On July 10, the NHL and NHLPA officially announced the return of hockey. Although surprisingly not much has been made of the agreement, I believe that the two sides extending the Collective Bargaining Agreement through at least 2025-26 is a big deal. It wards off another possible shutdown of hockey – this time through labor unrest and difficult re-negotiation – for the next while. And, that’s a good thing for fans.
In the face of this CBA extension, there’s prevailing wisdom about what the Toronto Maple Leafs might do next. The extended CBA included the institution of a flat salary cap at $81.5 million for next season, which could also stick for multiple seasons. The final answer hinges on when revenue bounces back enough to support moving that salary cap higher.
In this post, I want to explore rumors about how the flat salary cap impacts the Maple Leafs – especially on defense. Then I want to look to see what general manager Kyle Dubas himself might have revealed about his organization’s plans.
Item One: What Are the Maple Leafs Plans for Negotiating a Flat Salary Cap?
I have great respect for hockey insiders whose entire work is focused on understanding what’s happening in NHL hockey. So, when The Hockey News Matt Larkin suggests that the Maple Leafs are going to be one of five teams that will struggle to deal with the flat salary cap, I consider what he says. By the way, the other he noted were the Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and Arizona Coyotes.
Larkin noted that, even after free agents Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci leave, the team won’t have enough space to “bring in one or two” solid right-shot defensemen. As a result, Maple Leafs general manager Dubas will have to shop Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, or Alexander Kerfoot to solve the team’s defensive issues.
Larkin also noted that Dubas might also try to acquire more long-term injured reserve (LTIR) contracts with David Clarkson and Nathan Horton coming off the books during the off-season.
I know the prevailing wisdom (rumors) is that the organization is likely to seek outside help to bolster its defense. However, I’m wondering if that’s really the case. And, I have been trying to look back to assess what the organization might have already told us about its plans.
Item Two: Is the Defense’s Right Side Already Covered by Mikko Lehtonen?
One of the fun parts of covering the Maple Leafs is trying to see a step ahead of Dubas, trying to figure out what he’s saying or planning to do. I’ve found him to be quite honest and straightforward about his thinking. Or, he’s quiet and then you hear he’s done something that seems a bit out of the blue. I can’t recall a time when he’s played a shell game with the media.
As a result, when I go back to look at what the Maple Leafs general manager says about the team’s defense, I’m wondering if he hasn’t already told us what the organization is likely to do. Specifically, when I look back to May 4 and read what he said after the team signed Mikko Lehtonen, I wonder if we might already know his team’s plans.
Dubas noted then, “As we go ahead, we know we’re going to have Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl. We’re going to be able to bring back [restricted free agent] Travis Dermott. And then we’ve got our younger guys in Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Teemu Kivihalme and Calle Rosen. And then you’ve got the decision on the UFA guys in Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie.”
He’s telling us here that he’ll bring back Dermott. He’s seeing a place for Sandin, Liljegren, Kivihalme, and Rosen. He’s also confirming that Ceci and Barrie are on the bubble.
Then Dubas noted the defense needed work by saying, “I think we’re trying to continue to build our depth there and we like our options, but it’s an area we need to see progress in – whether it’s the development of players like Dermott, or Sandin and Liljegren, or it’s the acquisition of players like Mikko.”
He’s saying here that he likes the team’s core and that’s the team will rely on its development system. He also focused on Lehtonen as a key.
When asked about what side Lehtonen might play on, Dubas answered during the conference call, “It’s such a hard thing to answer right now… I think we want to hopefully get back and finish our season and evaluate things from there. And then determine whether we want to try him on both sides. I think that versatility really helps.”
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In fact, I have to believe that, other than simply being a good defenseman, Lehtonen’s mobility made him so prized. Being named to the KHL All-Star and the number one defenseman in the entire KHL last season suggests his strength. That he led all KHL defensemen in scoring last season with 17 goals and 49 points in 60 games suggests his ability in that regard.
He also seems to be level-headed, driven, and hard-working. Although Lehtonen was not drafted nor was a strong player at first, he kept working and improving. That work paid off.
As he noted, “I think I wasn’t that good at that time [when I wasn’t drafted]. Hard to say one thing [as to why]. There were always good players being drafted, so I didn’t make it. But it doesn’t matter. I proved I can play at a really high level and you can still sign an NHL contract if you work hard.”
About playing on the right side, Lehtonen says that, although he’s a left-shot, he’s comfortable playing on the right side. “I’m okay with both. I played in Sweden on the right side. Sometimes I like more the right side.”
He’s also confident. Lehtonen is friendly with Kapanen, so he has some connections. As far as Toronto, he believes “they have great fans. And I think I’m going to learn a lot [too]. I’m a good two-way defenseman who can skate well and move the puck well, shoot the puck well. Those are my strengths and I hope I can bring those.”
Given what I read here, I have to think Lehtonen is going the be given a long look on the Maple Leafs right side. As I noted earlier in the post, I wonder if Dubas hasn’t told us that was the organization’s plan already.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
As part of yesterday’s announcement, the schedule for the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers was announced. Those games will begin on Saturday, Aug. 1 in the now-official hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto.
As part of that announcement, the top four teams from each conference will play a three-game round robin for seeding in the First Round. The Stanley Cup Qualifiers will be best-of-five series and the losing teams will enter Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery.
Let the games begin.