By Jonas Siegel and James Mirtle 55m ago
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Every offseason, NHL teams undergo significant changes. Especially those with cap-related concerns.
The Maple Leafs, for example, had 10 new faces on the roster early this past season compared to 2018-19, as the salary cap, trades and free agency necessitated plenty of change. Having a relatively new GM contributed to that, too.
While we don’t foresee that kind of wholesale remodeling in this unusual summer for Toronto, this will again be a different roster come a year from now — regardless of whether the NHL is able to play playoff games in July and August. The cap is going to be a factor, as well some graduating young players pushing others out.
Let’s take a closer look at who’s most likely to stay and go when it comes time to shape the Leafs for the 2020-21 season.
Not going anywhere
Auston Matthews: Probably don’t need a lot of explanation here. Even without the captaincy, he’s the face of the franchise and coming off one of the best seasons ever for a Leafs player. You don’t have to worry about him going anywhere — until 2024. Hopefully for their sake, the cap goes up by then.
William Nylander: Kyle Dubas clung to William Nylander and wouldn’t let go even as the longest contract standoff of the NHL’s salary cap era reached the very last possible moments on Dec. 1, 2018. That patience and belief by the Leafs GM was finally rewarded this season, when Nylander buried 30 goals for the first time with the Leafs and kicked his game up another level. As a result, Nylander’s contract — with another four seasons to go at a $6.9 million cap hit — has quickly come to look like pretty good value, and will only get better in time if his ascendance continues. He’ll turn 24 next month, and in light of that youth, considerable talent and upside, along with the value of that contract, Nylander might be the most secure Leafs player moving forward after Matthews.
John Tavares: Tavares put up 1.8 five-on-five points per 60 minutes this season, the lowest mark for him since he was a 19-year-old rookie in Long Island. He’ll be 30 in September. It’s possible his decline, if slight, has begun. But even if that’s true and he’s not delivering value on the fifth-highest cap hit in the league ($11 million, tied with Drew Doughty), Tavares remains hugely important to the Leafs. He still scores a bunch, can play against anyone and gives Sheldon Keefe about as ideal a second option behind Matthews as possible. How many better second-line centres — price-tag notwithstanding — are there in the league? He’s also the Leafs captain and here to stay.
Mitch Marner: Marner hasn’t had his best season, and a significant ankle injury played a key role in that, keeping him out of 11 games early on. But he’s still producing at basically the same pace as 2018-19, and it’s clear he has more to give under better circumstances. Perhaps this is his “Nylander” year, the lost season his teammate had a year ago thanks to the contract drama. Marner’s AAV might be high, and the Leafs will definitely be cap-strapped given the impact COVID-19 will have on NHL revenues, but there’s no indication management is ready to radically alter the team’s core at this point.
Morgan Rielly: Imagine the feeding frenzy if the Leafs decided they were set moving forward with Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin on the left side and were willing to listen to offers for Rielly. The 26-year-old, a fifth-place finisher in Norris Trophy voting last season, is under contract for another two seasons, at a $5 million cap hit that doesn’t even crack the top-50 among NHL defenders. Dubas’ phone would blow up. Rielly is too valuable for the Leafs GM to ever seriously consider that. We learned that during Rielly’s triumphant 72-point campaign a year ago, of course, but also during the two months he missed due to a broken foot this season.
Rielly wasn’t right physically even before he was forced out, but that (75 percent?) version of him still chewed up a team-leading 24 minutes per game with positive results — 52 percent expected goals and a 48-point pace that would look quite fine if it weren’t for the offensive bonanza of a season earlier. Muzzin may deliver a defensive know-how that Rielly lacks, but Rielly also primes the offence with his legs and smarts in a way that Muzzin can’t. He can prop up a lesser partner, run a power play, kill penalties and is probably the closest thing to a Grade-A No. 1 defenceman the Leafs have had in recent memory. He might also be the most vital culture cog as the longest-serving Leafs player. Fully healthy, he’s one of the better all-around defenders in the league, and at that price — well worth hanging onto.
Jake Muzzin: The 31-year-old just signed a four-year extension that keeps him locked in as long as anyone not named Tavares or Marner. Muzzin’s been beloved by two coaches, everyone in management and everyone in that dressing room since he arrived from L.A. last January. The only question now is how long he can continue to log big minutes, as they’ll need him to be a rock on the back end into his mid-30s. But he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Jack Campbell: Besides solving a need that threatened to derail the season, the extra sweetener for the Leafs in the Campbell deal was the two additional years — at a $1.65 million cap hit — he has on his contract. That meant much-needed security behind Andersen next season, but also the year after that — with Andersen slated to become a UFA in 2021, and no surefire replacements for him internally. (Ian Scott, Joseph Woll and Zachary Bouthillier are all just question marks at this point.) While it’s unlikely given his NHL track record to this point (.904 career save percentage), it’s also not impossible that Campbell runs with his opportunity in Toronto and emerges as a viable starter or 1B to Andersen. At worst, he looks like solid backup material next season.
