How will the Maple Leafs deal with the flat cap?

As the days go by and the COVID-19 cases increase, the thought of fans in the stands for the 2020/2021 NHL season (most likely slated to start in January of 2021) becomes less and less likely. What does that mean for the salary cap? Well the simple fact is that it will stay flat until the league can start making money again and it looks like the ledger will be full of red again this season.

We already know the CBA that was signed this past summer prior to the NHL’s Return to Play for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs mentions that the salary cap will remain at $81.5 million until the league revenues reach $4.8 billion. Now, as we all know in business, especially in the COVID-era that terms and goals are being altered on a daily basis so the leagues goal could be subject to change. The thing we know for sure is that the league will have next to no shot at reaching that revenue goal in what looks like a shortened “lockout style” 48-game season. So the CBA tells us now that based off the current situation, the earliest the cap can increase is for the 2023/2024 season.

Some of you may be asking, “Why should we worry about something almost 3 years away?” Well the reason being is that 2023/2024 is the final season on Auston Matthews contract before he can become a UFA at the age of 27. Not to be a pessimist, but that could very well leave this Leafs organization with a minimum 4-season-window to make some noise in the playoffs if Matthews chooses to test free agency. On top of that, we know that for at least the next 3 seasons of that window… the cap will stay flat at $81.5 million. So I thought we’d revisit a similar exercise that we did 4 months ago but with a more clear picture, now that the off season is almost over and Kyle Dubas seems to be finished fine tuning his roster for the upcoming season.

We are going to take a look at a few things for the next 3 seasons (all data is captured from CapFriendly):

  1. Commited Contracts and where they slot into the lineup and resulting slots that need to be filled with potential transactions through UFA
  2. Expiring Contracts of players with UFA status
  3. Expiring Contracts of players with RFA status
  4. Expiring negotiating rights to drafted players
  5. Draft Picks Owned for that upcoming off-season

2020/2021

So to start off with #1 let us take a look at the a potential NHL lineup for this season as well as what a Leafs taxi-squad could look like as the AHL season remains in limbo.

A projected NHL Roster for the 2020/201 NHL Season
A projected AHL Roster combined with some prospects that are signed to contracts and are in the development system.

As we can see the Leafs are pretty well set for the season to begin with about as good as depth as they have ever had throughout all positions on the ice, particularly on defence and in goal. The additions of Brodie, Lehtonen and Bogosian makes the organization less dependent on a young piece like Sandin and Liljegren to step up and play significant minutes in their VERY early 20s. In net, Dubas finally has a bonafide NHL backup in Jack Campbell and even insured himself even more with the addition of Aaron Dell who might just be the best 3rd string goalie in the league. Up front, the Leafs chose to compliment their handsomely paid but very elite level talent with players who have been around the block and can add a different element to the game than the top-6 making the Leafs a more versatile team to play against. Even with all these additions the Leafs still remain just under half a million under the cap and thus that space will accrue through the season to allow space for a potential deadline acquisition.

With regards to expiring free agent contracts and reserve rights, Dubas has already taken care of all of them for this upcoming season so there is nothing to worry about there.

In terms of draft picks that could be parlayed into a deal during the season, the Leafs own all of their picks except their 3rd and 7th rounder, which is a better situation than they were last year where they did not own their 1st round pick.

2021/2022

This is where things can get interesting for the organization and where you start to notice the amount of flexibility Kyle Dubas actually has in this flat cap system.

Projected NHL Cap commitments to the Leafs for the 2021/2022 Season
Projected AHL Cap commitments to the Leafs for the 2021/2022 Season

Based off the Leafs projected commitments for this season, it looks like the key roles that they will have to fill are a top-6 left winger, top-4 right defenceman, three 4th-line players, possibly 7th defenceman for insurance and most importantly a starting goalie. Notice that I put Justin Holl on LTIR as a way of getting his salary off the books as he is a very likely candidate to be taken by Seattle in the expansion draft and would be off the roster at this point in this “universe”. This leaves Kyle Dubas with approximately $12.8 million dollars to fill these roster holes… completely doable.

From a UFA perspective, the two key ones are Frederik Andersen and Zach Hyman… both would fill those top-6 LW and starting goalie roles but the likelihood of Andersen coming back is largely dependent on his performance in the 2020/2021 season. I think Hyman is a must extend for Dubas and the front office especially since they have the room to do so and it all signs point to him wanting to be a lifelong Maple Leaf.

