It's summer! The birds are singing, the outdoor rinks are dry (and probably melting or covered in ash), and the World Cup is on! This is surely the best time to talk about the most fun part of hockey – meeting the salary cap!
Okay maybe that wasn't my best sell job. But nevertheless, the Leafs need to get under the salary cap ceiling before the first day of the regular season meaning there are moves to come.
As of right now, the Leafs have one unsigned RFAs in Nick Abruzzese. His extension, along with PTOs and junior ELCs in September and October are all we can really expect for the rest of the summer. There are some NHL-calibre UFAs still out there who will take one-year deals or PTOs, but not much more money is left out there.
That means it's both a good time to cover our Top 25 Under 25 and look at the Leafs roster and ask what they're going to be in 2023-24.
The elephant in the room is the scary -$12,381,450 in red on the Leafs Cap Friendly page. While it is the sum of the expected 23 players and two injured players contracts, it's not reflective of where the Leafs are come the regular season.
For one, Jake Muzzin will be on LTIR. That cap number now goes down to -$6,756,450.
Next, Cap Friendly expects the Leafs to have 24 players on their roster next season. 13 forwards, 7 defenders, 3 goalies, and Nick Robertson on IR. Once the season comes around, it's expected the Leafs will run a 20 or 21-player roster with two goalies and only one extra skater.
A rough trimming gets the Leafs roster down to 22 players (Woll and Timmins the extras) and ~$5.2 million over the salary cap. Now, that's a number we can work with. That's the deficit the Leafs need to solve.
Paths to Cap Compliance
There are many paths for this to happen, the most obvious being magicking away Matt Murray's ~$4.7 million cap hit.
There are three ways to subtract Matt Murray off that $5.2 million overage.
The first way is to trade him, meaning anywhere from ~$2.35 million (50% retained) to the whole ~$4.7 million will leave the Leafs books. Presumably the Leafs won't do a deal and retain multiple millions on the deal.
The second way to remove Murray is to buy him out in the second buyout window the Leafs have access to (and should be around Wednesday or Thursday of this week). A buyout would cost the Leafs $687,500 this season and $2 million in 2024-25. This brings down the cost a lot, but it's painfully not enough.
If the Leafs were to do the buyout, waiving Conor Timmins would still leave the Leafs between $59k and $84k above the cap, depending on whether Holmberg or Gambrell is on the roster. That means Lafferty has to go, too, whether or not he has a good camp. Sorry for the double standard, Conor, but the defense is a much harder roster spot to crack. In short, the buyout method is not enough to be a nice solution. It would be messy, especially with that second year.
The third method is something only the Leafs know if they can do, which is put Murray on LTIR. Is the Leafs goalie who played 26 games last year injured? And if he is, is he injured enough to be out for the whole season? Nothing in this path can be cheated or lied about. Physicals are physicals, and if the player is getting shafted, it will get out one way or another.
The Leafs made one trade in late July back in 2019, when they acquired David Clarkson again from the Vegas Golden Knights because they determined they were already going to be in LTIR and having another body there wasn't going to hurt. On the flip side, the Golden Knights wanted to get out of LTIR so they could bank cap space. Could a similar trade happen the other way around with another team? Someone who can either put Murray on LTIR or play him if he passes the physical at training camp?
In the cases where Murray is traded or put on LTIR, the Leafs would have $600k in space with Woll the backup, Timmins in the minors or lost on waivers, and a 20-player roster for opening night. If Lafferty loses his job, then they can afford an extra skater.
If you were to ask me, I would guess Murray is getting traded, and the team that gets him will anticipate he plays games for them.
Trade Someone Else
Okay, but who? Without Woll, the cap hit needed to remove is $4.4 million. Without Woll and Timmins, it's $3.3 million. The only players on the Leafs roster not named Matt Murray that wasn't recently signed/re-signed are listed below:
- Morgan Rielly ($7.5 million)
- William Nylander ($6.9 million)
- TJ Brodie ($5 million)
Along with being three of my absolute favourite Leafs, fixing a mediocre cap problem by removing either the team's elite offensive defenseman, elite defensive defenseman, or elite play driving winger is ludicrous. All three of these players would need to be replaced. No, John Klingberg isn't replacing Rielly. And whoever can replace Brodie or god forbid Nylander either isn't available, isn't as good, or isn't going to be cheap.
That said, I'm willing to have two conversations.
- Is Nylander for sure, without a doubt, not getting a contract extension in Toronto? The conversation I would have is how do the Leafs stay a contender without him? Because they take a big step back without him.
- Did TJ Brodie's replacement for next summer become available this summer? In that case, who are they and how much? I would be willing to listen on finding a comparable to Brodie making underpaid RFA money before an extension next summer. But then again I'd also like a million unicorns.
The obvious answer here is say goodbye to Murray, and trim whoever else is needed to be trimmed. It's a boring answer, but it's the statistically most probable one to happen. The reason why I say this is because I trust Brandon Pridham and the Leafs to not be dumb. They know the contracts they've signed, they have a plan to get down to the cap, and they've never traded someone like TJ Brodie a month before training camp because they "accidentally" signed a skid mark to $3 million.
The only question I have is how the Murray situation is going to be resolved. A trade is going to be tough, but necessary. Same with a buyout. And LTIR would raise a lot of eyebrows since he was healthy at the end of the playoffs. I'd love to ask what happened between then and now.
Until then, have a good summer, and don't forget to subscribe as our Top 25 Under 25 is fast approaching! I'm ready to end some prospects careers!