How will COVID-19 affect the future roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Any long-time hockey fan knows that the term “labour peace” is not really associated with long-time NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Since he assumed office in 1993, the Commissioner has locked out the players 3 times, forcing a shortened season for fans in 1994-95 and 2012-13 and more famously losing a full season in 2004-05 due to his pursuit of a hard salary cap to encourage more parity in the league.

Now you definitely will not find me as the president of the Gary Bettman fan club, however, he does deserve some credit for coming to a new CBA agreement that will keep labour peace in the NHL at least until 2026.

Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic and the sad reality of billions of dollars lost in revenue to come to an agreement. One of the major takeaways from this new CBA is keeping the salary cap flat at $81.5 million until league revenues reach $4.8 billion, as well as altering the formula that determines the future salary caps by using hockey-related revenues from two seasons prior. For example, the 2021-22 season salary cap will be calculated based off the revenues from this current 2019-20 season, and the 2022-23 salary cap will be impacted by next seasons 2020-21 hockey-related revenues and so on.

As this is a Leafs centric website, we always need to ask the question “How does this affect the Toronto Maple Leafs?” Also, as realists we need to talk about the very possible scenario that the salary cap could very well be stuck at $81.5 million for the next 3 seasons at the very least, especially if arenas are forced to limit capacity or even worse not allowed to host fans entirely.

The disclaimer as always when I project rosters, development of young players, contracts and trades is that assumptions are made. I always try and let the objective data be the focal point of these projections, but the fact of the matter is a lot of these different alternatives could be based off player performance in these upcoming playoffs. Specifically, I think the organization will be taking a very close look at the performances of RFA and UFA guys like Clifford, Dermott, and Mikheyev as well as highly touted prospects like Robertson and Sandin to see if these players are worth bringing back and/or give larger roles to next season.

2020-2021

As I mentioned above, this upcoming playoff run will impact some roster decisions in the immediate term… but the fact of the matter is that the Leafs will still be able to ice a sure-fire playoff team. However, they made need to ship one of their luxuries on the 3rd line and the question will still loom about any additions of an established top-4 defenceman to pair with Morgan Rielly.

I did a slightly more detailed deep dive of what the Leafs can do to bring in someone more established on the backend next season in my article that also talked about newly signed Mikko Lehtonen. Nonetheless, this is what the Leafs have committed to their main roster for 2020-21 (I also included KHL signings on the main roster as Leafs usually guarantee those guys spots):

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As you can see this leaves just over $3.4 million to resign their own RFA’s Mikheyev and Dermott, and also need to sign 2 more forward options at 4th line center (assuming the Leafs intend to carry an extra forward and defenceman). Now even, if you re-sign Spezza and Gauthier to nearly league minimum deals. That will only leave you with $2 million to re-sign Mikheyev and Dermott, which is obviously not an ideal scenario.

Assuming that Dubas is able to squeeze these “depth” RFA’s to one year “show me” contracts, based off their most recent comparables, the Leafs should expect to bring back both players for no less than $3.5 million (for the sake of this exercise I gave Mikheyev $2M and Dermott $1.5M).

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This would leave the Leafs just above $1.5M over the salary cap and unless they plan on carrying no extra skaters (which I don’t think they’d want to do in a likely more compact schedule next season) it pretty much forces their hand into trading one of Johnsson, Kerfoot or Kapanen.

They could also not bring back one of Mikheyev or Dermott, but I just don’t see that happening as it seems from my perspective… the organization has invested quite a lot in Mikheyev on and off the ice and Dermott (even though I suggested packaging him with Johnsson for an improvement on the backend) could very well take that next step during these playoffs and if he does, I am a firm believer in an internal promotion there.

So, with that being said, when other teams know you have to trade someone for pennies on the dollar and you CANNOT take on any salary back…

I would suggest trading Johnsson, especially if someone like Nick Robertson becomes that “X-Factor” I previously wrote about. Hopefully, you can recoup some mid-round picks you lost in the trade for Campbell and Clifford and I would be extremely confident in our scouting staff finding a future NHL player with one of those picks. In doing so, you’d have a roster looking like this:

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This roster to me would be an ideal scenario for the Leafs as it allows you to ease your new Top-6 forward prospect into a 3rd line role and most of your roster is still intact with no anchor contracts. Now, some of you may be wondering about Kyle Clifford… in this scenario I did not include him as much as I do enjoy the element he brings to the team but the likelihood of him re-signing is low in my opinion, especially since re-signing him would force the Leafs to give up a 2021 2nd rather than their 2021 3rd to Los Angeles. Unless he is willing to either take a near league minimum deal, I would sadly part ways with Clifford even though he has openly expressed interest in staying in Toronto.