Other notable UFAs that would need a new contract are Simmonds, Bogosian, Barabanov, Lehtonen, Vesey, Thornton, and Spezza. Realistically speaking the most likely ones I can see being resigned are Barabanov and Lehtonen. Travis Dermott is the only key RFA that would need to be signed and his arbitration case will not likely be very strong. For the sake of this exercise let’s overestimate and suggest Hyman, Dermott, Barabanov and Lehtonen are signed for a total cap hit between $8-$8.25 million. That would leave Dubas with just under $4 million to find a starting goalie for this team. If this is the case… it pretty much takes Freddy Andersen out of the equation. The goalie market in the 2021 offseason does not shape up to be as fruitful as it was this past offseason but there are some big names that could possibly be out there in Tuuka Rask and Jordan Binnington. However, they will both likely command more than the Leafs are willing to pay, which leaves a goalie partner for Jack Campbell the biggest whole the Leafs need to fill for this season. Another thing to keep an eye on when the 2021/2022 season plays out is the performance of the two highly touted Swedish prospects in Sandin and Liljegren as they will need a new contract prior to the 2022/2023 season so making sure they both can play solid full-time minutes in the NHL is imperative before investing tangible cap dollars in them.

The only notable drafted player that will have their negotiating rights expire during this offseason is James Greenway. Unfortunately, James has not panned out as even a legitimate option to develop into an AHL defenceman so the Leafs probably pass here and let Greenway pursue his hockey career elsewhere.

Finally, there is nothing too complicated on the draft pick front as the Leafs currently own all their picks for the 2022 NHL Draft.

2022/2023

The summer of 2022 may seem like a long time away from now but in today’s world, everyone should realize how fast time can fly. At this point in the future the Beijing Olympics will be over, hopefully with a few Leafs coming home with a Gold Medal, and a couple more Leafs coming home with a Silver and Bronze Medal (sorry Auston and Willy). After projecting out some development out of the younger players in the organization… I can very well see the organization expecting guys like Filip Hållander, Joey Anderson, and Rodion Amirov becoming full-time NHLers in top-9 roles. By this time, I expect Nick Robertson to cement his status as a top-6 winger playing along side Matthews or Tavares and that allows a slightly older Zach Hyman to move down into a 3rd-line checking role with key penalty kill time.

Projected NHL Cap commitments to the Leafs for the 2022/2023 Season

This leaves the team with $19.6 million in cap space to fill a maximum of 3 4th-line roles, but most importantly need to fill some large holes on defence and in goal as the only two signed for this year are Muzzin and Brodie.

The key UFAs for this offseason are Morgan Rielly, Jack Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, and possibly Barabanov and Lehtonen depending on how long they sign extensions for in the previous offseason. I don’t see any of these players other than Rielly as a must resign but obviously we have two full seasons of games and data to compile before those decisions need to be made.

The major RFA negotiations that will need to be had are with Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. That is why the 2021/2022 season is so important for the two Swedish defencemen as their play will ultimately determine where they stand within the club. I realize $19.6 million might seem like a lot of cap space but don’t forget that needs to be dispersed amongst 4-5 defencemen, 2 goaltenders, and 2-3 forwards. On average that is approximately $2 million per player signed to the final roster. Realistically, Dubas can find 2 out of the 5 defencemen for league minimum and another 2 forwards for similar cost, so that would leave around $16.6 million to sign Rielly, Sandin, Liljegren and 2 goalies. Doable? Yes! But it is most definitely not ideal… so I wonder if this is when Dubas tries get one of Brodie or Muzzin to waive their no-trade-clause if one of their play begins to decline.

You’ll notice that recent 15th overall pick Rodion Amirov was signed to his ELC in this simulation… however there are rumours that Amirov is in the process of signing an extension in the KHL that will keep him overseas until the spring of 2023 which would keep him out of the NHL until at least the 2023/2024 season. When Rodion comes over to North America, he will be 21 at this point with 3 professional KHL seasons under his belt, and likely numerous international experiences with the Russian National Team at the World Juniors and possibly World Championships. In this short time since being drafted to the NHL, he has shown tremendous ability making him worthy of a highly touted 1st round draft pick. The Leafs should look to bring him over as soon as his KHL contract expires in order to start gaining more control of his development path which tends to get lost when having prospects play in Russia (due to the fact that KHL teams typically don’t play young players significant minutes).

Lastly, the Leafs own all of their draft picks for the 2023 NHL draft once again leaving them with a good arsenal of assets to use should they feel it necessary to make a “win-now” move during the 2022/2023 regular season.

Takeaway

Once again, this exercise has provided us with a key theme of consequence now that we have seen Kyle Dubas’ recent moves. To me, that theme is FLEXIBILITY. The Leafs GM has taken the approach of locking in your core star players… the ones who you envision carrying the team year after year. But at the same time avoid locking himself into long-term deals with players that are outside of the core and could possibly end up as trade anchors down the road. Over the next two offseasons Dubas has left around $12 million and $20 million in cap space to fill out the edges of the roster (except for a goalie really)… so it allows him to maneuver through these uncertain times comfortably knowing that he won’t have to make a rash decision or forced error by trading valuable assets to rid the Leafs of a bad contract they signed. Overall, I think Kyle Dubas has done a tremendous job dealing with the current times and I also think we will start to see his work bear more fruit for this team once the 2018, 2019, and 2020 draft classes start to mature and develop into some solid NHL players (2018 is when Dubas got full control of the draft process as GM).

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