How the Leafs Can Improve and Avoid Salary Cap Problems

Leafs Can't Afford to resign Kulemin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Leafs Can’t Afford to resign Kulemin (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Due to the recent contracts of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, David Clarkson and Dion Phaneuf, the Leafs are faced with the problem of being close to the salary cap and not having the money available to make necessary improvements.

According to, the Leafs have spent $49 million of the $71 million cap and have only 12 players under contract for next year. That means the Leafs have approximately $22 million to spend, which seems like a lot, but they have to sign at least 10 players with that money, an average of only $2.2 per player. To put that in perspective, if they were to sign star-ish type player for $5 million, they’d only have an average of $1.9 million each to spend on 9 players.

Considering they would probably have to pay Mason Raymond around $3 million to re-sign him, this looks like bad news.

Fortunately, it might actually force the Leafs to make some difficult decisions and get rid of some dead weight, or at least move in a different direction with players who,while not exactly dead weight, need to be changed in order to ice a more competitive roster.

First, their salary situation being what it is, they almost have to buy-out Tim Gleason. Doing so would save them nearly $3 million dollars on the cap this season.

Secondly, it would be ideal to move Joffry Lupul. Lupul has 4 more years left at just over $5 million each. While he’s a useful player, and a personal favorite, Lupul’s salary would probably be more palatable to a team with less cap pressure. The Nashville predators came out this week and said they’d trade their 11th overall pick for a top-six forward. Lupul is easily that, and they’d have him for several years. I don’t know if Nashville would necessarily do this, but it or a similar trade is worth exploring.

Two picks in the top 11 would be a great situation for the Leafs, but it would also give them the option of using both those picks to move up higher in next week’s draft. Whether or not this is something that could happen, it’s at the very least good to have options.

Trading Lupul and buying out Gleason – a slow and terrible player who is not long for the NHL – would save the Leafs around $8 million dollars.  Other obvious savings can come in the form of Carl “Gunnysack” Gunnarsson, who is set to make $3.1 million. Miscast on the top pairing, Gunnarson is really an expensive 5th or 6th defenseman and he should be moved to the first team willing to offer up a draft pick.

If they could get rid of Colton Orr – and it’s unfathomable that they could bring him back – that’s $12 million saved and now gives them $34 million in cap room. Of course, they’d now have to sign 14 players with that money. A challenge to do so while improving, but not impossible.

Just Say Good-by to Some Free Agents.

Franson has to go (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)
Franson has to go (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

One of the best things the Leafs can do this summer is walk away from some of their free agents. In fact, it’s the supposed need to re-sign so many RFAs that has the Leafs in such a precarious position. In my estimation, if they let many of them walk, or trade their rights and fill the lineup with young players, they will be able to have enough money left over to add some strong pieces, hopefully through trades.

As I wrote last week, passing on Dave Bolland is an obvious move, since paying $5+ to a third line centre who has no offense to his game is pretty much just insane.

Cody Franson, an offensive defenseman on a team chalk full of them, who is 6’5″ and has zero physical presence, needs to be traded and not resigned. Franson would probably expect somewhere in the range of $4 to $5 million and would not provide a shred of value at that price. Should Nonis be able to fetch a second rounder for him it would be a coupe. Waivers, however, are preferable to re-signing him.

Nikolai Kulemin will need a raise on his $3 million, and should also be jettisoned. Leo Komarov provides more grit and would likely be cheaper to re-acquire than Kulemin, and he’s a more effective player. Leaf’s fans inexplicably love Kulemin, and yes, he’s a useful player, but not at over $3 million.

Mason Raymond is another player the Leafs have to let go. At a million, he was a bargain. But, he won’t score 20 goals again (who would give him so much powerplay time?) and he won’t be worth $3 million. Someone will give it to him and regret it by next year, it just shouldn’t be the Leafs.

By saying good-bye to Franson, Bolland and Kulemin, the Leafs will be off the hook for approximately$14 million dollars. If you remember, they only have $17 million to spend at this time, so it should be quite obvious most of these guys have to be let go; hopefully all four. This is money that can be allocated, rather easily in my opinion, to get better value for money spent.

So, Everyone’s Gone, Who Do You Get?

That’s the big question. Should the Leafs follow the plan I have laid out, they would have about $34 million dollars to revamp their roster, but they’d need around 10 new players,and need to sign 14 more overall. Now that would be one hell of a ‘culture change’.

Let’s say they did the smart thing and re-signed Reimer ($2 million) Gardiner ($3million) Carter ($1 million) and McClement ($2 million).  That’s $8, but let’s round it to $10 just to be sure, since I don’t actually know for sure those guys would take those amounts. Add in Kormorov and it’s $13, which leaves $21 million to sign 8 or 9 more players.

If you plan on improving your roster at all, you need to spend some of that on at least one star defenseman capable of playing on the top pairing. In order to afford that, the Leafs would need to fill out the roster with cheap young players. While their farm system isn’t great, there are several players who should be able to make the jump next year if given a chance.

Clearly not all of these guys can stepright into the NHL, but the Leafs can save some money by giving long looks to defenseman T.J Brennan, Matt Finn, Stuart Percy, Korbinian Holzer and Petter Granberg.   That’s five guys who would make nearly insignificant amounts of money and whom all have shots at decent NHL careers. Are any of them stars? Maybe not, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous to think that two of them could provide value equal to Franson and Gunnarsson, at a third of the cost.

On forward, there is the aforementioned Ashton Carter, who, for the love of God, we can only hope Toronto Management realizes will provide an infinitesimal amount of value in comparison to the hopefully-not-coming-back Orr and McLaren.  Also, there is Jerry D’Amigo, Brad Ross, Greg McKegg, Tyler Biggs, Josh Leivo, Fredrick Gauthier, Trevor Smith, Peter Holland and Connor Brown. That is nine players – most of whom will probably never be above average NHL players – but who can provide bottom-of-the-lineup depth.

If the Leafs can take 3 of the young forwards and two of the young defenseman with them for next season, assuming just under a million each, the Leafs would have around $15 million to spend on the 3-5 player sthey’d still need, two of which are negligible since they would likely be healthy scratches most nights, giving them the chance to sign or trade for 3 high-quality top-of-the-lineup players making an average of $5 million.

In Conclusion

With this plan, the Leafs would be taking a chance that several young players (the graduating Marlies, plus the likes of Kadri, Gardiner and Rielly) would improve significantly over last season, but it would give them salary cap flexibility, assets to trade and money to spend.

It also lets them retain some of the players they have ridiculously and publicly mused about moving, such as Phaneuf, Kadri, Gardiner and Riemer, all of whom need to be retained.

Thanks for reading.