It hasn’t been an ideal year for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They’ve lacked in consistency. Their fight for the playoffs will likely come down to the wire. And when it comes to the health of their players, they’ve struggled all year long.
Key players have missed significant time, including Jake Muzzin, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and even Rasmus Sandin took a hit against Detroit early in the year that got him sent back to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies for some time.
Now, with both Cody Ceci, Ilya Mikheyev and Morgan Rielly all out of the lineup, the Maple Leafs are also dealing with the loss of Andreas Johnsson who will miss the next six months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee.
While it’s been a tough year for Johnsson who was also injured earlier in the year and missed several games, it hasn’t been the start he’d like after signing a four-year extension in the offseason worth $13.6 million.
Johnsson’s Season in a Nutshell
The 25-year-old Swede signed the extension following his first full season in the NHL in 2018-19 in which he tallied 20 goals and 43 points in 73 regular season games for the Maple Leafs.
Once again, Johnsson was off to a relatively good start to the year with eight goals and 21 points in 43 games – a 0.49 point-per-game average and a 40-point pace over a full 82 game season. It’s not exactly what you want following a 43-point campaign and paying him $3.4 million per season, but it’s hard to remain consistent when he was in and out of the lineup with injury.
Johnsson’s name was swirling in trade rumours as the Maple Leafs were looking for solutions to their inconsistent play and with the NHL trade deadline quick approaching prior to his season-ending injury. And while some might see this as a lost opportunity – not being able to move the small forward in a deal for a much-needed defenceman – it can still be seen as a major benefit for a team that was right up against the cap heading into the deadline.
Johnsson’s Absence Providing Opportunity
For starters, the loss of Johnsson is providing significant opportunity for other players in the organization – both from a roster standpoint and systematically. Guys like Pierre Engvall, Kasperi Kapanen and, now, Denis Malgin will get bigger minutes down the stretch.
With the opportunities, players on the roster will be given a chance to show Maple Leafs’ management what they are capable of without being forced into a top-six role.
Guys like Engvall, Adam Brooks and Egor Korshkov have already been given the chance to do so with Engvall sticking with the big club. And while it might be too late to use some of their prospects as trade bait heading into the deadline – especially those that haven’t had a chance to showcase themselves at the NHL level yet – Kyle Dubas could use them come the offseason to help in dealing with their cap issues.
Better yet, given the opportunity, some of these players could even force Dubas’ hand in making roster decisions ahead of next season. For now, ahead of the deadline, Johnsson’s unfortunate injury has opened the door for Dubas to use a loophole heading into the final stretch of the season.
Opening the Loophole
While the opportunity for new players to develop is one benefit the Maple Leafs might take away from the Johnsson injury, another one is the open cap space that comes with the long-term designation.
Many teams have used to before. Heck, I’ve written about it before – referring to it as the Patrick Kane loophole. Essentially, if a player is placed on long-term injury reserve (LTIR) and isn’t coming back before the end of the regular season, a team can use the allotted cap room designated to that player as open cap room.
So, to make it more relevant to the Maple Leafs, at the beginning of the year, they placed Nathan Horton and David Clarkson on LTIR. They used what they could of that cap space for their opening night roster.
Now, they have Rielly, Ceci, Mikheyev and Johnsson all on LTIR. While Rielly should return prior to the end of the regular season, the likelihood of the Maple Leafs getting Ceci and Mikheyev back is less than that of Rielly.
Given that could be a reality, the Maple Leafs could potentially address a much needed hole among their defence at the deadline. The loss of Ceci, Johnsson and Mikheyev gives the Maple Leafs just under $9 million of LTIR cap relief – and the chance to acquire a defenceman at the deadline.
While Johnsson could’ve – at one time – been rumoured to be on the block. His injury certainly put a stop to that. That said, while the Maple Leafs can’t dwell on the loss of Johnsson as a roster player or potential trade chip, his injury actually is a blessing in disguise as the Maple Leafs figure out what they need to add going into the deadline.
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Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.