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New Year, New Contracts — Extensions will be coming for some Maple Leafs

Eventually, that is.

NHL: NOV 25 Maple Leafs at Wild Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the year turns over, it becomes possible to re-sign NHL players on one-year contracts to extensions. It also becomes more likely that players on longer deals that are expiring will get re-signed as well. Players, like Auston Matthews, with one more year left after this one on their current deal still aren’t eligible for an extension, however. This won’t stop people from endlessly talking about Matthews’ new deal, but he isn’t signing anything until July 1 at the earliest.

The players just now eligible for extensions are:

  • Pierre Engvall, currently at $2.25 million
  • Ilya Samsonov, currently at $1.8 million
  • Zach Aston-Reese, currently at $840,630
  • Jordie Benn, currently at $750,000
  • Carl Dahlström, currently injured and at $750,000
  • Victor Mete, currently injured and at $750,000
  • Some largely AHL-only players on NHL deals

The Leafs obviously like Engvall, would want to re-sign him if there was no other roadblock to doing that, but one thing that is getting in his way is the play of other players like David Kämpf and Pontus Holmberg on cheaper deals. Calle Järnkrok, who also earns less and is signed for three more years, can play up the lineup successfully, whereas Engvall can do it and not fail. Not quite the same thing.

Ilya Samsonov, who is an RFA, has no incentive at all to re-sign now. He wants to cash in on a full season of proof that he’s a starter-class goalie. He’s a mercenary, hired by the Leafs to tend goal and bulk up his resume.

Salary Cap

Complicating the Engvall decision, and all the rest of them, for the Leafs is the uncertainty around the salary cap. Gary Bettman has made two announcements about next year’s cap ceiling. The first was a claim that Hockey Related Revenue (HRR) was projected to be at the borderline of enough to trigger an approximate $4.5 million increase in the cap. It the HRR failed to meet that projection, the cap would go up by $1 million instead. This was a curious announcement in that it ignored the provision in the Memo of Understanding, aka the new CBA, that the NHL and the NHLPA could negotiate an interim rise in the cap to move from the $1 million increases to a formula based on real revenues in a more appropriate way.

The second mention concluded that HRR was not going to rise enough, and that was the point at which media actually asked about this negotiation process. No real answer was given.

This looked to me like the actual start of those negotiations via public announcement and it put the NHLPA on notice — as they are slowly, oh, so slowly hiring a new head — that they need to be ready with a position on raising the cap.

Where that leaves teams making decisions about new contracts is in the dark until the summer.

Tagging

There is also another problem, and it’s a thorny issue called tagging room. The rules for tagging room are so complex, the calculations so difficult, that I have never seen anyone do it successfully, and every journalist I’ve ever seen report on its effects has been told the situation by Bill Daly. In a very rare case of the NHL realizing the CBA is just unusable in its current form in some cases, the MOU contained a very sensible and simple change to this concept. Now, the formula is the same as calculating offseason cap space.

For anyone who has forgotten the ~500 times I’ve said this on this site: offseason cap space is not that number on Cap Friendly. They show a projected next season roster, which is what you really want to know 99% of the time. Offseason cap space is calculated using a completely different definition of which players count against the cap, and its that definition that calculates “tagging room” or determines if there is “space” for the extension.

Now, why do this at all? The effect is to limit the signing of contracts for big raises in-season. The theory, as best I can work it out, is that it was considered a kind of circumvention to have a player like Michael Bunting say, signed at less than $1 million, who you can lock up for a huge multi-million dollar, multi-year deal in-season, so he knows he’s secure and highly paid. It’s effectively backloading a contract.

The Leafs have a lot of open positions next season with 14 expiring deals for currently rostered or LTIR players. The tagging room issue is likely not a big problem for them — it was reported to be what caused a delay in Jake Muzzin’s extension back in 2020 for several weeks after it was signed. But, I’ll be honest, I’m not doing this calculation to find out.

UFAs and RFAs

Speaking of Michael Bunting, the real business occupying the minds of the Leafs brass is expiring UFAs they could have re-signed last month or last summer. The players ending multi-year deals this year as UFA are:

  • Alexander Kerfoot - $3.5 million
  • Justin Holl - $2 million
  • David Kämpf - $1.5 million
  • Michael Bunting - $950,000
  • Wayne Simmonds - $900,000
  • Dryden Hunt - $762,500

Considering that list is topped by the two most fantasy traded players in Maple Leafs history, it’s not really very likely that any effort is made to re-sign either of them before the trade deadline, or even the draft. Bunting is the only name here that the Leafs would want to lock up before the playoffs. Does he agree, though? Or does he want to make a bigger playoff impression and get a bigger contract?

The pending RFAs not on one-year deals are easier:

  • Pontus Holmberg - $827,500
  • Joey Anderson - $750,000
  • Conor Timmins - $850,000
  • a host of AHLers, including one notable in Erik Källgren

We might see Holmberg and Källgren get the “good soldier, we like you” new deal after the deadline, but there’s no urgency here either.

Speculation is More Fun

This lack of real need to lock anyone up as soon as possible — which I believe a GM does by just manfully insisting, or at least so I hear — means that the discussion in fandom is going to go to exactly where you think it will: the big shots who can’t re-sign until July 1. Auston Matthews and William Nylander.

So, okay, I’ll play along. I don’t think the Matthews issue is an issue. He’ll be re-signed for 17% of whatever the salary cap is projected to be in 2024-2025, and it won’t be for longer than five years. That will be an AAV north of $15 million, and my rough guess is 15.5. He’s not doing that deal until there’s a hard number on next year’s cap, though.

William Nylander is nothing at all like his father who played for all 32 teams in the NHL, married young and had a host of children. Obviously, William believes in marriage. To a hockey team, I mean, not to a person, my god, he’s not doing marriage to a person until his hairline hits middle-aged Swede. But he married the Leafs once after a bizarrely acrimonious negotiation, and he’ll do it again nice and quietly this time. He’ll want eight years, and he’ll play ball a very, very small amount on the AAV. His current deal is now only 8.4% of the salary cap. His next one will be at least 10%, and his ask is likely going to be 12%. I get about $10 million or a hair less as his AAV, which will make people howl and look like a bargain after two years.

While this is going to be the weird discussion point (endless hand-wringing worry) for the entire next six months, the real decisions about the roster next year will come after the playoffs and long before those deals are done. There are a lot of openings, and a real opportunity to redo the entire team from just below the top to the very bottom based on some actual analysis of what the team needs, not the outcome of the single most recent playoff series and which player made the most recent mistake.

Kyle Dubas is not deciding this now. You don’t decide how to use your bench in the final minute of the game while the first period is underway. You don’t write out your playoff starting lineup in January, and you don’t know your needs next year while this one is still ongoing.

We’re going to get a Bunting deal, some boring depth player deals, Matt Knies and maybe a few new “free wallets” for the Marlies in the spring. It’s possible one of those players the Leafs like more than the fans do gets an extension in March, but right now I doubt it.

When the playoffs are over, there’s a lot of work to be done on deciding who the Leafs will be next year. For this winter, save your speculation energy for the trade deadline.