Although Toronto Maple Leafs fans aren’t certain what the offseason will look like, it certainly looks as if the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will move the NHL’s upper limit of the salary cap in a downwards direction. In early March, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly had announced that the NHL general managers projected the salary cap ceiling for the 2020-21 season would be between $84 million and $88.2 million, which was a significant move upwards from the 2019-20 ceiling of $81.5 million.
The pandemic changed everything, and one of those every-things is likely going to be the upper limit of that salary cap. Here’s a simple reality. The COVID-19 pandemic has cost NHL teams revenue and, according to the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), both players and organizations suffer the results together – as negotiated.
What Does a Changing Salary-Cap Mean to the Maple Leafs?
Given the strong possibility of the salary cap’s downward movement, all NHL teams will be impacted – some more than others. The tweet from Cap Friendly released on March 4, immediately after the NHL general managers announced the new projected salary-cap limit, showed teams that might be most impacted.
This past week, fans with a subscription to The Athletic were able to read a number of considered insights from Jonas Siegel and James Mirtle that projected what the loss of revenue might mean to the Maple Leafs during the coming offseason. They spoke specifically about which players were safe, what players were on the bubble, and who would likely be moved. (from “Which Maple Leafs will be staying and going this offseason?” Jonas Siegel and James Mirtle, The Athletic, 14/04/20)
Which Maple Leafs Players Are Staying?
Mostly, their answers to those three questions won’t surprise many Maple Leafs fans. It’s easy enough to name those players who reside in complete safety – Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly quickly come to mind in the safe category.
As well, the team would seem foolish to move William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and defenseman Jake Muzzin. I’m also hoping that young Russian Ilya Mikheyev is signed.
Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci Are Likely Going?
However, and again this is no surprise, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci seem destined to be gone. Although some suggest that Ceci didn’t live up to expectations, it’s honestly hard to say that. In fact, there’s more truth to say he actually lived up (or down) to expectations, because most hockey analysts didn’t think he’d contribute much. Other than the fact that he hit the ice night after night until his injury, they were right.
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Ceci’s an unrestricted free agent after this season and if his new contract comes in at half or above his current $4.5 million it would simply be too steep to keep him. My prediction is that he won’t land nearly as gracefully as Jake Gardiner did after last season. Gardiner signed for the same $4.05 million with the Carolina Hurricanes that he had drawn from the Maple Leafs.
I can’t imagine Ceci will be offered a contract anywhere close to $4 million from any team. He’ll probably sign for somewhere closer to $2.5 million, and it won’t be with the Maple Leafs. Most Maple Leafs fans will believe it’ll be addition by subtraction.
Barrie’s a different story. He’s made $5.5 million for the past four seasons but that’s too steep for the Maple Leafs and he’ll likely be gone as well. In fact, that’s what Siegel and Mirtle suggest. They’re less than kind in their assessment when they note:
“Not only will the Leafs be challenged to make room for his next contract, but it’s also hard to make a case why they should even consider it. Barrie doesn’t bring what’s needed on the right side, and that’s a much sturdier defensive presence who can hang tough with dangerous players in a playoff series. We’re looking at a (very) likely one-and-done here.”
I’m personally a bit more generous in my assessment of Barrie as a player. Specifically, when Rielly, Muzzin, and Ceci were out with injuries, it was Barrie and a cast of kids who kept the Maple Leafs in games. No one could make a case that the team’s defense was strong, but they did enough right because the team continued to win more games than it lost. In many games, Barrie was the only veteran on defense.
What to Do About Johnsson
The other players Siegel and Mirtle name as being on the bubble are forwards Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and Alex Kerfoot. They suggest that one or possibly more than one might be used as an offseason barter.
They name Johnsson as the most likely to be gone, noting “To be honest, 50-50 might be high for Johnsson. The Leafs are going to have to shed payroll, and after a poor season, Johnsson could well be targeted.”
That seems excessively critical because Johnsson was injured much of the season. Furthermore, because he’s still rehabbing, that suggests there’s no proof-through-play that his injuries will be healed by next season. As a result, if the Maple Leafs move him, it will simply be dumping salary. Given his injury situation, it’s not likely he’ll fetch much in return. I don’t think general manager Kyle Dubas would do that.
The Maple Leafs Roster Will Be Changed
Regardless of which players leave, it’s pretty clear current roster players will be gone. Even if the upper limit of the salary cap actually was raised as was originally announced, the Maple Leafs are too close to the cap ceiling not to be forced to make significant changes. Now, given a likely salary-cap dip that’s impossible to ignore, the Maple Leafs will be forced to be creative.
Fortunately, that’s where Dubas and his team seem at their best. Aside from high draft picks, the Maple Leafs seem able to find NHL-quality in lower rounds. Pierre Engvall came in 2014, Travis Dermott and Dmytro Timashov in 2015, and Egor Korshkov, Carl Grundstrom and Adam Brooks in 2016.
Dubas also has a way of finding unsigned draftees, NCAA, CHL, and European players. Players like Trevor Moore, Mason Marchment, Justin Holl, Hudson Elyniuk, Justin Brazeau, and Ilya Mikheyev were his pickups. Recently, the Maple Leafs signed Latvian defenseman Kristians Rubins and forward Alexander Barabanov from the KHL.
Over the past two weeks, the Maple Leafs (or more specifically the Toronto Marlies) signed four players to two-year AHL contracts. Gordie Green (Miami University) and Bobby McMann (Colgate) were undrafted 23-year-olds who played four years and were captains of their NCAA teams.
Dubas also picked up 20-year-old Jeremy McKenna, who scored a career-high 97 points (45 goals, 52 assists) for Moncton (QMJHL), and 21-year-old Noel Hoefenmayer, who was drafted by the Arizona Coyotes in 2017, but didn’t sign. He wasn’t drafted in 2019, but he led all OHL defensemen with a career-high 82 points (26 goals, 56 assists) in 58 games with the Ottawa 67s (OHL) this season.
In other words, Dubas is amazingly good at signing quality prospects. The answer to the question of who’s coming to the Maple Leafs roster is that we don’t yet know. That said, the Maple Leafs cupboard is far from bare. By the way, might 2020-21 be the season we finally see Jeremy Bracco make his Maple Leafs debut?