This is how it works. You go to CapFriendly, click on the Leafs page, scroll down — ignoring who they’ve set as the NHL-rostered players — and look at the cap space and then notice the roster size and fudge it around by some player or other and announce the number.
That is the precise, to the dollar, cap space the Leafs “have”. It’s math. Hard facts.
Except back when Kyle Dubas lied outright about not being up against the cap when they were, he started mentioning flexibility. That was the true part of what he said that day. Flexibility is a euphemism for “I will trade players, even the ones you like.” It’s also a euphemism for “I will sign players we all have to hope are good enough.”
Dubas could absolutely stop trading or signing anyone right now, and work through the contracts on his three RFAs: Ilya Mikheyev, who is going to arbitration if he doesn’t settle first, Joey Anderson and Travis Dermott. The cap space, however you come to a precision number on it, is not relevant to any of that work.
We spend so much time on this here at PPP, discussing salary cap issues in fine detail because the Leafs have spent years making that necessary that I forget sometimes that the general understanding of all of this is so vague that there’s still someone reading this that thinks getting an LTIR contract in trade fixes the problem.
There is no problem. There are only choices to be made.
The Maple Leafs need to pick 23 or fewer players to make a roster on the last day of training camp that adds up to $81.5 million or less. That is all the cap space issues they have to consider. You can do that so many different ways with their current roster, it should keep you busy on Armchair GM, sending implausible players to the minors for hours.
Most of these choices are not particularly significant. Something’s happened to us all as we’ve nodded over the T.J. Brodie signing with some level of indifference, and then fixated on depth players and worried over pennies. We’ve lost sight of the fact that the top-six forwards, both goalies and the top-three defenders are carved in stone. After that there’s a list of forwards and defenders who are extremely likely to make the team. And then at the fringes are choices that are not very important.
Here’s some things to consider: The Maple Leafs did not sign Mikko Lehtonen and Alexander Barabanov to the team, work on getting them settled in now — Lehtonen on a short-term KHL loan, and Barabanov in Toronto by now by some reports — with the intent to tell these men they’re playing in the AHL. They are 26 years old, not prospects signed out of junior or the NCAA.
Same goes for Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian. They are on the team.
Rasmus Sandin was really rather bad in the NHL last year, and the very strong intent could rest in the Maple Leafs management to not play him there at all this year. Or certainly not at first. Nick Robertson is not a lock to stay in the NHL after the WJC is over.
Pierre Engvall has a little bit of waiver exemption left, which doesn’t mean he should go to the AHL to make your cap calculation work out. Aside from how implausible that is that a team would pay a guy over a million and then declare that a mistake and send him to the minors, there’s the simple fact that there won’t be an AHL to cut him to.
Most people don’t pay much attention to the signings of AHL-level players to NHL contracts other than to complain about it. Leafs fans used to be terrified of SPC space issues, now they’re terrified of cap space issues, even though the management can add and subtract just fine. But these guys that get ignored usually get signed in the dozens, even hundreds, in free agency, and the Leafs have added... Maybe one? Joey Anderson might spend some more time in the AHL, but he’s got a lot of NHL experience that says to me he’d have to really bomb out in training camp to get cut.
There is no place to be cut to. No one is signing AHLers, either to AHL deals (the Leafs signed one of those) or NHL deals, because there is not going to be an AHL if the NHL starts in January. Let’s say for the sake of argument, the NHL figures out how to start playing January 1. The earliest likely date of an AHL start is March 1.
That means a couple of things. That’s only one - two months from the end of the European seasons, and players like Egor Korshkov and Filip Hallander can come over when they’re done and perhaps join the AHL in progress.
We have no idea what rules the NHL and NHLPA will agree to to run something like the playoff rosters with the taxi-squads of extras. We have no actual idea where the players who might be cut will go, but it might be no farther than a seat up in the Scotiabank Centre with a little sign posted reminding them to leave the mask on in case they’re on camera. That could impact who the Leafs choose to keep, and who has a lot of value in trade to teams that aren’t swimming in depth players.
The Leafs are not done. This is obvious, not from finding a fantasy cap space number to believe in, but because they have too many depth defenders who cannot be shunted around like Martin Marincin and Calle Rosen can. They have to make a trade there. They also have too many depth forwards, some costing more than others.
The two obvious tradeable players to ease the excess, clear cap space, and not really harm the Leafs’ actual value on the ice are Pierre Engvall and Justin Holl.
Engvall, with his little bit of waiver exemption, is really useful for the kinds of machinations a team using LTIR needs on the final day where they fiddle around getting the total cap dollars of their roster exactly how they want before they assign someone to LTIR. Engvall to Edmonton!
Holl, a right-shooting defender who can impersonate a top-four defenceman much better than Cody Ceci can, has some offensive abilities, virtually no defensive value, and he should have several teams looking to snap him up at his decent deal.
I don’t believe the Leafs are making the moves for cheap depth like Boyd and Vesey just to make cap space as some kind of thing of value in its own right. Some space to accrue to the deadline is good. But there is a line at which at team is giving away wins by leaving it unspent.
I think the Leafs are creating “flexibility” to sign another defender who is a real top-four guy, not a good seat filler.
At the end of the day, I think they liked their Pietrangelo scenario so much they decided to do it for real, slice off the depth one overpaid bottom six player at a time until they had room for Pietrangelo. But instead of trying to sign him, they’ve decided to go for two defenders that will make, combined, something close to Pietrangelo’s salary. Whenever Vegas sorts themselves out enough to sign him.
That’s my bet, and so far this offseason, Dubas is surprising me more than usual, but as always: We’ll see where this goes.