On the weekend, Kyle Dubas signed Joe Thornton and then met the media to say that he’s mostly done messing around with the roster. He’s not planning to sign anyone or trade away anyone just for cap space. An obvious caveat on that first part is that some more AHL players will be signed, and some of them might be on NHL contracts. But, we should expect the NHL roster to be chosen from the existing players on the team right now.
An even more obvious caveat on the entire concept is that training camp is months away and anything can happen.
Everyone Starts on the Team
A lot of things will happen before the next NHL season begins, but that does not mean everything will change. When NHL training camps begin, everyone on an NHL contract is on the NHL roster.
The only certain exception to that so far for the Leafs is Mikhail Abramov, who has already been loaned to junior since his season there has begun. It’s possible that Egor Korshkov’s loan to the KHL is for the full season, but Mikko Lehtonen’s is definitely not. Filip Hallander will also be available to the Maple Leafs at training camp, and they can keep him on the NHL roster if they want. If not, he can be returned to the SHL, but the deal made by Pittsburgh with Luleå says he can’t be loaned to the AHL instead.
Training camp is going to decide who is on the NHL roster for the season and who is not just like always. And as Dubas said very pointedly, no one on the Leafs had had the kind of success that says they can claim a given roster spot. He was speaking specifically about the defence, but it applies to some of the forwards as well.
The Salary Cap Has Been Uncrunched (Mostly)
With the moves that have been made, and an expectation that neither Travis Dermott or Ilya Mikheyev will be signed to very large deals, it is possible to make a variety of versions of a 21- or 22-man roster out of the players currently under contract without doing anything too outlandish — like moving anyone more highly paid than Pierre Engvall to the AHL.
One note to those using CapFriendly: their pages currently list projected or estimated regular-season roster. No one they are showing as in the AHL (like Engvall) are actually in the minors. No one is in the minors right now, see point one: Everyone starts on the NHL roster. Also, following on from that the “cap space” is a projection, teams are in offseason cap space now, which is calculated differently, and of which the Leafs have almost $4 million.
Waivers, Waivers, Waivers
No one understands waivers. I know this, you know this, and imaginary roster construction almost always fails at a waivers hurdle. Waivers are not a garbage disposal! Players are not put on waivers to be gotten rid of. Many players require waivers to be loaned to the AHL, and the overwhelming majority of players who are waived, clear. Every year, we think seven guys will be lost. And it doesn’t happen. You want to know why?
Because in order for some other team to want to claim a player off of waivers, they have to be planning to keep them in the NHL. So they have to have an NHL contract space and roster spot open for players the Leafs think of as surplus. This is why extra backup goalies and depth forwards sometimes get claimed, but in very small numbers.
The Leafs do have some players who potentially won’t clear, who they will obviously be sending through waivers to the AHL. Denis Malgin has extensive NHL experience and hasn’t been waived in some time. Aaron Dell is also in this class. Kenny Agostino is more of an AHLer you can call up, but you never know, someone might grab him.
None of that — not even Dell’s risk of waiver loss — should upset you. Losing Dmytro Timashov on waivers wasn’t a loss. Waiver exemption is usually not the primary reason roster choices get made, but it can factor in.
The following players are potential NHL-rostered Maple Leafs and are waiver exempt enough to be sent down on day one of the NHL season to make a cap-compliant 23-man or less Active Roster:
- Nick Robertson
- Pierre Engvall
- Alexander Barabanov
- Egor Korshkov
- Joey Anderson
- Mikko Lehtonen
- Rasmus Sandin
- Timothy Liljegren
There are many other regular AHL players also in this category. But to use the obvious example, Mikko Lehtonen is not going to be cut from the team to make the numbers work out, Rasmus Sandin is.
Papering Down and Banking Space
The term “papering down” refers to a paper-only transaction where a waiver-exempt player is sent to the AHL and then recalled again within a short period of time. This happens for three main reasons.
When a team needs to place a player on LTIR, it’s beneficial to have an Active Roster that comes as close to the salary cap upper limit as possible. Moving a few players around to achieve that is common.
When a team wishes to make players eligible for AHL playoffs they have to be on the AHL roster on the trade deadline day.
During the season, when a team operating without LTIR usage has a homestand or off days, they can paper down some players to get to the minimum roster size and then end up banking more cap space for use at the trade deadline. We should expect the Leafs to do this whenever possible, and Dubas mentioned this in his presser.
To accomplish that trick, you need to have waiver exempt players who don’t lose that exemption by playing in the NHL. Joey Anderson has more than a season of NHL games played before he loses his exemption. Pierre Engvall has 15. It isn’t fear of waivers at play here, it’s time. Papering someone down doesn’t work so well if you have to wait a day for them to clear. So for this reason, if Anderson makes the NHL roster, that’s a useful side benefit.
