Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Free Agents, Bonuses, Pietrangelo & Ceci

This season’s NHL activities are very different. In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share some of those differences. As well, I’ll note some of the ways the Maple Leafs organization differs from other NHL franchises.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Brazeau, Nesterov & Mogilny

Finally, I’ll take a look at why the team won’t be signing star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and consider what might happen next season to Cody Ceci.

Item One: July 1 Came and Went, and No Free Agent Signings?

As the Hockey News Sam McCaig pointed out yesterday in his article about NHL free agent signings, July 1 was different than any other in recent memory. There were no surprise signings, no huge contracts, no bidding wars, no drama to speak of – nothing.

That’s quite a change. Usually, the hockey world perks up on July 1 because of all the action. Chalk up another cost of living in a season militated by COVID-19. There’s the hope of a return to hockey, but even that’s a bit foggy.

In the absence of team-changing free-agent signings, McCaig looked at the 10 biggest July 1 UFA signings in the past 10 years. At number two on McCaig’s list – right after Artemi Panarin who signed with the New York Rangers (seven years at $81.5 million) – was the 2018 Maple Leafs signing of now-captain John Tavares (seven years at $77 million).

Auston Matthews John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews celebrates with teammate John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

What has Tavares brought to the team in those two seasons? First, he’s brought skill. He’s scored above a point-per-game pace since he joined the team. He also set a career-high for goals with 47 last season. He’s brought class and the respect of the NHL, given his inclusion as one of the few players on the Return to Play committee. Finally, he’s brought quiet leadership that asks teammates to follow by example.

What he hasn’t brought yet is playoff success. Although he’s only had one crack at the Stanley Cup with this team, they fell again to the Boston Bruins last season in round one. Where he might lead his team this season is still in question.

Item Two: The Maple Leafs Organization Got Poorer Yesterday

The Maple Leafs work differently than most other teams. One attraction of being a star in Toronto is that once a year you suddenly have a huge influx of money deposited into your account when your signing bonus is paid.

Related: Sour Grapes: Don Cherry Is Biased Against The Maple Leafs

For the Maple Leafs, that day was yesterday. There’s joy at my house when my monthly Canada Pension cheque gets deposited. I can’t imagine what Auston Matthews thinks about an influx of $15.2 million. Did he wake up and check if it was deposited?

It was no surprise that the NHL agreed that all players due signing bonuses would be paid in full. Even with a shorter regular season and preparation for a less lucrative Stanley Cup Playoffs, players were paid as scheduled, worth over $300 million.

As noted, the Maple Leafs work differently. The team leads the NHL in bonus payouts at $60 million. Matthews earns the largest signing bonus in the NHL. His teammate Mitch Marner is second at $14.3 million. Then come the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid at $13 million and Panarin at $12 million.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, earns the highest signing bonus in the NHL. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Looking at the Maple Leafs’ signing bonus break down, four players make more than 90% of their annual contracts in signing bonuses, including Matthews (whose total salary is $15.9 million, with $15.2 million in signing bonus, for 95.6%), Marner (total salary $15 million, with $14.3 million signing bonus, for 95.3%), Tavares (total salary $12 million, with $11.09 million signing bonus, for 92.4%), and Jake Muzzin (total salary $8 million, with $7.3 million signing bonus, for 91.3%).

Other big contract players include goalie Frederik Andersen (total salary $5 million, with $4 million signing bonus, for 80%) and William Nylander (total salary $6 million, with a $3.5 million signing bonus, for 58.3%). Of the $101,945,500 total salary paid by the Maple Leafs this season, $61,308,000 was paid yesterday in signing bonuses.

Ironically, both Matthews and Marner make the NHL league minimum salary at $700,000. Obviously getting paid in signing bonuses is a huge advantage for players who make most their money at one time rather than during the entire season.

Item Three: It’s Time to Put Alex Pietrangelo Rumours to Rest

A week doesn’t go by without someone mentioning the rumour that the Maple Leafs would like to sign Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Of course they would. However, it won’t happen. Even if Pietrangelo chooses not to re-sign with the St. Louis Blues, unless things change drastically in the wake of COVID-19’s transformation of the salary-cap structure and the way contracts are signed, the skilled defenseman’s cost on the open market is too high.

Related: Devils Need to Pursue Pietrangelo This Offseason

As Maple Leafs writer Mike Augello noted yesterday, Pietrangelo’s salary would be more than Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s $8.25 million. The cost of signing him would be more than his salary/signing bonus, it would also cost the Maple Leafs a young forward on a big contract, like Nylander (cap hit of almost $7 million) or Marner (cap hit of almost $11 million), to make that possible.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Morgan Rielly
Toronto Maple Leafs centre Mitch Marner celebrates with teammate Morgan Rielly (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Thornhill)

For me, that’s where the conversation ends. Before last season, I thought there was a chance Dubas might trade Nylander. That thought is now gone. He’s special and could, at the end of the day, be far more special than Pietrangelo. We already know where Marner ranks on the list of young, two-way forwards – very near the top.

So, if it costs one of those youngsters to sign Pietrangelo, goodbye Alex.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Almost weekly, a Maple Leafs writer points out that defensemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci won’t return. Although Barrie should be a sought-after free agent because he’s a puck-mover, a power-play quarterback, and has offensive upside, I keep wondering what will happen to Ceci.

Philadelphia Flyers Jakub Voracek Toronto Maple Leafs Cody Ceci
What will happen to Toronto Maple Leafs’ Cody Ceci next season? (AP Photo/Derik Hamilton)

A defenseman with his resume – although advanced metrics indicate he is less than elite at the position – could be offered a one-year deal somewhere, even if it is much less than his current $4.5 million. I’m sure he’ll continue to play, but where?

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Keefe, Barabanov, Marner & Shanahan

Interestingly, I’ve never heard anyone other than fans or commentators disparage his play. Head coach Sheldon Keefe kept throwing him out there night after night, 20:32 per game on average.

So, where will he go? Is there a chance he comes back next season, or even move back to the Ottawa Senators where he played for six seasons before he came to the Maple Leafs? I’m curious.