This is how the story will go:
The Tampa Bay Lighting are looking to add some exciting talent this deadline. They’re looking over everything the New York Rangers are willing to part with, and they only have $1.8 million in cap space, but at the deadline, that’s like having over $8 million. They’ll be able to add that underperforming Ranger and have him blossom into a playoff stud.
And you, a Leafs fan, might get excited about the possibilities of adding someone like Chris Kreider, who this time, this one time, won’t suddenly be really terrible defensively as soon as he’s in this shade of blue and white.
You, a Leafs fan, don’t get to have this dream.
All through the season, as fans all over Twitter, this blog and elsewhere have suggested player movement was to “bank cap space”, they have been sadly disabused of this notion. When professional media members need to have it explained too, you know it’s a widespread misconception. Sportsnet even fed some lines about this to their own on-air team.
We’ve been smug about knowing that doesn’t work, but now we need to face up to what it means. Teams in LTIR don’t get to prorate the cap hit of the players they acquire partway through the season. December 1, January 15 or February 24, it’s all the same deal: Player movement is cap hit dollar in, dollar out.
The reason for that is that the thing the cap hits are coming in and out of is the LTIR pool. There’s no magic for the Leafs this deadline, there’s nothing but some very tight math.
Currently, in addition to the two LTIR contracts pictured above (Nathan Horton: $5.3 million, David Clarkson: $5.25 million), the Leafs have Jake Muzzin ($4 million) and Ilya Mikheyev ($925,000) on LTIR. Trevor Moore could be added, as he’s just on IR right now, but his $775,000 isn’t moving the needle much.
The total LTIR pool right now is $1,965,350, and you might notice that’s not enough to recall Muzzin. The two million or so needed to bring him back when he’s healthy will take the Leafs right up to the point of playing without a full roster, and with only a few thousand in LTIR pool left available.
To add a player now or on February 24, the Leafs absolutely must remove a player from the roster, either by trade or by demotion to the AHL of an equivalent cap hit. That’s total cap hit, with no proration. So when the Lightning go shopping in Manhattan, they get everything on sale, deeply discounted, and we don’t.
And don’t forget that you can only “bury” $1.075 million of any contract in the AHL, so no, you can’t just put Cody Ceci on the Marlies and have lots of LTIR pool to play with.
Any clever scheme to trade away the Clarkson and Horton contracts by using a cheat code, or bundling in Jeremy Bracco and a third or something, will fail because the result would be a team that, at best, could be a few thousand below the cap while running a short roster.
This is it, this is where the Leafs are, and it’s going to feel really unfair. But like any good fairy tale tells you: If you magic away bad deals like Clarkson’s, eventually you pay the price for it. The amazing thing is that the Leafs got out from under three other big mistakes (Phaneuf, Marleau and Zaitsev) without having to spend any more time in LTIR. This year is the last year (fingers crossed) where we ever have to talk about David Clarkson’s cap hit, LTIR, salary pools or any of that business.
Take heart though, there are currently 12 teams using LTIR who are in exactly the same boat. One of them is the Boston Bruins.