2021-2022

Now this is where things start to get quite dicey for the Leafs, although on the surface you might see around $15.4 million in cap space… you should also notice the gaping holes in this Leafs lineup as well as a few names from this team’s core left to be signed:

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The two obvious names missing from this roster are starting goalie Frederik Andersen and unanimous favourite Zach Hyman as they are both UFA’s for this season. On top of that, players like Mikheyev, Dermott, Barabanov, Lehtonen and Korshkov will need new deals as well with the first two being arbitration eligible.

What does Zach Hyman sign for if he continues along this path of making your stars players shine brightest while also potting close to 30 goals and being one of your best penalty killers? Here is a hint, it won’t be for the $2.25 million he is currently signed for, and this factoring in for a hometown discount.

My suggestion would be to sign Zach to a 6+ year deal and try and keep the AAV lower than $4 million, maybe tug on the heart strings a little bit and sell the hometown boy story to him and grant him his wish of being a Toronto Maple Leaf for life.

What does the goalie who for better or for worse started as many games as you needed to over the last 5 seasons deserve on a new deal? Although he has his critics… Andersen still remained one of the top goalies in the league even after dealing with one of the hardest workloads in the NHL from a quantity and quality of shots perspective.

A comparison I have been looking at lately is a player who played a similar amount of games but had slightly better numbers is when a 29-year-old Pekka Rinne signed a 7-year deal before the 2012-13 season for $7 million in AAV (10.89% of the Cap). Now, I think it would be unwise for the Leafs to give a then 32-year-old Andersen that much term and AAV, especially since Rinne at the time was younger, and had slightly more playoff success as well.  But I do think, if Andersen were to come back into form and put the 2019-20 season behind him… I’d be comfortable giving him $7-7.5 million on a 3-year deal. I know this is not a data driven piece of evidence I would be hard pressed to believe that our #1 center Auston would take it well knowing his team didn’t at least attempt to sign his best friend on the team.

Assuming the Leafs focus on keeping their main core together and they lose one of Engvall or Holl in the expansion draft (I chose Engvall for the purpose of this exercise), that would leave the Leafs with $3.75 million to sign 2 Bottom-6 forwards and a defenceman, and possibly more if they’d like to carry extra skaters.

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Essentially, you’d be trying to re-sign 2 of Mikheyev, Barabanov and Korshkov as well as 1 of Dermott or Lehtonen. Furthermore, on top of Mikheyev and Dermott having arbitration rights, Barabanov and Lehtonen would be UFA’s at this point.  Maybe it is possible for Dubas to pull off, but it doesn’t seem likely given what those players made in the 2020-21 season.

In my opinion this will be the first season that will truly test the program and philosophy that Dubas has built here in Toronto. If the Leafs can still be a contender that season, there should be no debate that Dubas was the best man for the job.

2022-2023

Lastly, the 2022-23 season should and hopefully be the last of a flat cap of $81.5 million given that it will be tied to the hockey related revenues from this upcoming 2020-21 season but if the 2021-22 season wasn’t busy enough for Dubas… this season in question will. Like I said before, it is tough to project so far down the road, but these are the facts for the Leafs offseason in 2022 as we are today in July 2020:

  1. The Leafs currently have 5 forwards signed for the 2022-23 season (Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Kerfoot) at a total salary of almost $44 million. If you include the scenario where they traded Johnsson prior and have re-signed Hyman to an extension, we’re looking at 6 forwards costing just under $48 million.
  2. The Leafs have 2 defencemen signed in Muzzin and Holl for a combined $7.6 million.
  3. Kasperi Kapanen will be an RFA with arbitration rights.
  4. Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren and possibly Nick Robertson (if he burns the first year of his ELC during these playoffs) will all be RFA’s.
  5. Jack Campbell will be entering UFA, which means if the Leafs decide to move on from Andersen as well, the team will need 2 goalies.
  6. Last and certainly not least, Morgan Rielly will be entering UFA that offseason as well.

Basically, the Leafs could have anywhere from $51.6 to $62.5 million (depending on some extensions in the previous season) tied up in only 6 forwards, 2 defencemen, and 1 goalie give or take a forward and a goalie. That would be around 63-77% of the salary cap spent on just over a 3rd of the roster… and you haven’t even signed your #1 defenceman or any of your high profile RFA’s.

If there is anything to take away from this exercise, please understand that whether we like it or not… extremely tough and heart-breaking decisions will have to be made over the coming years to keep this team competitive. The chance of losing a player or even 2-3 players that a large portion of the fanbase has fallen in love with is a very likely scenario.

My advice to fellow Leafs fans would be to try and be present in the moment and enjoy this team for what it is, do not occupy your mind with worst case scenarios… have faith in the management staff and the program that was built here. Believe in the core, believe in the city, and enjoy the ride.

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