to the Leafs to add players to the roster is $18,000,000, plus the cost of whoever you bounce out of the roster to make room for them ... carry the zeros ... and in real terms in drawing up a shopping list right now, it’s more like $23 million.
And before anyone says anything about Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews and contracts, and needing to save space, this is my feeling on “saving space” for future contracts: It’s the stupidest excuse any budget team ever thought up to sell putting a trash product on the ice to save cash salary.
Every dollar in unspent cap space is unscored goals and games you didn’t win. There is no prize for the lowest cap hit, or even the highest points per dollar. You don’t get a cup for being parsimonious.
The only thing the pending deals for Matthews, Marner and Jake Gardiner mean is that the Leafs can’t go get a whole bunch of guys locked up to term. It doesn’t mean they can’t get anyone with term. It sure doesn’t mean that they should get no one and play a team of AHL graduates too high up the lineup.
This massive amount of space on a team with some elite players on it means the Leafs have a huge opportunity to add in real hockey players. If you really want to watch Josh Leivo on the first PP and the top 9, then okay. I want someone at least twice as good, maybe three times. And the Leafs have the cap space to pay for that.
There seems to be some fan resistance to the idea that the Leafs should acquire a centre at least markedly better than Tyler Bozak was. “But Nylander!” says everyone. “And just play that guy whose name I can’t remember as 4C!”
How about a real damn player? One who isn’t some new to the NHL faint hope free agent or a kid who isn’t even a fully formed winger yet? How about someone who knows how to get the hell out of his own zone without a map, a compass, a trail of breadcrumbs, and some dotted lines painted on the ice? Or how about him and Nylander both playing centre at various times?
There also seems to be an incredible (to me) desire to add yet more depth defenders, particularly in the media. “The Leafs need help on D! Get that guy who looks good on that other team!” Sure, and then add that third pairing guy who plays easy minutes and some power play to the long, long, really-stupidly-long list of good-enough-for-the-third-pair guys the Leafs already have.
The Leafs don’t need depth. They can sell half their depth and still have too much depth.
The Leafs have elite players in a core team that is playoff calibre, a great development system, heaps of cap space, no tough decisions to make and a total willingness to spend every dime of actual cash to capitalize on the opportunities their cap space gives them.
They do have one problem. For all we like to laugh at the Habs for their asset-poor team that keeps trying and failing to improve by making lateral trades, the Leafs are not exactly swimming in assets.
They can trade half their depth, and not come out of it with much of anything to show for it but some picks to get future depth with. Which is a thing all teams need to do, to be sure, but it won’t make them better now.
The Leafs can’t get Ryan O’Reilly or Erik Karlsson or maybe even Jeff Skinner. Even looking at one-year rental pending UFAs like Skinner or Max Pacioretty is tough. They couldn’t have gotten Alex Galchenyuk, because they don’t have swappable players for that kind of deal. Everyone on the Leafs is either the players they won’t move out or the players who won’t bring much in return.
The Leafs also don’t have a lot of picks. They have a crappy first, and we all fervently hope next year’s is worse, and they have a few depth picks. That’s it, no extras like Montréal’s cache of four second-rounders.
The only soon to be UFA of any value is Jake Gardiner, and there is a bigger question of what the team’s intention is there long term, but short term, a team does not improve on defence by trading away their biggest minute defender and the only one who is even a touch competent at that ‘find their way out of their own zone’ thing.
I can’t hear you shouting about John Tavares, I have Patrick Roy’s rings in my ears. Okay, JT would be great, if he doesn’t sign in San Jose or Vegas or right back with the Islanders, who have heaps of good picks, cap space and, soon, a new coach to sell him on team improvement. You can’t have your whole strategy to improve be to sign JT. What’s your plan B?
The Leafs aren’t likely getting another single 7 or 8 million dollar man. What they need is some judiciously purchased three to four million dollar men in their prime, not their decline. They might even have to take some overpaid players to get players better than their cheap depth. What they need are players better than their own average. They need an upper middle class.
As Montréal has shown us, getting that without giving up something almost as good or better is really hard.
The Leafs now have their management group in place; they have signed most prospects worth keeping, except a couple of very young ones; they have one high level prospect in Timothy Liljegren; they have better depth than virtually any other team, and they are on the cusp of their future.
And if they can’t figure out how to turn $23 million in cap space into some goals scored and games won, they’ll finish the coming season right where they ended the last one. Or worse.
Buy something, Leafs!
So there we are. Slice $500,000 off of all of those numbers and we’re good.