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Measuring the Leafs deadline salary cap space

How big of a fish are the Leafs shopping for?

San Jose Sharks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

The Maple Leafs are likely to add some kind of player between now and the NHL trade deadline on March 3. The first question shouldn’t be who, but how much can they spend. Leaving aside the issue of the draft picks and players a team has to give up to get a player in trade — and pay for salary retention on top of that, doubled up perhaps — the cap space has to exist to add the player to the roster.

On March 3, in the morning — so before the trade deadline at 3 pm — the 23-man roster limit goes away. The salary cap does not, and waivers exist, so clever schemes of stockpiling players in the minors until the playoffs only work if your team has a lot of exempt players. The only clever scheme that works is a plausible injury that gets better very conveniently when the playoffs begin.

So, how much space do the Leafs have? I’m supposed to give you a pithy answer, commit to a number and say it with conviction. I’m going to tell you the truth instead, and it is: who the hell knows, eh?

The reasons for this extreme level of uncertainty are so numerous and the situation so complex, that I tried a flowchart and it needed three dimensions, so words will have to suffice.

Is Jake Muzzin Playing Again?

This question splits the scenarios for Leafs trades into two very different groups. If Muzzin is out permanently, and I’m going to say that includes the playoffs, then the Leafs are operating in LTIR space for the rest of the season, and they have something like $2 million in pool space to add a player while the roster is at 23, or a little more if you cut it to 21.

If Muzzin does return, the picture is dramatically different. Unless some other highly paid player is injured, the Leafs would struggle to put a team on the ice without losing multiple players on waivers. They’d need to make some kind of change just to function. This is the scenario we covered extensively in training camp, and the numbers haven’t changed. They’ve actually gotten worse.

It’s natural for people to assume Muzzin’s return isn’t going to happen because it makes opinionating easier. It also seems highly plausible that the specialists Muzzin is set to see in February are going to offer bad news or maybe good news that involves surgery and a long time off. However, he’s not incapacitated. He can and has been skating, but recent reports of his consulting work with the Leafs and Marlies seem to imply this is the end of his on-ice career.

The bottom line is that if he is on the roster, the Leafs would have to remove salary to add salary. It would not be dollar-for-dollar, however, since we’re assuming here that there is no one else on LTIR. That would mean the incoming player’s salary would be prorated. A very thin silver lining, cap-wise. Of course, this also means the Leafs have Muzzin, who we’re presuming is only going to be activated if he can genuinely contribute like he did last playoffs.

If Muzzin is Out...

The math is easier and less hazy in this scenario. If Muzzin is out all year, the Leafs will only be able to add players dollar-for-dollar. That’s how LTIR works. When people talk about so-and-so only costing x in cap hit on deadline day, remember that won’t apply to the Leafs (or the dozen other teams in LTIR).

With that approximate $2 million to work from, what the Leafs could get is an experienced top-six winger if they also pay for one salary retention. If they trade a player like Alexander Kerfoot or Pierre Engvall, and move Calle Järnkrok down, they would have the space for a better forward.

But wait. Who ditches players who have been regular NHL rostered players all season at the deadline? Trades are risk calculations. You have to give up potential in picks and prospects, you don’t know if the player you’re going to get will get injured and never contribute, or just not work out. Can the Leafs afford to add to that risk by subtracting current players? Because New Guy would have to be better than Calle Järnkrok plus the loss of whoever you traded to make space.

Without removing anyone, and just with the space in the LTIR pool available, it’s possible to pay for double retention — or to get lucky on a cheaper player — and find some kind of winger who can really make a difference with a high degree of certainty. With double retention, the Leafs really could fit in Ryan O’Reilly, but the costs would be massive in picks and players, as it would for Timo Meier. The question Kyle Dubas has to mull over is how much future value do you sacrifice for this season?

I find it vanishingly unlikely that the Leafs will trade away a regular rostered player, no matter how necessary those deals are for fantasy trade math to work out.

The option exists to add both a defender and a forward, rather than going for a big swing on one player. Who that might be is absolutely driven by supply. The trade deadline is a seller’s market and choices are more about finding the best player who can reasonably fit your team, not the perfect fit at the cheapest price.

I can see the Leafs wanting to lean towards forechecking power in a forward or so-called shutdown defence, but they won’t get a player who can only do those things.

Remember the Goal

The Leafs aren’t trying to “just win a round”. They aren’t going to add a bad player who hits hard because you found last year’s playoffs unsatisfying and think banging Nikita Kucherov into the boards is the answer. They aren’t looking for depth scoring because that truism that you need your bottom six to chip in is just what you say when your top six isn’t getting it done.

The goal is to win as many games as the fates allow.

You get that by having your best players outplay the opposition consistently. There is nothing at all about the bottom half of the Leafs lineup that says it needs to be fixed. More of the same for insurance might be a good idea, but it’s hardly the priority.

Teams do not go into the playoffs, if they take their chances seriously, trading away players they already know contribute in meaningful ways. They don’t fill a hole in one place by digging a hole in the other, to quote Lou Lamoriello.

The Leafs, for a good enough return, are likely to trade any prospect not named Knies, and I think that really obviously includes Nick Robertson. He’s due back from injury soon, and that adds another layer to the deadline scenarios. If he returns on schedule, he’s got a month or so to prove he’s the deadline addition the team needs — a thing he hasn’t done at all up to now.

When you look at the team and see players you’re sure make more mistakes than anyone else in the NHL and have cap hits you’d like to convert into star players by magic, the Leafs see their strength down the lineup, the players who got them a season and a half of top five play in the NHL.

A winger who is, for sure, better than Järnkrok is the obvious addition. The trick is finding someone who can displace only $2 million of the LTIR pool at a cost the Leafs can stomach. Shoring up the defence as well as the top six, while bargain hunting on cost, might cost more picks and prospects than the Leafs actually have.

It’s easy to see why Kyle Dubas has gone for low-cap-hit role players lately. He picked players last year with inexpensive skills, and he got lucky, and they were all good. But the stable is full of low-cost, highly-skilled support players who never score goals. Is this the year to make the big swing on the most expensive skill type?