Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Salary Cap, Dermott, Barabanov & Lehtonen

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, the NHL will continue to feel its impact. In fact, the way things seem to be shaping up, that impact isn’t likely to end for a number of seasons. In this Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors edition, I’ll share some of the latest news around the NHL in regard to COVID-19 finances.

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I will also take a look at young defenseman Travis Dermott’s future with the team and talk about why European free agents seem to be attracted to the Maple Leafs as an organization. I will finally follow up with a note about a post I made yesterday when I shared the rumor that there might be a trade between the Buffalo Sabres and the Maple Leafs.

Item One: Artemi Panarin Seeking Overhaul of CBA’s Escrow System

Late last week, the National Post reported at tweet from New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin that called for the NHLPA to unite to force the NHL to change its payroll structure before players agree to the league’s Return to Play plan. That aspect would be the dreaded escrow (from “Rangers’ Panarin lobbies players to hold out for financial change,” The National Post, 26/06/20).

Artemi Panarin New York Rangers
Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

According to the NHL’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), there’s an escrow mechanism where owners withhold money from players’ salaries to ensure a “financially correct” revenue split is achieved by the end of each season. Under the current CBA, players and teams each receive 50% of the league’s revenue.

Panarin tweeted, “I am very much looking forward to the playoffs with the New York Rangers. I have concerns not only about the health of players and their families but also about the long-term prosperity of the NHL.”

He continued, “For nearly two decades, the Players have protected the owners’ income with escrow, including throughout this pandemic crisis, even as owners’ equity continues to grow exponentially. It is time to fix the escrow. We as players cannot report to camp to resume play without already having an agreement in place. We are all in this together.”

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Although most NHL players’ salaries have been paid for the 2019-20 season, the issue is next season. Players are concerned the revenue shortfall will be huge and players salaries will be escrowed heavily to make up the difference. Although the proposed play-in tournament and a completion of the postseason will bring in some revenue, given how many games and revenue were lost because of COVID-19, it simply won’t nearly be enough to offset financial loss. The dollar damage will be huge.

Last week, Elliotte Friedman wrote that the NHL and the NHLPA are negotiating an extension to the CBA (set to expire after the 2021-22 season). Part of the agreement would reportedly keep the salary cap near the current $81.5 million figure for three seasons with a possible $1 million raise for 2022-23.

It seems as if swords have been drawn, and it will be interesting where this conversation ends. Although COVID-19 is foremost a health issue, it’s also becoming a financial issue that impacts both the players and the owners. How this issue will be settled is something to watch over the near future beyond the postseason. Ultimately, if enough players begin to push back about escrow payments, is another strike possible when the next CBA is negotiated?

Item Two: Travis Dermott Becoming a More Valuable Commodity for the Maple Leafs

It isn’t as if Dermott isn’t appreciated as a player. He’s a great skater, is quick with the puck, has a solid work ethic, and hits. His 2018-19 season proved he was a smart, capable puck mover who would eventually become a top-four defenseman. Even at 5-foot-11, he can hit as he did during the 2018-19 playoffs against the Boston Bruins.

Travis Dermott Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Sadly, however, he needed shoulder surgery at the end of 2018-19 and missed the start of this season. But, he’s a keeper and I expect the Maple Leafs will re-sign him this offseason. Although he’s left-handed and the roster is loaded with other left-handers, he’s capable and willing to play on the right side.

Rumors toss out Dermott’s name as a trade chip, but I believe the team signs him to a short-term contract. The 23 year old’s contract expires at the end of this season, and he doesn’t have arbitration rights. Given the flat salary cap for next season and his lack of a breakout season when he was recovering from surgery, Dermott didn’t have a season that gives him much negotiation leverage.

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Still, from what I read, he loves playing in Toronto and he’s young and will likely get better as a player. Given his willingness to play both sides and his top-four potential, my guess is that Dubas signs him quickly during the offseason much like he signed Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson last offseason.

Item Three: Why Did Alexander Barabanov and Mikko Lehtonen Choose Toronto?

I’m a hockey fan, and I’m excited there’s a chance hockey will have a postseason. However, I’m also interested to see what next season’s team will look like. I think it will have quite a different look. Because neither Alexander Barabanov nor Mikko Lehtonen was on the Maple Leafs’ reserve list by the Feb. 24, 2020, trade deadline, they can’t play in the postseason.

Thus, Maple Leafs fans must wait until 2020-21 to see how and where these European free agents will be deployed in the lineup. Both Barabanov and Lehtonen were highly coveted, but both chose Toronto over a field of interested NHL teams. Both also signed a one-year, entry-level contract for the same $925,000.

Both players, as head coach Sheldon Keefe likes to say, “check the boxes” for what the team needs. Both players also represent the kind of cost-controlled contracts the team needs right now because of the salary cap constraints I noted earlier in the post. They are next season’s Ilya Mikheyev.

Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev Alexander Kerfoot Morgan Rielly Rasmus Sandin
Toronto Maple Leafs Ilya Mikheyev, Alexander Kerfoot, Morgan Rielly and Rasmus Sandin celebrate a goal. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Speaking of Mikheyev, although both free agents might have gone elsewhere, both chose Toronto and the Maple Leafs. Why?

Dan Milstein likely knows why. As a player agent, he’s done business with the Maple Leafs in the past and Barabanov is his client. Milstein is connected. He’s also charged with taking care of his young clients. He was clearly impressed with how the Maple Leafs – and particularly Dubas – cared for Mikheyev after his surgery.

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Milstein spread the news that the care shown by the Maple Leafs to Mikheyev was special. In fact, he went on record saying that care would be something he’d tell future KHL free agents choosing where to start their NHL career.

In a April article in Forbes Magazine, Milstein noted,

“I’ve been saying this since long ago: The Maple Leafs as an organization, the way they recruit is almost like college recruiting. Many (other) teams would say ‘Yeah, well they can afford to do it.’

“But caring for somebody and treating people like this doesn’t cost any money. Showing support, showing you care, is about a lot more than money” (from “With Maple Leafs, Free Agent Winger Alexander Barabanov Had ‘Love At First Sight’, Jordan Horrobin, Forbes Magazine, 07/04/20).

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

In my post yesterday, I shared the rumor that the Maple Leafs and the Sabres were talking trade with forwards Andreas Johnsson and Alex Kerfoot moving to the Sabres and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen coming to the Maple Leafs. I’d been on record before about why I didn’t believe Ristolainen would be a good trade for the team, but mostly because I wanted the organization’s young defensemen to gain an opportunity to play regularly.

Buffalo Sabres Rasmus Ristolainen
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

Obviously, Ristolainen’s a polarizing sort because another Maple Leafs commentator noted that “The Toronto Maple Leafs Wouldn’t (even) Claim Rasmus Ristolainen on Waivers.” There’s obviously feeling about this potential trade and it will be interesting to see if the team engages these rumors during the postseason.