Rasmus Sandin: The future. It’s going to be interesting how Keefe manages a blue line where, arguably, his four best players could all be lefties who typically play on their dominant side. That includes Sandin, who has played RD at other levels and could plausibly shift over next season as he grows more comfortable in the league. If he can excel there, and develop into a top-four option, that’ll solve what has probably been the organization’s most glaring hole since their goalies were abysmal nearly a decade ago.
Justin Holl: It’s still something that Holl is playing for less than the NHL minimum this season ($675,000), and doing it on what’s effectively been the No. 1 pair. The support we always thought he had from the Dubas front office (71 scratches!) was punctuated on the final day of 2019 when Holl was awarded a three-year extension, with a $2 million cap hit. He’s still played only 81 NHL games, so it’s fair to wonder if he can hang with top lines on a permanent basis moving forward. But the 28-year-old still feels vital for the Leafs as the only sure thing on the right side.
Zach Hyman: The results of our fan survey are going to be released sometime in the next week, but we can release a little spoiler fodder: Leafs fans love Zach Hyman. Many chose him as their favourite player, and a vast majority of the fan base wants him re-signed when his contract expires at the end of next season. Hyman’s career arc has been fascinating, as he was somewhat of a whipping boy early on when placed on the first line. But he’s quickly won over most of his detractors. Hard to imagine they won’t try to keep him beyond his current deal, which has turned into a steal given his production, work ethic and defensive play.
Very likely staying put
Frederik Andersen: Jonas and I debated this one probably more than any others listed here. Is Andersen a lock to be back next season? I said no. Jonas said, yes, in part because Dubas hinted they were set in goal beyond this coming offseason. Hey, I’d love to think the GM was giving us a look at a key decision they’ve made for the future, but I’m not fully buying it. Andersen hasn’t had a great year, is heading into his final season and isn’t getting any younger. The Leafs have to think long and hard about what their future looks like in goal over the next year or so, as there don’t appear to be any internal options rising from the minors at this point. Do you try and keep Andersen on a reasonable extension? Or look at free agency or a trade? Or can Campbell be a bigger part of the answer than simply getting 25ish starts as a dependable backup?
Jason Spezza: This one is almost settled, even if there’s no ink on a contract. Spezza is willing to play for a league-minimum deal again, and the organization, by all accounts, is happy with what he’s brought to the table in a limited role. Spezza is 37 this summer so the swan song is coming at some point — but he’s not there yet. A good example of the “local boy comes home” scenario that could pay off for Toronto against the cap, if it repeats with more players in the years to come.
Pierre Engvall: The Leafs extended Engvall for two years ($1.25 million cap hit) back in February, a day before he played his 36th career NHL game. Clearly, they believe in his upside. And while Engvall faded as his rookie season rolled along, with those wheels, that size (6-foot-5, over 200 pounds), and versatility (with centre perhaps in his future), he’s worth keeping around as a fourth-line forward at worst. He’s easily buried in the AHL otherwise. Engvall turns only 24 next month. There’s time to grow.
Travis Dermott: Dermott was really turning a corner when the season was shut down, looking comfortable in top-four minutes and finding his way as a dependable option at both ends of the rink. The Leafs really need to see more of that before considering Dermott as a long-term piece, so I imagine he’ll be looking at a short “show me” contract as an RFA this summer. Like Sandin, one of the questions is whether he can play the right side at a high level? If the answer’s yes, he’ll stick around for a while. If not… the Leafs are running out of room on LD.
Ilya Mikheyev: This is one where it probably comes down to what the player wants. The Leafs are obviously going to be stressed against the salary cap, to the point that they can’t give Mikheyev the moon the way they did Nikita Zaitsev a few years ago. If Mikheyev is willing to give it another go on a cheap one-year contract, he’ll be with the Leafs. If he wants a big payday, it’s going to have to come elsewhere — either in the KHL or after being dealt to another NHL team. Toronto simply doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to a player with this little NHL experience. The injury really hurt Mikheyev’s leverage here.
