Maple Leafs’ Solution for the Dire Cap Situation

The offseason is a tumultuous time for most NHL teams. Players need new contracts, the draft can cause immense frustration, and free agency is a landmine filled with bad contracts. Some general managers make big splashes; for example, last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed John Tavares. Other times, the offseason can be a slow burn when teams do nothing of note. For the Maple Leafs, the past few offseasons have been some of the most exciting in years and this one will be no different as many young players need contracts.

John Tavares
The John Tavares signing has caused quite the cap crunch. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Throughout their rebuilding process, the Maple Leafs have been near the salary cap. However, for much of it, the roster was littered with expendable players on short-term contracts or young players on their entry-level deals. Now it’s time for many of those young players to get their first big contracts. As a result, the salary cap will cause problems for the Leafs like it hasn’t in years. Not only do they need to re-sign Mitch Marner, but also Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen.

Marner, Johnsson, and Kapanen

The Maple Leafs have $69 million committed for next season, keeping in mind that Nathan Horton will be on long-term injured reserve and won’t count towards the cap. With the cap expected to be $83 million, the Leafs have $14 million available to re-sign their RFAs, and either re-sign Ron Hainsey and Jake Gardiner, or find replacements for them on defence.

The Leafs will need to sign five contracts this offseason, but how much will they cost? Marner will likely make around $10 million. He had a breakout season and will demand a hefty contract. Fortunately for the Maple Leafs, he’s a winger, which historically is a lower paying position than centre. This likely means he won’t cost as much as Tavares or Auston Matthews.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Mitch Marner may demand the same price as Auston Matthews. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Kapanen and Johnsson will likely get near identical contracts. Johnsson had 43 points in 73 games after signing a one-year deal last offseason. He signed a cheap contract last year, after playing his entry-level deal in the AHL, with the hope that he would earn a bigger contract by proving he could perform consistently. Kapanen had 44 points in 78 games and is coming off his entry-level contract.

There are a number of comparables that would serve as a baseline for estimating their upcoming salaries. Andre Burakovsky, Anthony Mantha, and Teuvo Teravainen are players who scored 35 to 50 points in the last season of their first NHL contracts. All three signed two-year deals for somewhere between $2.7 and $3.3 million per season. The Leafs should expect Kapanen and Johnsson to cost roughly $6 million combined.

Two Holes on Defense

Lastly, the Maple Leafs need to either re-sign Gardiner and Hainsey, or find suitable replacements. The best-case scenario is that Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are ready to make the jump to the NHL. Both would be on their entry-level deals and would cost about $1.75 million combined. However, they are only 19 and 20, respectively, and historically it takes longer for defencemen to make the NHL than forwards.

Gardiner has likely played his last game for Toronto. He will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1, and according to Chris Johnston, Gardiner will make somewhere around $6.5 million AAV with term. That’s too expensive for the Leafs and they will need to find a replacement.

Jake Gardiner, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jake Gardiner has likely played his last game for Toronto. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hainsey was criticized heavily for his play this season, and with his contract up, many fans would be against his return. However, a benefit of his poor play is that he could be signed to a cheap, one-year contract. He’d be serviceable on the third pairing if one of Sandin or Liljegren needs more time in the minors.

If Hainsey is re-signed and neither prospect makes the NHL, there’s still one spot to fill. That spot would need to be filled by a cheap defenceman coming in from free agency. He would likely be an aging player who is far past his prime, much like Hainsey. Unfortunately, with the current cap situation there wouldn’t be another option.

To sign those five contracts, the Leafs will be looking at $18 million at minimum. However, that number could rise if any of Marner, Johnsson, or Kapanen are signed to an offer sheet. Should that happen, GM Kyle Dubas will be faced with the tough decision of letting a player go or matching the offer and diving deeper into a cap nightmare.

Trade Bait

As things stand, the Maple Leafs do not have space to sign everyone. They need to move at least $4 million worth of salary. The prime candidates are Nikita Zaitsev, Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown, or one of Kapanen and Johnsson. Ideally, Kapanen and Johnsson are both re-signed as both have room to grow into high-level players. Conversely, as much as Leafs nation would love a Marleau trade, he has a no-move clause in his contract. With a no-move clause, he can’t be traded or sent to the minors without his permission. So, if Marleau wants to stay in Toronto, he’ll stay in Toronto. That leaves Zaitsev and Brown.

Connor Brown, Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL
Connor Brown scored 20 goals in his rookie year, but has only scored 22 goals in two seasons since then. (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Zaitsev make $4.5 million and Brown makes $2.1 million. Both will need to be traded to get under the cap. In theory, Zaitsev could be traded to clear up the $4 million of space. However, since Zaitsev’s contract is considered overpriced, any trade involving him would likely mean another contract coming back instead of a draft pick. As a result, any trade involving Zaitsev won’t save $4.5 million; it will save $2-3 million. With more cap space needed, another player will have to be moved, and it should be Brown. Brown is one of the most expendable players with value on the roster. He’s a former 20-goal scorer who doesn’t have a place in the top-six, but could be a top-six option on another team that isn’t as deep on offence.

When Matthews was drafted three years ago, Leafs nation knew that this offseason would be difficult with all the contracts that would need to be signed, and it’s as difficult as imagined, but it’s manageable. Dubas and the Maple Leafs just need to be a little creative.