We recently wrote about three players we thought would most likely not be returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. While the NHL is on a COVID-19-enforced Christmas break, we’ll follow that theme to look ahead to next season and consider how the NHL’s salary cap will impinge upon player decisions the team needs to make.
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Already the Maple Leafs have wisely extended Morgan Rielly’s contract and they’ll be in a position where they’ll need to re-sign starting goalie Jack Campbell to a new contract as well. Those salaries will come from somewhere, but where?
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In this article, we’ll share our thoughts about players who might not be on the roster next season and consider why we feel they might not be. We’re once again going on our assumption that the Maple Leafs will finally get over the hump and get out of the first round of the playoffs.
Salary-Cap Sacrifice One: Ilya Mikeheyev
We thought about adding Ilya Mikheyev to the “Most Likely to Leave” post; and, to be honest, he could have been there. The fact is that he requested a trade last summer, which the team didn’t comply with. Mikheyev felt he’d have a chance to play a more prominent role on another team than he was getting with the highly-talented Toronto top-six.
However, at the beginning of the preseason, Keefe stated publicly that Mikheyev would have every chance to play on one of the top-two lines to start the season. Unfortunately, that ended when he broke his thumb in training camp. A broken thumb is an injury that’s especially tough for a player struggling to score goals. How it affects Mikheyev’s play moving forward is anybody’s guess.
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Mikheyev will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of this season and will be able to offer his services on the open market to the highest bidder. After already requesting a trade once, we can see this scenario working out one of two ways. Either Mikheyev performs really well, finds a home in the top-six for this season, and the team can’t afford him. Or, he continues to underproduce as he has to this point and the Maple Leafs let him walk. Either way, the odds are he may find a better payday elsewhere.
Salary-Cap Sacrifice Two: Alex Kerfoot
The Maple Leafs will need to find cap room to re-sign Jack Campbell, Rasmus Sandin, and Timothy Liljegren. They’ll also owe Morgan Rielly the $7.5 million per year on his new deal. While Kerfoot is liked and constantly praised by both Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dubas, the Maple Leafs just might not be able to afford his $3.5 million salary-cap hit.
Another consideration is how Kerfoot’s present contract is structured. He was signed when the CBA allowed for more fluctuations in a player’s season-to-season salary. Kerfoot has one more year following this one on his deal. He’s due a $1,950,000 bonus which is usually paid on July 1st. Following that he is only due to receive $750,000 in salary for next season.
That’s a perfect contract for a team like the Arizona Coyotes that might be looking to get to the salary-cap floor next season. They would get a $3.5 million salary-cap hit while only paying $750,000 in actual salary. The one thing that can potentially complicate such a trade is that on July 1st, the same day Kerfoot would most likely receive his bonus, he also has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in. That clause allows him to present the Maple Leafs with a 10-team no-trade list.
Salary-Cap Sacrifice Three: Ondrej Kase
We feel it is highly possible that re-signing Ondrej Kase and keeping Kerfoot might end up being an either/or proposition. The Maple Leafs might not be able to afford to keep both next season. The good news with Kase is that he’ll only be a restricted free agent (RFA) at the end of this season, and will most likely be cheaper to re-sign than Kerfoot’s $3.5 million salary-cap hit. However, Kase will be eligible for arbitration, which potentially takes his ultimate salary-cap hit out of the team’s hands.
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One interesting point to note is that, at this point in the season, both Kerfoot and Kase have close to the same point totals. Kerfoot has 16 points, one more than Kase’s 15. But, Kase has scored eight goals to Kerfoot’s four; and, he’s done so playing predominantly on the third line with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. Kerfoot has played most of his time in the top-six alongside John Tavares and William Nylander.
A strong case can be made that, if Kase stays healthy he’s a better player than Kerfoot who will likely come at a lower price. Although Kase is still an RFA, if he stays healthy and continues his scoring pace he’ll have 23 goals and 44 points by the end of the regular season. Add to that good playoffs, and his having arbitration rights, and Kase could be in line for a substantial raise.
Also, there is an outside chance that Kase could be the target of an offer sheet. Another team could offer him upwards of $4 million and it would only cost them a second-round pick. We realize that could be a bit of a stretch, but it’s still a possibility.
The other consideration is that Kase and Kampf are also childhood friends, and the word was that one reason Kase signed in Toronto was that he wanted to play with Kampf. Given Kampf’s solid play, he won’t be going anywhere. How that influences any decision Kase makes is hard to tell.
If Keefe and Dubas are as enamored with Kerfoot as they seem to be, it’s not out of the realm of possibility they could feel Kase is a tradeable asset to help shore up other areas of the team.
What Will Happen With These Three Players Remains Up in the Air
We can’t know what will happen with any of Mikheyev, Kerfoot, or Kase. We think they’re strong players who’d add to the Maple Leafs’ roster if the team could find a way to keep them. But that’s the rub. Keeping all three will be next to impossible.
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Right now, we believe at least two of the three will likely be gone. Which two is the question.
[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]