Maple Leafs’ Cap Situation Not as Bad as It Seems

Since last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs have been constantly labeled as a team that would be in “cap trouble.” Those two words have been linked to the Maple Leafs since William Nylander signed his extension and then when Auston Matthews signed his. And now, it’s Mitch Marner’s time to continue that trend, if he re-signs. However, recent events and rumours about Nikita Zaitsev and Patrick Marleau show that the Maple Leafs may not be in that much trouble after all. The team is looking to unload two massive contracts to help alleviate their current cap situation in order to keep Marner on board along with their current core for the foreseeable future.

Maple Leafs Need to Clear Cap Space

If the Maple Leafs want to keep Marner, they need to make some transactions in order to create more cap space. Late last month, it was reported that Zaitzev requested a trade and that Marleau was also being shopped around with a number of teams listening in on both players.

Nikita Zaitsev, Toronto Maple Leafs
Nikita Zaitsev could be on his way out of Toronto this offseason. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Currently, the Maple Leafs have $8.79 million in cap space and both Zaitsev and Marleau carry heavy cap hits at $4.5 million and $6.25 million, respectively. Those seem like contracts that would be untradeable. But, the Maple Leafs have received calls for both players. The Vancouver Canucks have reportedly inquired about the Russian defender while the Los Angeles Kings have called about Marleau, along with the Arizona Coyotes.

The fact that teams have expressed interest in both players given their current cap hits is somewhat of a good sign. Even with large contracts, there is a market for them. If general manager Kyle Dubas is able to unload $10.75 million in cap space without giving up a whole lot in the process, it would be a huge win. Then again, in order to not retain salary, the Maple Leafs may have to sweeten the deal. Even if the return isn’t as great as we thought, it gives the Leafs more flexibility in re-signing a number of their potential free agents, as well as add some depth options when free agency opens on July 1.

In addition, there is the possibility that Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown could be moved as well. That’s an extra $6.6 million in cap space cleared. This would give the Leafs $26.14 million cap space. This is enough to re-sign Marner, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, and it’s enough to even take back a bad contract for either Zaitsev or Marleau, if needed.

Giving Marleau and Zaitsev New Starts

It would be sad to see players like Zaitsev and Marleau go. Zaitsev had an outstanding rookie campaign, but after putting up 36 points, his offensive production declined and he was given a more defensive role. The potential was there, but he couldn’t reach it given the fact that he wasn’t playing to his strengths like he was in his first season. A change of scenery will do him good as he hopes to get back to what made him successful in his first season.

Jaroslav Halak, Patrick Marleau
Boston Bruins’ Jaroslav Halak makes a save on Toronto Maple Leafs’ Patrick Marleau (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Marleau was an excellent veteran presence to have around a young team like this. He took two of the Maple Leafs young stars in Auston Matthews and Marner under his wing and treated them like they were his sons. He was a pro on and off the ice, and his presence and impact made a lasting impression on many players. But his on-ice play and offensive production were issues, recording only 37 points in 2018-19, his second-lowest point total of his career. If Marleau does agree to waive his no-move clause, he would be “taking one for the team” in order for them to have success. While the points weren’t there, his character and mentorship was noticeable amongst the younger players. It will be for years to come.

In order for the Maple Leafs to have a great offseason, changes have to occur. While re-signing Marner is a top priority, they also need to create the space in order to sign him. It starts with the contracts of Zaitsev and Marleau. If they’re able to clear these contracts, then the Maple Leafs would be absolved of being a team in “cap trouble,” Until all this happens, they are are still up against the salary cap.

People said that there was no way that Leafs would move Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and David Clarkson without retaining salary. However, they only retained $1.2 million between the three contracts (Kessel’s being the only one). If the team was able to trade those three players, moving Marleau and Zaitsev’s contracts is certainly possible. And in doing so, the Maple Leafs will be able to re-sign key players this offseason, making them a better team in 2019-20.