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Making some sense out of the Maple Leafs salary cap

Eventually, the squeeze is going to come. Maybe.

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Only a few weeks ago a trade of someone off the Maple Leafs roster who played all of last season on the team seemed inevitable. There wasn’t enough cap space to fit in everyone, and even with some players lost to waivers, as seems inevitable, that wouldn’t make the remainder cost less. That hasn’t really changed, not even with John Tavares injured for a few weeks.

To illustrate this, instead of just recreating the CapFriendly page, which shows the Leafs over the cap by a significant amount on a projected roster, let’s look at it in a new way.

The salary cap is $82.5 million, and the Leafs have one little scrap of “dead money” from the rollover of Timothy Liljegren’s bonuses earned last season. Their true available cap space is actually $82,287,500.

Most of that is already spent on regular rostered NHL players who were on the team last year or who were signed this offseason to be on the team. None of these players will be cut to the minors:

Centres

  • Auston Matthews
  • John Tavares
  • David Kämpf

Wingers

  • Mitch Marner
  • William Nylander
  • Alexander Kerfoot
  • Michael Bunting
  • Calle Järnkrok
  • Pierre Engvall

Defenders

  • Morgan Rielly
  • Jake Muzzin
  • TJ Brodie
  • Rasmus Sandin
  • Timothy Liljegren
  • Justin Holl
  • Mark Giordano

Goalies

  • Matt Murray
  • Ilya Samsonov

That roster of nine forwards, seven defenders and two goalies costs $81,018,116. That leaves $1,269,384 to add three forwards to have a 21-man roster. That’s the real discretionary cap space.

The candidates for the forward jobs on one-way contracts are:

  • Nicolas Aubé-Kubel - 1,000,000
  • Wayne Simmonds - 900,000
  • Kyle Clifford - 762,500
  • Joey Anderson - 750,000
  • Adam Gaudette - 750,000
  • Denis Malgin - 750,000
  • Zach Aston-Reese - PTO

Assume Aston-Reese signs for the minimum of $750,000. Pick three, any three, and you get some number no lower than $2,250,00 and no higher than $2,662,500.

No matter who you pick, there is no room for three now that Sandin has bulked the defence corps up to seven. There isn’t even room for two. The cap space is gone. The well is dry.

Enter training camp injuries, of which the Leafs have been blessed with a large number. This blessing both gives and takes. All these guys hurt now — Liljegren, Engvall, Tavares, Dahlström, Benn, Gaudette, Woll, etc. — if they are still hurt by October 11, they stay on the roster on SOIR (Season Opening Injured Reserve). If they are on a two-way contract (only Dahlström and Woll and the etc. are) then their cap hit is prorated by the number of days they were in the NHL last year. Dahlström and Woll are affected here, as they both have a few days worth of cap hit that will count. All the rest of the players count 100% against the cap in a way no different to regular IR.

Whoever is hurt enough to be on LTIR (10 games or 24 days) will be on LTIR providing a pool of relief that will allow several cheaper players to stay on the roster, making up the numbers and avoiding waivers. It can be easier to get a player through waivers on day two of the regular season than the day before rosters are finalized. But two or three weeks in can mean a guaranteed loss of a player. This is not the primary concern of roster construction, it’s not even a secondary concern. The Leafs built in enough redundancy that even with defencemen dropping like flies, they could have got along without Sandin.

Those injuries allowing the roster to bulk up with depth amount to kicking the can down the road. If the Leafs get lucky and everyone heals up, the trade talk will heat up again. Surely by now, it’s understood that Kerfoot isn’t going anywhere? No? Okay.

But you’re saying: “Just trade Justin Holl, I don’t like him anyway.” Okay, the return now would be even worse than a few months ago, but if the Leafs just keep procrastinating until Liljegren is back and Tavares is ready, their needs and another team’s needs might line up.

The total cap space of the players not going to the minors drops to $79,018,116 if you trade Holl, and the space to slot in three necessary forwards and a 21st man becomes $3,269,384. And that just barely covers Aubé-Kubel and three minimum salary players. One of those players could be a defender like Victor Mete or Jordie Benn, who both signed for the minimum. It likely depends on who survives waivers.

Nick Robertson’s $796,667 could be squeaked in there, but it’s not likely he even makes the team on merit. But there’s no Alex Steeves or Pontus Holmberg. No Nick Abruzzese or whoever is yet to make a big impression in preseason. There is no battle for promotion at Leafs camp. The contest is to avoid demotion. There’s no room here for Wayne Simmonds or for Zach Aston-Reese to sign for anything over minimum.

This major squeeze only happens on the fateful day when the entire roster is healthy. And it’s genuinely possible that day never comes. But it is actually better for it to happen in early November than October 10. See: procrastination pays off. Never move out a player for cap space until the very last second because not ever trading the player can also be good asset management.