After general manager meetings wrapped up in Boca Raton last week, teams are looking forward to Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly’s announcement of the projected salary cap increase which is said to be in the range of $84 million to $88.2 million.
With the current salary cap at $81.5 million, a $6.7 million jump would present an opportunity for many teams under cap constraints. The team that would benefit the most is the Toronto Maple Leafs who are pressed up against the cap and poised to have the second-highest cap hit in the NHL next season.
The Maple Leafs have $40.46 million tied up in their top four forwards, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander. While they have been stellar this season, combining for 260 points in 256 games, it is clear the Toronto roster isn’t as deep as originally thought.
Maple Leafs Plagued by Injury
The Maple Leafs have suffered key losses this season with injuries to Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev. With so much money tied up in their top players, it’s difficult to add a strong supporting cast. Since Jan. 1, 14 different third- and fourth-line forwards have combined for 63 points in 196 games.
The Maple Leafs defence has not been much better, relying on inexperienced defenders like Justin Holl, Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin and Martin Marincin in the wake of injuries to Rielly, Muzzin, and Cody Ceci. Many wanted Dubas to acquire a top defenseman at the deadline, but he decided to stick with his roster.
That said, the Maple Leafs will be looking for a top-four defenseman this offseason. Their ability to do this without making a major roster change will depend on the new salary cap.
Maple Leafs’ Salary Cap Space
With a salary cap increase to $84 million, the Maple Leafs would only have around $6-$7 million in available cap space for the 2020-21 season. This includes holes in the roster left by players like Tyson Barrie, Jason Spezza, and Kyle Clifford who might leave in free agency and the need to re-sign restricted free agents (RFA) Dermott, Mikheyev and Frederik Gauthier.
Although unlikely, a cap increase to $88.2 million would provide the Maple Leafs with the flexibility they need to become a consistent contender. Their big four are signed through to the 2023-24 season, so having an extra $4 million to work with could be what they need to add an elite defender.
Maple Leafs fans have been dying for them to add a right-shot top-four defenseman, but that is easier said than done. Almost every team in the NHL would love a defender that fits that profile. The Maple Leafs have Barrie, but his offensive style is not what the high-scoring team needs. Barrie is in for a big payday and it is unlikely that management can afford him.
With the Maple Leafs set to be active in the 2020 offseason, who should they look to add to their blue line?
Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues
One of the most discussed possible additions is pending unrestricted free agent (UFA), Alex Pietrangelo. With a $6.5 million average annual value (AAV) cap hit, the Blues’ captain and defending Stanley Cup champion is due for a raise, possibly in the $9 million AAV range, this offseason. The St. Louis Blues inked Justin Faulk to a seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension, making it seem like they are preparing to lose Pietrangelo.
A big, talented right-shot defenseman and regarded as one of the best defenders in the league, Pietrangelo would be a dream addition to the Maple Leafs’ blue line. That said, it would be very difficult for them to negotiate a contract that works for the 30-year-old if he is unwilling to take a discount. Pietrangelo is having his best offensive season with 14 goals and 50 points in 69 games.
Chris Tanev, Vancouver Canucks
After Pietrangelo, the calibre of pending UFA right-shot defensemen drops significantly. However, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Chris Tanev is next in line. It is doubtful the Canucks will be able to re-sign Tanev given the additions they’ve made to the roster along with their pending UFAs.
The 30-year-old has spent his entire career with the Canucks and grew up in the Toronto area. His $4.45 million AAV is relatively high for what he brings, but it is unlikely a new deal would pay him as much the Maple Leafs recently paid for Muzzin. Tanev is a proficient shot blocker; he is tied for third in the NHL with teammate Alex Edler. He also has two goals and 20 points in 68 games this season.
2020 Offseason Trade Market
Dubas could also trade assets to bring in a defenseman already under contract, especially if signing a free agent requires a cap hit the Maple Leafs do not have room for. Names that were tossed around at the trade deadline included Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba and Anaheim Ducks defenseman, Josh Manson.
Dumba is under contract through the 2022-23 season at $6 million AAV, a manageable contract for the physicality and skill he brings to the table. At 6-foot, 180 pounds, Dumba plays bigger than his stature and would likely play top-pairing minutes on the blue line.
Manson is on a very reasonable contract at $4.1 million AAV through the 2021-22 season. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Manson also brings size and physicality to the Maple Leafs blue line which has been missing this season.
Although they would be game-changing additions, acquiring either of these two players would require a hefty return. A variety of Maple Leafs forwards, such as Alex Kerfoot, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, are rumoured to be on the move, and it would also take some other assets to get a deal for one of these players done.
While all of these are unknowns, one thing that is certain is the larger the increase in salary cap the more flexibility the Maple Leafs will have going forward. If the increase is not as big as anticipated, we may see Dubas have to get creative in order to find that top defender Maple Leafs fans are so hopeful for.