In Leafs Nation it’s never too early to ask a question like this. It seems to happen every time there is a high profile free agent-to-be that was born anywhere near the city of Toronto. It happened when Steven Stamkos nearly made it to free agency. Now, it’s John Tavares’ turn to hear all the rumors about him and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
However, is this even an option?
Tavares is the biggest bargain in the NHL who’s not on an entry-level contract. His cap hit stands at $5.5 million. He doesn’t even have the highest cap hit on the New York Islanders. That belongs to both Jordan Eberle and Johnny Boychuk, who both have $6 million cap hits. Even Nick Leddy has the same cap hit as Tavares.
Saying that Tavares’ next contract will have a higher cap hit is like saying the sun will come up tomorrow. We know it’s going to happen. The big question for the Leafs is can they afford him?
The first thing that you have to consider is that the Leafs have their own players to re-sign, namely the big three of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Those three are going to take up a considerable chunk of change of the Leafs’ cap space, at least $20 million.
So we know that the Leafs have to give a lot of money to those three. The next question is: who do they have coming off the books? James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Eric Fehr, Dominic Moore and Roman Polak will all be unrestricted free agents. Altogether, that’s $15.5 million coming off the Leafs’ cap. They then have Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey and Curtis McElhinney coming off the next season.
Will any of those players be back? In all honesty, the highest chance probably belongs to Bozak among the higher profile players with the Leafs center depth. However, if the Leafs do manage to sign Tavares, Bozak is definitely not coming back.
How does this all happen? Well, first thing is that Tavares actually needs to want to come to Toronto. The Leafs are good now, but who knows if that “I don’t want the pressure of playing in Toronto” stigma is still there? The second thing is that all of Tavares, Matthews, Nylander and Marner will have to take a hometown discount. What that looks like for each player will be different. Matthews and Marner’s contracts can even wait for another year after this offseason.
The Leafs are going to lose the $5.25 million relief they get with Joffrey Lupul on Long Term Injured Reserve as his contract is over on July 1 as well. They will still have the $5.3 million relief that Nathan Horton on LTIR. So they can still go slightly over the cap should they need to.
The biggest thing that makes this possible is that the Leafs have young prospects that are ready to play in the NHL. Kasperi Kapanen is chief among those players and there are more. If most of the Leafs’ free agents leave, they can replace them with players like Kapanen. You know what that will mean for the Leafs? Inexpensive players that don’t take much room on the cap.
Now, this is not saying that Tavares should come to the Leafs. It’s not saying that the Leafs even need him. However, it is possible. With the Leafs looking like they will be Cup-contenders in the coming years, it might be something that Tavares and other players will want to be a part of.