Two years ago during free agency, Chris Mueller signed a two-year NHL contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If the name escapes you, then you aren’t a Marlies watcher, but you might have seen Mueller in preseason games this season and last. At the time he was signed, there was some consternation that the Leafs were “wasting” an NHL contract on a player who had, at that time, 578 AHL games played and 53 in the NHL.

Mueller finished his first season with the Leafs playing no NHL games, but scoring 52 points in 73 games for the Marlies, which was only good enough to be third behind Ben Smith and Andreas Johnsson. Trevor Moore, sneaked in ahead of him to push him to fourth in playoff scoring as the Marlies won the Calder Cup. It was Mueller’s second go at hoisting that trophy.

He rose up to second in points in his second Marlies year where he only played 60 games due to an injury. He was easily the best player on the team, however, and led the team in goals scored by 10 over his closest competitor (Trevor Moore, in only 46 games played). As an aside, this was the Marlies’ biggest weakness, disguised by the goaltending troubles — no one was scoring any goals.

Mueller played these two seasons on the Marlies on a one-way NHL contract that paid him $650,000 each year. That’s more than most AHL deals are thought to be, but AHL contracts are rarely public, so we can’t know for sure if some players on AHL deals make that much.

Something that can confuse fans because the Leafs and the Marlies share an ownership structure, is that a contract with one team is not the same as a contract with the other. To dig deeper, go here:

NHL, AHL and ECHL Hockey Contracts 101

One-way contracts pay the same amount even if the player is loaned to the minors, so for Mueller, his deal with the Leafs was a guaranteed salary amount, but he knew he was an AHL player. He’s an AHL star, in fact, and the NHL contract recognized his worth, not to the Leafs directly, but to the organization.

Any NHL-contracted amount due a player does not count against the salary cap as long as its AAV is less than that year’s minimum salary plus $375,000. This amount for the coming season is $1,075,000. As discussed yesterday, one-way NHL deals for players in the minors do count against the cap in the offseason, and the Leafs know what they’re doing there. They have none adding to the cap hit right now, and they likely won’t hurry to sign their AHLers this summer. They can also offer two-way deals with high minors salary amounts or guaranteed salary clauses (Kasimir Kaskisuo has this sort of deal) to help with their offseason cap squeeze.

All NHL contracts for players in the AHL or ECHL do count against the SPC limit of 50, but there are some contracts that can make it tough to stay under: dead money deals like Nathan Horton’s contract, contracts for prospects in the minors, or a host of NHL-rostered players on LTIR. If your team is filled to the gills with those, you start seeing a team hitting that 50 contract limit. For example, Arizona spent last season right on 50, and the year the Leafs took on the pile of contracts to trade Dion Phaneuf and signed every guy they thought might be worth a look, they scraped along at 50 most of the time, too.

Right now the Leafs have only 37, and they shouldn’t have any trouble in keeping some SPC space open. Most teams have lots of room to sign several players they intend to only play in the AHL, and it’s not a waste of anything.

The complaint from fans, either that they’re afraid the management is suddenly dumb and won’t be able to make that amazing trade later because of the SPC count, or that the player being given the NHL deal doesn’t deserve it, seems to be a confusion over how status is recognized in the NHL.

Fans often expect players on NHL deals to look like good NHL players when they look at their stats. And when a player who has been called up occasionally to fill in on the fourth line has bad-looking stats (like most fourth liners do), there can be a clamour of consternation that the GM is “stupid” for signing the player, or perhaps they are showing signs of wanting “old time hockey”. Likely, they just want a guy to play on their AHL team and everyone should calm down about it.

But emergencies happen too, and a rash of injuries can lead to Ben Smith or Chris Mueller back in the NHL for a few games playing 5 minutes a night instead of that prospect who isn’t ready yet. But the point of the one-way NHL deal for a player like Mueller is to pay him what a good veteran — a good pro — who is an excellent minor league player, is really worth. Because the heat map of a few five-minute games spread over 5 years isn’t going to tell you if a player will be good or even great in the AHL.

One of the things that watching the AHL for a long time can teach you is that a lot of players derisively called goons or facepunchers in the NHL are suddenly pretty good hockey players in the minors. It’s rare for an NHL enforcer to even exist anymore, and rarer still for them to be as truly inept as John Scott was so that he was worse in the AHL than the NHL, and yet that’s often the expectation when a team signs a guy with unimpressive NHL stats to play in the AHL. Tom Sestito was a waste of time on the Marlies, and he wasted most of it in the penalty box, but Andy Andreoff, the second most penalized AHL player this season, scored 55 points. He was a bad fourth liner in LA before he ended up Crunching bodies and scoring goals in Syracuse.

To ever get drafted or signed by an NHL team in the first place, a player has to be exceptional. Exceptional comes in degrees, however, and for most of the players chosen, they top out at something less than bad NHL fourth-liner. That doesn’t make them bad players. Ben Smith led the Marlies to the Calder Cup. Mark Arcobello racked up points at a rate higher even than William Nylander on the Marlies and was the 1C ahead of Nylander’s incredibly good second line. Neither one of those players was a waste of a contract or hilariously bad decisions by the team.

So, remember: Not every signing of a player to an NHL deal is for an NHL player, and some of those “bad” players are the stars of the AHL. They’re important people, necessary in nearly every organization, and they deserve the status reward of an NHL deal and a decent pay cheque for playing and mentoring the prospects. And if they end up playing a few fourth-line shifts when half the team is banged up, the world won’t end. For Leafs fans, you can trust that the management team knows what they’re doing, and they won’t bungle the cap or the SPC count over the next good pro they want on the Marlies.