The bigger the cap hit of the player you can paper off the team, the better. Lehtonen and Barabanov are good choices with their max-ELC salaries of $925,000. Sometimes teams are reluctant to use higher-status players for this purpose. It’s like they think it looks bad or something, but I’m not sure the Leafs will care about that. Nick Robertson cannot be used in this way since he cannot play in the AHL.
Players who are not on an NHL Active Roster cannot practice with the NHL team, and while the Leafs and Marlies practice on connected icepads, they have been reasonably scrupulous about this in the past. You cannot just plunk your extra goalie in an NHL practice, for example. You have to call him up and have his salary count against the cap for that day.
What if There is No AHL?
That’s a very good question, one the new CBA Memo of Understanding does not address. There is an adjustment to waiver rules that makes an AHL season that starts before the NHL more plausible to arrange, but the opposite case isn’t spelled out.
This is just one of many things that the NHL and the NHLPA will have to sort out before play begins. But one thing that is not up to them is the rule that prevents Nick Robertson from playing in the AHL. That agreement is between the NHL and the Canadian Hockey League, and the CHL has no incentive to change it unless they believe it will be impossible to play any WHL, OHL and QMJHL seasons, and that seems so implausible as to not be considered.
The AHL, meanwhile, has not released a tentative start date publicly, but a host of NHL teams, including the Leafs, started signing AHL players all within days of each other, so it’s safe to say they believe an AHL season of some description will take place. Expect some clarity on those tentative plans soon, but there is one person you can assume has the inside scoop: Kyle Dubas.
How will things be handled if there’s a substantial time gap between the NHL season start and the AHL? No one knows that. So assuming one thing or another is correct is not how a good team manages the roster.
The Crowded Leafs
Ilya Mikheyev is expected to go through his arbitration hearing on Wednesday, and then by the end of this week, his salary will be known. With him on the roster, the Leafs have 14 regular NHL forwards plus newcomers Barabanov and Robertson, making 16 plausible choices.
With Travis Dermott signed, there are seven defenders who are expected to be in the NHL without counting Rasmus Sandin, so it seems like he’s got to be cut.
Dubas discussed the defence in some detail at the link above, and Mark Masters reminds us that Dubas previously said they expect Dermott to play the right side.
That makes this the general depth chart:
Morgan Rielly - TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Mikko Lehtonen - Zach Bogosian/Travis Dermott
The situation seems to be a fight to surpass Bogosian for Dermott and Holl, with a big question in my mind about Lehtonen and where he will really play. Many people believe he is a top-four defender, sight unseen. We will see. But if he can best Holl and Bogosian and Dermott while playing on his offside, that makes the question of how to sort out these seven defenders a little different to how it looks right now.
My take is this: The Maple Leafs would either need to regularly play 11F and 7D or else they’d have the best press-boxed defender in the NHL every night. They likely need Bogosian on the ice for PK duties most of the time, so I don’t expect him to sit out a lot.
It’s good to have depth and injuries happen, but that’s not an easy call to say who you cut off that roster each night.
The forward roster is something like this:
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
William Nylander - John Tavares - Ilya Mikheyev
Jimmy Vesey - Alex Kerfoot - Wayne Simmonds
Nick Robertson - Joe Thornton - Jason Spezza
And a clever person should be able to add that up to 22 players, and if you keep the RFA signings reasonable, it fits under the cap. Do you want to put Pierre Engvall on this team? Go ahead, add him, send Robertson to the OHL, and the result is nearly the same total cap hit. That’s not a bad concept roster with the understanding that Robertson might get cut once there’s an OHL season underway. There is no reason to expect there won’t be an OHL season at some point. The WHL has a very good and sensible play to begin in January.
Move players around however you like them here, since it’s not clear who the sixth forward in the top-six will be or who will play on the third line. None of that is really the point.
Barabanov is the dark horse here on the forward side of the equation. If he makes a case for making the NHL roster — and I can’t see him playing in the AHL, so it’s NHL or gone — then he will force the team to move Robertson off, and to not play Engvall at all until there’s an injury. That also fits cap-wise.
One again, we’ve proven the Maple Leafs can add and subtract, but this feels too packed a roster to me, even if it’s possible to do it, even if there’s many advantages to it. There’s lost opportunities to convert players who aren’t getting in very many games or who have been cut to the AHL into some kind of return. There’s lost opportunities to play younger players like Malgin and Anderson. What is the point of Engvall in the AHL? But if they make the case for themselves that they should never be moved to the minors in camp, they likely won’t be, and other decisions will get made.
We can’t guess the winners and losers of this competition now, but it is really nice to finally see a tough decision on the depth.
I don’t believe this whole roster of players will see the start of the season, and it’s fairly unlikely they’ll all see the end of it. I think some one or two players will be moved later when the trade market heats up and the returns return to normal. It won’t be necessary to make cap space, but not every single player is going to feel like a fit for the team once they hit the ice.
Remember when the 4C was a sure bet in August because there were no other choices, and the idea of competition to get in the top four of the defence was laughable? Yeah, this is hard to complain about. I have faith that people will, though.