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Who wins the Maple Leafs Minimum Salary Olympics?

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Who’s making the Leafs? The player with the lowest cap hit or the best player?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Los Angeles Kings
Nick Shore is both a good centre and is paid $75,000 more than Frederik Gauthier.

Now that Mitch Marner has signed his contract, the effect of his cap hit will ripple through the roster and will have an impact on who makes the Leafs on the periphery.

Mike Babcock said after the first day of training camp that there are five jobs up for grabs on the Leafs: backup goalie, two third pair defenders and two fourth-line forwards. That’s on-ice jobs. There’s also room in the press box for three more players, and all of those positions are going to be taken by players with very low cap hits, many at the minimum, and a couple below this year’s minimum of $700,000 (they’re on two-year deals structured to keep the salary at $700,000 and the AAV lower). Training camp was set up to be the Minimum Salary Olympics. Marner’s deal simply sets the stakes.

The question is: Can the Leafs make a 23-man roster on merit, ignoring the cap hits of their players of choice? Or is money the deciding factor?

Phase One: Making the roster on October 2

October 1 is the day all teams have to have a cap-compliant roster, and the Leafs might do some shuffling on that day to get the maximum out of their LTIR pool this season. If we assume for the sake of argument that no one gets claimed on waivers, the final, actual roster will be re-formed on October 2 to face the Ottawa Senators.

Barring any last minute admission that rumours of Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott being injured were overstated, the opening roster is certainly going to have three players on LTIR and maybe four.

This is a potential arrangement:

Andreas Johnsson - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Kasperi Kapanen - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Trevor Moore
Kenny Agostino - Jason Spezza - Nic Petan
Nick Shore

Morgan Rielly - Cody Ceci
Jake Muzzin - Tyson Barrie
Martin Marincin - Jordan Schmaltz
Ben Harpur

Frederik Andersen
Michael Hutchinson

This is a 22-man roster with Travis Dermott on IR only. With no consideration given to cap hit, I just picked the players I think are most likely to be selected and placed them where I think they’re going to play. The unused LTIR pool with this roster is $109,801, using CapFriendly’s Armchair GM tool.

Note: on the first day of camp a line was iced that had Kapanen on the left wing, and Adam Brooks and Jeremy Bracco obviously standing in for John Tavares and Mitch Marner. I think that’s Plan A for a top six without Hyman. Plan A won’t necessarily last through preseason, however.

If the Leafs are sure Dermott is going to miss more than a week of the regular season, they can choose LTIR, and that opens up another spot to add anyone they like at any cap hit. They can play Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren in a couple of games or they can look at Pontus Aberg or even the expensive ($842,500) Jeremy Bracco.

Right out of camp, merit wins the roster spots and two or three press box seats on what can be a full roster.

Phase Two: Travis Dermott is healthy

When Dermott is ready, the Leafs can slot him in on the roster and, if they were running eight defenders with him on LTIR, they need to cut one of them. Otherwise, they just send someone to the press box if they were only using seven. The unused LTIR pool is the same $109,801 from above.

Phase Three: Zach Hyman is healthy

This is the part where the real effects of Marner’s deal will be felt. If all I do is add Hyman and subtract Nic Petan — which I did mostly because of roster construction decisions, but Agostino could go instead — I am over the available LTIR space by $1,365,199. That’s two players that need to be cut, or one who makes $1,500,000.

Of course, a feature of the Maple Leafs is that no one makes that. The gap sits between Mikheyev at his ELC rate of $925,000 and Hyman at $2,250,000 and no one is in between.

If I decide that Ben Harpur has had a fair shot to show he’s more than he seemed in Ottawa, and has failed at that, I’ll cut him. Maybe I want him, though, and I want to cut Jordan Schmaltz, who makes less. Let’s see if I can work that out.

If I cut Schmaltz, I need to find $665,199, which is, whew, less than what everyone on my list of potential cuts makes. I can cut anyone I like — Marincin, Agostino, Shore, it’s wide open. To make a 21-man roster fit, I can have total freedom in who I pick. I never have to worry about how far they are from the minimum. Here’s how I did it:

Andreas Johnsson - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Zach Hyman - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev - Alexander Kerfoot - Kasperi Kapanen
Kenny Agostino - Jason Spezza - Trevor Moore
Nick Shore

Morgan Rielly - Cody Ceci
Jake Muzzin - Tyson Barrie
Travis Dermott - Martin Marincin

Frederik Andersen
Michael Hutchinson

The unused LTIR pool is $59,801. You can cut Shore or Agostino and add an extra defender, and that fits fine.

I can’t get a 22-man roster to work, even by doing ridiculous things like cutting Trevor Moore and Travis Dermott.

Other Considerations

If the Leafs want to call up Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren, things get tricky. They both have a cap hit over $800,000, making them expensive relative to all the players competing for spots on the roster.

Edited to add, because performance bonuses that are possible to earn have to be counted as part of the cap hit for using the LTIR pool, Liljegren actually costs an extra $400,000 if he’s called up mid-season. Thanks to “The Good The Bad and The Ugly” for pointing out that I’d forgotten to take this into account.

To call up one of them for a trial run, I can use the nuclear option — cutting a couple of players who shouldn’t be cut and replacing them with Frederik Gauthier and Justin Holl — but I can also do it simply by running a 20-man roster for that period of time. That’s not ideal, and it lessens the likelihood that either prospect will see NHL time this season, but they are both supposed to be busy in the AHL and aiming for next year.

Note: the roster limit goes away at the trade deadline, but the salary cap stays until the playoffs. Once the playoffs are here, the call-up limits are the only factor affecting roster choices until the Marlies season is over.

I’ve completely ignored the question of the backup goalie. If Hutchinson isn’t the man the Leafs want, they have to find someone who will take the job for next to nothing in salary and therefore cap hit. If Michal Neuvirth wins the job in camp, what he’s won has to be a deal no more than $750,000 or the Leafs have to start shuffling their skaters based on cap hit first.

That might not be the wrong choice. It might well be more sensible to pick Gauthier over Shore or Holl over Marincin (particularly if they are sitting in the press box) than it is to cheap out on the backup. But if something happens (injuries, total failure of both Neuvirth and Hutchinson) and the Leafs need to go shopping for a backup already under contract, then the choice may come down to running a 20-man roster all the time in order to squeeze out space for a goalie who makes over $1 million.

For right now, the Minimum Salary Olympics is a merit-based competition. But anything can happen in the season, and the day might come when cap hit trumps ability.