The Maple Leafs active roster currently consists of 22 healthy players plus John Tavares who is not on Injured Reseve (IR) at this time. These cap hits total less than $81.5 million*, and the 23 men (healthy or not) on the active roster cannot cost more than that. There is also $13,663,333 in cap hit for Nathan Horton, David Clarkson, Zach Hyman ($2,250,000), and Travis Dermott ($863,333) added on to the 23 other players, and those four are all on LTIR.

* the actual amount of the original 23-man roster and therefore the ACSL is $81,489,160, but those minor technicalities are beyond the scope of this article.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, try looking at this visual:

Visualizing LTIR

Mason Marchment is on SOIR and none of his cap hit counts.

Of that LTIR salary pool, $13,282,983 is in use, leaving $380,350. I’m going to call that cap space for the rest of this article, but that’s just for convenience. The Leafs will be adding and subtracting players from the LTIR pool for the rest of the season.

John Tavares

The dilemma currently facing the Leafs isn’t a very serious one. They have an extra forward even without John Tavares on the ice, a forward they’re willing to trade away, and they have an extra defender too. They could pick this team up and go on the California road trip without a qualm.

Because there isn’t enough cap space to add a player to replace Tavares, there’s no point in putting him on IR to create the roster room. Players on IR don’t count towards the Active Roster limit, but they do count against the salary cap.

For the rules on that, you need to read this post:

Understanding IR and LTIR for the capped-out Maple Leafs

If the injury to Tavares looks more serious and there is a good reason to recall another player, he could be put on LTIR retroactive to the day after the game against the Capitals. That would require him to stay out for 10 games, and he wouldn’t be able to return until November 13 against the Islanders.

There’s no need for any of that unless he really will for sure need to miss that much time.

Travis Dermott

This will get complicated when Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman are eligible to return. Both are practising with the team now, and it’s possible they’d be back on the roster already if they were allowed to be.

Just like with Tavares, because they are both on LTIR, they have to stay there for 10 regular season games and 24 days. While we now understand that LTIR can be used in the offseason, everything seemingly resets on day one of the regular season, and it doesn’t matter that both of these injuries occurred last year. They were both assigned to LTIR on October 1, so they have to wait out the time limit before they can return.

Game 10 is today, but 24 days, counting from October 1, runs out on Friday, just in time for yet another pair of back-to-back games. Both Dermott and Hyman will be eligible to return to the roster starting on Saturday, October 26.

Adding Travis Dermott to the roster is easy. His cap hit is fairly small, $863,333, and he can replace any of three defencemen, Martin Marincin, Kevin Gravel or Justin Holl, all of whom have cap hits of $700,000 or less. The Leafs could also remove the extra forward — let’s say they trade Nic Petan, that opens up a roster spot and enough cap space, and they can run 8 defenders if they like.

Someone has to come off the roster, though, that’s a given regardless of cap space because the Leafs are at the maximum allowed of 23 right now. Gravel cleared waivers once, and hasn’t played a game since he was recalled on October 14, so he can be sent back to the AHL without requiring waivers again (as long as it happens before November 12).

Zach Hyman

Making cap space for Zach Hyman is a more difficult task. One player has to be removed to open up a roster spot, but to create the cap space for him, things become complicated, and the timing of Tavares’s return is another complicating factor.

To keep this simple, let’s imagine that the Leafs simply swapped in Dermott for Gravel. Their remaining cap space with a 23-man roster would be $217,017.

On the day they want to recall Hyman, they trade Nic Petan for a draft pick. They now have a 22-man roster and $992,017 in space.

Hyman costs $2.25 million, so they are $1,257,983 short on cap space.

The only way to create that space is to remove two players. Any combination of two depth forwards or defenders is enough space. Even the two cheapest: Frederick Gauthier and Justin Holl add up to $1.35 million.

The extra defender (Martin Marincin or Holl) plus one forward can be cut, and while that brings with it the risk of losing players to waivers, this day was always going to come. The result is a 21-man roster, 20 of whom are able to play, and all of whom just fit under the cap.

Whenever John Tavares is ready to return, he simply knocks someone off the playing roster into the press box, and that’s the 21-man active roster as it will be for the rest of the season. It is not possible to make a 22-man roster that includes Dermott and Hyman without doing something silly to make it work out. Most reasonable looking 21-man rosters have about $200,000 in cap space left over. So entertaining ideas about improving the backup goaltender has to bear that budget in mind.

Luckily, the schedule does not include a lot of road trips. The Leafs play in Montréal on October 26, Philadelphia on November 2 and Chicago on November 10. Running a roster with no extra players at all in that stretch of games is fairly simple. Once the first big western trip on November 19 rolls around everyone should be healthy.

What if everyone isn’t healthy?

That’s the trouble. Hockey players don’t stay healthy just because you’d rather they not get hurt.

An injury to any player at all that’s severe enough to count as long-term under the LTIR rules, is the easiest problem to solve. There’s instantly one roster spot and cap space of at least their own cap hit to replace them with, and the Leafs stocked the AHL with a nice selection of cheap call-up options.

Even multiple injuries aren’t an issue as long as LTIR is a legitimate option for the injured players. The trouble comes when flu season rolls in and everyone’s kids start bringing colds back from school. The trouble comes when an injury like Tavares’s hits, one he’d likely play through in the playoffs. When a player can’t go on LTIR but should miss some games, the Leafs will be running with only one replacement all season long.

If everyone politely forms a queue to get sick or get banged up a little, that’s simple to solve, and it will be possible to swap the extra player for a forward or a defender or a goalie from the Marlies as needed. The risk of losing someone on waivers isn’t going to go away, but with the exception of goalies, there’s a lot of redundancy at the bottom end of the roster.

When multiple players are only a little bit hurt, then the Leafs will be running into the Roster Emergency situation as detailed in the rules post.

The end result could be that they have to play a game once in a while with only 17 skaters — a prerequisite to calling up a “free” replacement player under a roster emergency. The Leafs just did that for half of their win against Boston, and they survived. Most of the Leafs call-up options are under the $800,000 cap hit limit for a Roster Emergency replacement player, and they’ve obviously set the team up to be able to function on a short roster all season long.

The downside to the Leafs salary and roster structure isn’t that they might have to do without some of their interchangeable depth players for practices and maybe for a game now and then. The risk is that they have a limited selection of players who make significant impacts, and they need all of them healthy to be competitive. No one on the Leafs is being underplayed very much.

It won’t matter if Pontus Aberg or Kenny Agostino get called up to play on the fourth line. If one of them ends up on Tavares’s wing, then we might have a problem.

On the bright side, there’s not a lot of point arguing ferociously for one depth extra over the other because those decisions will be made by positional need and waiver status. Trevor Moore is going to push someone off that fourth line, all the way to the AHL, and that someone might be Dmytro Timashov, even though he’s been a lot of fun to watch so far. Jason Spezza has about two more games to convince the Leafs he’s necessary ahead of Nick Shore and one other forward. Someone currently playing is going to get cut, though. There’s no way around that.

John Tavares likely won’t be unavailable to play for much longer, and it will be a relief to have Hyman and Dermott back on the roster. And then we will have to just wait to see how this 21-man roster plan will work out.