NHL hockey has been suspended now more than three months, but last week there was hope in the air with the beginning of Phase 2 Return-to-Play activities and setting a date of July 10 for the opening of training camps. That hope quivered with the report that 11 players had tested positive for COVID-19 – including the Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews. Still, plans to proceed toward Phase 3 and Phase 4 have not been halted.
Also not halted is the continuing business NHL teams engage in, from signing prospects to entry-level contracts or signing free agents from global leagues like the KHL. Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has continued to build his team for the future. However, such team-building activities are increasingly complicated by the context of real financial losses and COVID-19’s impact on the salary cap over the next seasons.
In this post, I will look at a number of the considerations the organization faces.
Item One: What’s Jason Spezza’s Future with the Maple Leafs?
Last summer, Jason Spezza did something a bit unprecedented. He signed a free-agent contract with the Maple Leafs for a league-minimum $700,000. It was an interesting move on his part, but not shocking for two reasons. First, he was coming home to his native Toronto. Second, he believed it would offer him a chance to board a train whose last stop might be a Stanley Cup victory.
If anything was shocking, it was the financial term of the contract after ending a four-year $7.5 million contract with the Dallas Stars. Still, when you think of it, $700,000 is a huge salary for most Canadians and CapFriendly has estimated Spezza’s lifetime hockey earnings at $88,177,926. He has already earned enough to live well if he invested wisely, which he seems smart enough to have done.
After Sheldon Keefe became head coach, the 37-year-old Spezza began to play more regularly and provided both experience and leadership to the team. He also played well in his role as a depth winger and center. Averaging just over 10 minutes per game, he scored 25 points (9 goals and 16 assists) in 58 games.
As a result, in April, Spezza admitted he’d like to sign another contract to stay with the team next season.
He noted at the time, “I definitely feel like I have game left and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than (to) play another year here in Toronto. I would love to be back because we are building things with this club and I want to be a part of that.”
I don’t think I’m alone in believing Spezza brings lots to the roster. He never whined when, I believe, he was being treated poorly by former head coach Mike Babcock. He’s versatile, can score, and comes cheaply. Plus, he’s a mentor in the same way Patrick Marleau was with Mitch Marner and Matthews.
Perhaps Spezza’s biggest value to the team is that – as my father used to say – he “doesn’t take up much space.” That means that no one in the organization needs to worry about his professionalism or being anything but team-oriented. Assuming he re-signs for another season, which seems likely, the Leafs would have a bottom-six center or winger on an inexpensive contract.
That’s the kind of cheap value the team needs. Interestingly, if Dubas hasn’t thought of it already, I can’t imagine that he’d not continue this trend of signing high-character, quality veterans at the end of their careers for a season or two just to offer such value to the team.
In fact, in the future, I can see Maple Leafs fans coming to wonder, “Who will be this year’s Jason Spezza?” I think he not only has another season coming with the team, but he’ll also become part of the team’s on-going philosophy for signing players.
Item Two: Is Jack Campbell Here for the Long Term?
In yesterday’s mailbag post, Sportsnet’s Luke Fox addressed a number of questions submitted from his readers. One question was about backup goalie Jack Campbell and his future with the club.
Campbell’s status is a good question, which mostly rests on the fact that goalie Frederik Andersen’s contract ends after the 2020-21 season. Although one never knows, assuming the COVID-19 pandemic has abated and the salary-cap limits have become more transparent – and those two things go hand-in-hand – it might not be a bad time to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
At that time, there will be a question of what to do with Andersen. What makes questions about him so complicated are a combination of the complexity of the salary cap, his less than stellar play this season, and the number of years he might want on next contract.
Interestingly, over the past few months there have been questions about whether the Maple Leafs and Andersen even make sense in the long-term. James Mirtle of The Athletic suggested that the Maple Leafs might want to consider upgrading Andersen and pointed to Robin Lehner – who might be available as a UFA this offseason – as better bang for the buck. His colleague Jonas Siegel suggested a trade for Pittsburgh Penguins’ Matt Murray as an option. (from ‘Mirtle and Siegel: Should the Leafs seek an upgrade on Frederik Andersen?’ James Mirtle and Jonas Siegel, The Athletic, 04/24/2020).
However, another wildcard will be the play of current backup goalie Jack Campbell. Specifically, if the 2020-21 NHL has a regular season that approaches 80 games, then he will have plenty of opportunity to show his skills over the long haul in a time when there’s less pressure than when he came to a team fighting for a playoff spot as he did this season when he was picked up from the Los Angeles Kings with forward Kyle Clifford just prior to the trade deadline.
Andersen’s age isn’t that much of an issue, and he’ll be 32 when the 2021-22 season begins, and that’s plenty young for a goalie. However, the bigger issue is whether he’s worth a financial upgrade on his $5 million current contract. Fortunately, for both Andersen and Dubas, there’ll be two opportunities for the Dane to show his stuff. Andersen, who’s never won a playoff series for his team (he’s 0-3), gets a chance to show up in whatever the pressure cooker of this summer’s return-to-play looks and feels like.
Because it will be completely different, it will matter how the veteran Maple Leafs’ starter plays. It will also matter how he plays next season, because he’ll have a strong No. 2 goalie in Campbell who, unlike Michael Hutchinson, will push him for playing time.
Campbell will have his window of opportunity, and we’ll see how he engages it. He’s priced right even in the context of a pandemic, at a team-friendly $1.65 million contract. From what I’ve seen in a small sample size, the 28-year-old backup seems like a great acquisition. He has a demonstrative passion for the game and a strong work ethic. As Fox notes, his teammate both with the Kings and now with the Maple Leafs Kyle Clifford clearly believes Campbell’s more than “just a backup.”
I think the Maple Leafs will be patient with their goalies. I doubt they will trade Andersen but will give the Andersen/Campbell duo the 2020-21 season to see how things go. At the end of the 2020-21 season, the salary-cap situation will likely settle and finances will be clearer. In the meantime, the team’s backup should have had a chance to show what he’s capable of.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
This is an interesting week for the team. Hub city choices are likely to be made this week and Hockey Hall of Fame voting will be announced tomorrow. Two former Maple Leafs have a chance – Curtis Joseph and Alexander Mogilny. It would be nice to see one of those players enshrined.