Maple Leafs May Be Stuck with the Roster They Have

The Toronto Maple Leafs like all teams in the NHL want to plan out their future on certain players. However until they get more clarity on a couple of fronts, that won’t be an easy thing to do.

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On the latest episode of 32 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek discussed the Maple Leafs and their desire to sign both Michael Bunting and Conor Timmins to new deals. As part of that conversation, the question came up about how much the team would sign them for. Would they be for as low as possible given the cap situation?

This is where things get dicey for the Maple Leafs. How can they make any long-term commitments without knowing some key information? They can’t. The factors influencing this far outweigh everything else. There are two important questions to consider. Where is the salary cap going? And how much will it take to re-sign Auston Matthews?

The Salary Cap Conundrum

Various reports have suggested the salary cap might go up by just $1 million to $83.5 million for the 2023-24 season. Where it goes after that is anyone’s guess. So long as revenues continue to trend in the right direction, there is reason to have some cautious optimism about where the cap will land.

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But until the Maple Leafs know what will happen, they are stuck. They can’t commit a bigger number to Bunting until they know what kind of space will be available to them. The same could be said for Timmins. The same can be said about anyone else on the team that needs a new deal.

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This also extends to other plans the Maple Leafs would normally have. This includes both the 2023 and 2024 trade deadline and offseason free agency. To say that cap space is tight isn’t giving it enough justice.

We have written numerous times in this space how the core-four model could have its financial drawbacks. It’s the ultimate commitment to this core. As such, the rest of the roster must be filled in with a lot of league minimum deals.

Auston Matthews Rasmus Sandin Toronto Maple Leafs
The Auston Matthews decision weighs heavily on how the Maple Leafs will do business on all fronts. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Having the cap go up by just $1 million is not good for the Maple Leafs. Their roster decisions will be directly impacted by the limited growth. But even if the cap sees noticeable growth for 2024-25, the team has one singular focus on their mind by then. Sign Matthews.

Matthews the Biggest Priority

It’s the rest of this season and then all of next season. After that, Auston Matthews goes to UFA status. The Maple Leafs know it. The rest of the NHL knows it. It will be the story of the 2023-24 season and then into the offseason.

The Maple Leafs have to be ready to shell out what’s necessary to keep him. They will do everything they can to make a long-term deal work. Even if it takes a cap hit of $15 million, that won’t stop them from trying to lock him in.

At the end of the day, the decision will be in Matthews’ hands. If he wants to move on, it’s his right and the Maple Leafs can do nothing about it. The one thing they will get though regardless of his decision is clarity. They’ll either know how much he’ll cost or how much extra space they’ll have for other moves.

No Major Commitments Until After Matthews’ Decision

Until the Maple Leafs receive clarity on Matthews, don’t expect them to make any major commitments on anyone else. They will have some signings. They will have some trades. They will be minor compared to what’s coming. GM Kyle Dubas will need to be creative.

Kyle Dubas Toronto Maple Leafs
Kyle Dubas must make moves while keeping the bigger picture in mind. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s why this season is of utmost importance for the Maple Leafs. They must make it out of the first round if not much more to consider it a success. Another failure could lead to big changes all-around beyond what Matthews decides after next season.

If the Maple Leafs are going to make this season a success, it’s going to have to be with the players they have plus one or two deadline deals that shouldn’t be anything long term. They can’t afford to not have enough cap room to sign Matthews.

The Maple Leafs are stuck with the roster they have for better or worse. Clarity might not come until after next season is completed. That could set up for a lot of nervous days and nights in Leafs Nation.

But that’s nothing new, right?

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