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Salary Cap Loopholes and Well-Timed Injuries: Can the Leafs pull off the Chicago Gambit?

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Is there a clever LTIR scheme to replace Morgan Rielly that will let the Leafs have their cake and eat it too?

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly celebrates after scoring against Chicago Blackhawks in the third period at Scotiabank Arena. 
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no salary cap in the playoffs. You’re going to hear that a lot now that Morgan Rielly is injured. You’ve likely already heard it. Pierre LeBrun jumped on TSN to talk about what the Leafs can do to add a new defender at the deadline, and the talk naturally turned to that time Chicago “found a loophole” in the salary cap. It’s exactly the sort of clever scheme that appeals to people, and is the sort that is usually impossible to pull off.

LeBrun doesn’t think the Chicago gambit will work for the Leafs because Rielly is scheduled to be reevaluated in eight weeks, or mid-March, and that’s almost a month from the end of the season. But he does think exactly the same thing he thought last year — teams will call up the Leafs looking for a deal swaps a defenceman for Kasperi Kapanen. And by teams, I think we all know he means Carolina because whenever the subject of Kapanen comes up, everyone always means Carolina.

What is the Chicago Gambit?

In 2015 Patrick Kane broke his clavicle about a week before the trade deadline. He had surgery to repair it and Kane and his $6.3 million cap hit went on LTIR. The team physician announced on February 25 that Kane would be out about 12 weeks. That prognosis would have taken him right into the last round of the playoffs before he was eligible to return.

Chicago took that enticing pool of cap space and made some trades over the next few days. They added Kimmo Timonen, Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins. And because all stories are Leafs stories, the player they traded for Desjardins was Ben Smith, and one of the picks they gave to the Flyers for Timonen ultimately became Jeremy Bracco.

Chicago did this, not because they were sure Kane was done, but because they were sure he wasn’t coming back during the regular season. Once the playoffs start, the salary cap and the roster limits are both gone, and teams have a nearly wide-open playing field to stock their teams with whoever they have, including reactivating players off of LTIR no matter how massive their cap hits are.

As it happened, Kane didn’t sit out for 12 weeks; he came back for the very first game of the playoffs, and a lot of eyebrows got raised over that. Mine have stayed up. In retrospect, the choice to have the team doctor make the statement that included the 12-weeks estimate seems very calculated, very Chicago, very NHL.

And even though Chicago added some questionable players at the deadline, it all worked for them, they won the cup, and there is no asterisk on the engraving with the words: Cap Circumvention etched in.

Was That a Loophole or Circumvention or Luck?

There really aren’t so-called loopholes in the CBA. It’s a convoluted document that balances multiple interests — like most contracts — but it’s rarely got holes where unforeseen schemes can flourish.

The CBA actually did foresee teams being less than truthful about a player’s health in order to use LTIR. The league has the right to demand proof of any player assignment to LTIR and we’ve seen that happen. We’ve even seen that happen to Chicago. That check against abuse relies on the team doctors not wanting to put their professional reputations in jeopardy in the service of salary cap shenanigans. The league can also just bring in their own doctors and double check.

Where the grey mists descend is at the other end of an LTIR assignment. The league could demand proof that a player languishing on LTIR is still hurt. They could, but they don’t. And as long as teams are confident the league will simply remain happily ignorant of returning health, and no player ever files a grievance, we can all go on with this — not a loophole, more of a polite fiction.

I think it needs to stay polite for the league to stay onside. To date the league has smiled and nodded over teams very slowly reactivating players from LTIR via the conditioning stint. This is the short conditioning loan to the AHL, where the player stays on LTIR while in the minors and does not automatically come off when they return to the NHL. It shouldn’t be confused with a regular 14-day loan where no cap savings are enjoyed by the team.

Teams will send a player who was hurt, and might be ready to return to the AHL, watch him rip up the minor league, play 25 minutes a game, every game, and then when he comes back, he’s just mysteriously not quite ready to be declared fit. Not until the team sorts out the roster and makes cap space, that is. The most egregious example of this was done by Lou Lamoriello as GM of the Leafs when he left Nikita Soshnikov on LTIR long past the time anyone believed he even had a hangnail, and then left him there a little longer after he proved he was the healthiest player the Marlies had ever seen.

St. Louis did exactly the same thing the next season with a player they’d just acquired by the name of Nikita Soshnikov. The stakes there were low in both cases. It was a question of a team not wanting to waive a depth player, not one of a team making use of $6 million in cap space in a cup run. The League rarely kicks up a fuss over low-stakes manoeuvres like that.

Can the Leafs Pull This Off?

The Leafs could pull off the full Chicago Gambit with Morgan Rielly’s cap hit, but only legitimately. Chicago did not escape heavy criticism in 2015, and the league only has so much tolerance for everyone thinking there’s one set of rules for Chicago, another nearly as good set for the Leafs, and then there’s everyone else.

If Rielly could be legitimately expected by the deadline (February 24) to be out for the rest of the season — so there would need to be a real setback in his condition — the Leafs could likely use his $5 million in cap space to add a player, secure in the knowledge that Rielly wasn’t going to be back until after the salary cap was no longer a concern. In other words, no shenanigans would have to be needed to keep Rielly on LTIR, and it would all need to look plausible as well as be plausible.

Remember, that’s still LTIR pool space, so it’s dollar for dollar on a player. Chicago had to add some aging players on lower cap hits because of that problem, and the Leafs would still be less able than the Lightning to add expensive players en masse in a giddy run for the cup. That was the Lightining, by the way, Chicago beat in 2015 in the final.

Defencemen Aren’t Free

But you still have to pay for Sparky the Amazing Unicorn 1LD. (It’s been a long time since we’ve been fantasy trading for lefties, and I assume no one would object to a deliriously good rightie either.)

The asset pool is pretty shallow for the Leafs. They have their second-round draft pick, the Columbus third-round pick and two fourth-round picks for this year along with six in the final two rounds. They have the full set of their own picks in 2021 and 2022, but no extras.

Their surplus players and prospects don’t amount to a long list, but they would likely be willing to move out one of Andreas Johnsson or Kasperi Kapanen for the right deal. But it would need to be a good deal, not a desperation deal because before we get imagining a cup run with a brand new defenceman of quality, and a magically healed Morgan Rielly, as well as Jake Muzzin bouncing back fast from his busted foot at age 30... we need to actually make the playoffs first.

And the Leafs are currently one point up on the Panthers — you know, the team that thumped them in the game where Rielly busted his foot?

What About a More Modest Approach?

Pierre LeBrun suggested a more realistic trade that is cap hit out, cap hit in. He immediately suggested Kapanen, of course, but there are other options there where a player for player deal could bring in someone at least better than most of the defenders left on the roster. Not the famous “Jeremy Bracco and a third” for whoever you want deal, but not something that needs a first-rounder to pull off either.

There is no rush, even though the Leafs proved that making a trade well before the deadline is better than a last minute deal with Jake Muzzin. This time, the Leafs need to know their position before they commit assets. And they also need to know the capabilities of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Now more than ever, that needs to be fact not conjecture.

There are three games before the bye week, and then another 10 before mid-February. That’s all the game action the Leafs are going to get to assess Sandin, Muzzin’s state of recovery and to get a better handle on Rielly’s real return date.

That’s when they can look at their asset pool, and see what that amazing collection of sixth- and seventh-round picks and a few low-level prospects can get them.

If nothing else, at least no one has to worry about a cap crunch until the last few weeks of the season, but the chances of their being a new $5 million dollar man on the Leafs blueline in February are very slim.