The Toronto Maple Leafs secured a significant piece of the franchise’s future when Morgan Rielly agreed to an 8-year extension worth $60 million. In the short term, this deal ends the uncertainty around the team’s longest-tenured player. However, in the long term, the contract adds to an already unsustainable situation. Starting next season, five players are worth $48 million, nearly 60 percent of the total allotted budget for the entire team. This kind of math has hampered the team for three offseasons and will continue to hurt for the foreseeable future.
Teams have 20 players on the bench, now five Leafs, a quarter of the bench, takes up far more than half of the budget. Since the core four signed, Kyle Dubas has been filling out his roster with cheap contracts on short time frames while letting quality players walk in free agency. Unfortunately, this plan hasn’t moved the needle. The team has plateaued, if not slightly declined.
It appeared some relief was coming; Toronto was finally getting rid of $1.2 million in dead cap space. Phil Kessel’s $8 million, 8-year contract is expiring at the end of this season. The Maple Leafs have retained that annual hit since trading him to Pittsburgh after the 2014-15 season. It’s also believed the cap will be increased by $1 million by the following season. But before that cash came to fruition, Dubas has spent it all, plus $300,000 by giving Rielly a $2.5 million raise.
Maple Leafs Defence out of Money
The most obvious budget impact hits Jack Campbell; we will get to him, but this kind of budgeting has far-reaching implications. Rielly is worth his $7.5 million per year extension when you compare other comparable salaries. However, the defensive unit and the future of this group are now complicated.
Rasmus Sandin, who the Leafs appeared to be grooming to take over the role of Rielly, is a restricted free agent at the end of this season. His entry-level deal paying just under $900,000 expires, and he is due for a raise. He struggled last year but made the team out of camp and has started every game this season. The first-round pick from the 2018 draft is on the second powerplay unit and has been logging north of 15 minutes a game. His new contract won’t break the bank, but it will be an increase. His roommate is William Nylander, and the pair share the same agent. We know how the re-signing of Nylander went in 2017-18.
Timothy Liljegren is also set to become a restricted free agent. The 2017 first-round pick is nearing the level of a bust. He didn’t make the team coming out of training camp, as he has played minimal NHL games. However, the Maple Leafs’ early struggles have led to Liljegren getting a second chance, and he seems ready to make the most of it. If Toronto wants to resign the 22-year-old, he could make more than his $860,000 per year.
The Maple Leafs are hoping Justin Holl‘s early slump is just a phase, and he will work his way back to the consistent d-man we saw during the first half of last season. Nevertheless, if it proves to be more of an issue, Toronto will need to look for a replacement if not this season then by the next. He is making $2 million, but with defenseman becoming more valued in the NHL every season, a suitable replacement will cost more.
Maple Leafs Forward Cash-Strapped
The forward group has already been dealing with a significant disparity. Some of the league’s top-paid millionaires are in the top six, along with at or near league minimum bargain players in the bottom six. This disparity will only increase thanks to the cash already spent on Rielly.
It’s no secret the Russian wants more cash and a change. During his last negotiations, he went to arbitration looking for $2.7 million a year. Last offseason, he wanted a trade. Now he is in the last year of his deal that pays $1.65 million. Unfortunately for his bargaining power, he is injured again. While that may make him more affordable next off-season, it seems Mikheyev’s time in Toronto may not last beyond this season.
Ondrej Kase is playing for $1.25 million and will become a free agent at the end of this season. Given his concussions in recent years, he was a gamble to sign. But it’s paying off, if he continues and remains healthy, he would get more money in the open market next season.
Pierre Engvall is the player who sometimes looks like he could be a $4 million type of competitor, and other times should be sent home altogether. He is also making $1.25 million, and his contract expires at the end of this season. Engvall will assume the number one call-up spot when Mikheyev returns. He will be given every chance to earn a salary, maybe a bigger one, next season.
Jason Spezza has been the gift that keeps on giving to the Maple Leafs. He is on his third one-year league minimum contract. He has said he would take less if he could, and Toronto will keep taking him as long as he produces. But just how much more juice is left in those 38-year-old legs?
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As stated, the most apparent issue is Campbell. The starting goaltender is making a meagre $1.65 million, the 46th highest-paid goalie in the league. His backup, who is out to a horrible start, Petr Mrazek, is making $3.8 million. Campbell’s early performance and his solid stats from last season would indicate a considerable pay raise higher.
The Maple Leafs have not learned from the past salary cap difficulties; they have doubled down on the strategy that hasn’t gotten them out of the first round of the playoffs for the last five seasons. Losing a critical player like Zach Hyman only a few months ago because of budgetary constraints should’ve been a wake-up call. Instead, Toronto will be scraping the bottom of the barrel, looking for cheap contracts to play with the millionaires again next season.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.