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The John Tavares contract details tell us who this new Leafs team really is

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This is the biggest deal on the books for the Leafs so far, although we might see a similar deal for Auston Matthews.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The basics are easy. The signing of John Tavares adds $11 million in cap hit for the Leafs this season, which without William Nylander signed, leaves the team with almost $14 million in cap space for him and Andreas Johnsson. The Leafs need to add some more incidental players to the roster, too, but they won’t be expensive. This is all doable without using the LTIR pool created by Nathan Horton’s contract. But that extra $5.3 million is always there to use for additions to the roster.

That’s this year. Things get tighter next year with the contracts to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner coming on board, but that’s not a problem to solve, so much as a goad to focus the minds of the Leafs’ brass to cut the fat from the roster, to begin the years long process of making the tough call on players. They either need to return value or they’re out.

The star roster spots are filled. And this will be something we’ll have to get used to. We aren’t shopping for talent outside of the draft much anymore. Oh, and there’s a point: There were no draft picks consumed in today’s business.

We heard today that the Leafs are willing to move on from Matt Martin and his slightly bloated contract. That’s good for the future, but not crucial now. And no, TSN, the Leafs don’t have to trade William Nylander just to deal with the cap hits of Tavares and Matthews.

What the Leafs have going for them is a very inexpensive defence. And they have a loaded up prospect pipeline of defencemen, which is good because we now live in a world where Roman Polak and Connor Carrick get paid $1.3 million.

When defencemen get expensive, the smart play is to draft defence, but buy forwards (subject to availability of the player you think is best). If this means the Leafs are going to ride into the future with a top heavy lineup, well, fine. Because that’s a very heavy front end.

The story is going around that Tavares took less to play for his hometown team, and as fun as it is to get caught up in “He likes us, he really likes us!” a closer look at the deal Dubas did with Tavares might raise a couple of questions about that. You see, AAV isn’t everything.

First, let’s have the corrected numbers. Obviously this signing-bonus-heavy contract structure is designed to be somewhat buyout proof in later years, but it’s got another function. It’s main function is lockout protection.

To pay these epic signing bonuses, you need to have the kind of cash flow very few teams can boast of. This is a strength of the Leafs as a cash-rich team with an almost non-existent debt load. They can cut a cheque for $15 million and smile about it.

They cut one today, and Dubas is smiling:

They did that at the exact same time the ACC was becoming the Scotiabank Arena, a deal that will pay $40 million per year, up from the $4 million Air Canada paid for the former name. What’s a $15 million cheque in light of that?

It’s wrong to think that the salary cap (which went up in part because of that Scotiabank money) truly handcuffs wealthy teams the way it appears to on the surface. There are always advantages to be found with wealth.

Maybe the San Jose Sharks could have matched that deal structure. Maybe Boston could have. But what this deal does is guarantee that Tavares gets most of his salary, no matter when or how long a lockout or strike might last. That makes up for a lot of AAV difference if the team who will pay more isn’t willing to do it within that structure.

LA did something similar with Ilya Kovalchuk and Drew Doughty, although not nearly on the same epic scale.

San Jose, who isn’t backed by an owner with pockets as deep as MLSE has or the Kings have, might not have had this option at all. It’s hard to imagine the Islanders could have done it.

As we all know, the sponsorship earning potential for Tavares is limited only by how many Canadian Tire ads he wants to do. I’m not sure I buy the hometown discount narrative, as cute as it is. At the end of the day, playing for the Leafs has monetary benefits that far outstrip any concerns about taxes, the AAV, or the cost of a downtown condo.

Playing for the Leafs comes with some costs in lost privacy, excess attention, and the chance that someone will write a silly column about you in the newspaper that has no bearing on reality.

Playing for the Leafs also comes with the opportunity to play on a team that is not going anywhere but up. Just don’t look behind you, never look back, just believe that Freddie is there to stop the puck.

Forward momentum is what it’s all about.