Frederik Gauthier: It feels like the Goat has been around forever — and as a 2013 first-round pick from the Dave Nonis era, he kinda has. Gauthier turns 25 later this month and needs a new contract. But he’s under team control (RFA) and shouldn’t cost much more than the $675,000 he got on his last deal. Were cap space not an issue, the Leafs might want to upgrade his position with a little more speed and pop (underlying results this season weren’t great), but for now, with every dollar under the microscope, Gauthier is OK enough on the fourth line.
Denis Malgin: Though it seemed at the time in mid-February that the Leafs were dealing away a prospect for more immediate help up front, Malgin is actually nearly two years younger than Mason Marchment, who went the other way to Florida. The 23-year-old Malgin didn’t have a point and produced only three shots in his first eight games with the Leafs, but there were glimpses of an NHL player there. He’s an RFA after the season, but he’s coming cheap. And even if he’s only Marlies-bound, he’s worth keeping around for the time being.
Calle Rosen: The Leafs didn’t really want to move him out the first time, but the Avs requested Rosen be packaged in the Kadri deal. But he was hurt and barely played for Colorado’s NHL club, so back to Toronto he came. An easy choice as a Marincin No. 2 option who can ping pong between the NHL and AHL when there are injuries. Next season, however, Rosen will require waivers, so there’s always a chance they lose him there when the final cuts come.
Martin Marincin: He’s never leaving! Only Rielly, remarkably, has been with the Leafs longer. The appeal seems fairly obvious at this point. Marincin, now 28, doesn’t seem to mind spending many, many games in the press box (30-plus this season), but when the Leafs are in a pinch, he can slide in and eat some minutes, particularly on the penalty kill. It’s not always pretty, but for a minimum salary ($700,000 next season), he serves a purpose.
The 50/50 folks
Kasperi Kapanen: He’s the most appealing trade chip the Leafs have. Still young. Fast. A sturdy 6-foot-1 and almost 200 pounds. Some scoring upside. Pedigree. And, crucially, signed for the next two seasons for reasonable money ($3.2 million cap hit) and under team control (RFA in 2022) after that. The Leafs could just decide to keep him for all those reasons. Or, given their salary cap constraints, they might just decide to cash in the asset now. He feels, to some degree, replaceable, particularly given his inability to play higher in the lineup thus far or offer much as a playmaker. He’ll be 24 in July so there’s theoretically still time for him to develop, but maybe there’s more sizzle here than steak. The betting here is that he’ll be playing elsewhere next season.
Andreas Johnsson: To be honest, 50-50 might be high for Johnsson. The Leafs are going to have to shed payroll, and after a poor season, Johnsson could well be targeted. But it’s not just about the performance or his contract; it’s the fact that the Leafs could have a lot of LW depth if they retain Mikheyev, re-sign Hyman, give Nick Robertson a shot and Alexander Barabanov plays on his strong side. And I didn’t even mention Pierre Engvall, who is far more experienced on the wing than at centre, where he might be crowded out anyway given Toronto’s personnel.
Alex Kerfoot: He’s probably closer to 60/40 to stay than 50/50 if only because the Leafs need a third centre behind Matthews and Tavares. That can be rectified, obviously, with a trade or free-agent signing, or perhaps with Engvall. Still, Kerfoot’s versatility feels useful in a way that neither Kapanen nor Johnsson can match. He can bounce between centre and wing (in the top-six), drive play, help a power play and even kill penalties. Because he’s two years older, coming off a so-so season (28 points in 65 games) and carrying a $3.5 million cap hit for the next three seasons, he doesn’t carry anywhere near the same appeal as Kapanen. He does boast a slightly lengthier track record than Johnsson though. Kerfoot posted roughly the same five-on-five numbers per 60 minutes as capable third centres such as Mikael Backlund, Tyler Bozak, Tyler Johnson and Charlie Coyle (and also, Tavares), and got better as his first year with the Leafs rolled along. In light of that upside and versatility, the Leafs might want to hang onto him and move the more alluring Kapanen (or Johnsson) instead for futures and cap space.
Kyle Clifford: Another local who’s happy to be close to home, Clifford wants to stay with the Leafs, but I have a hard time seeing a fit, especially given he’s not getting your typical depth winger-type contract. At 29, Clifford will likely be looking at his last big shot at a payday in free agency, coming off a contract where he made $1.6 million per season. Even returning at that number is likely going to be too rich for the Leafs, who, as mentioned above in the Johnsson writeup, are suddenly flush with options on left wing.
The 99 percent (not returning) club
Tyson Barrie: We went over the case to keep Barrie (or not) here. To summarize: Not only will the Leafs be challenged to make room for his next contract, it’s hard to make a case why they even should consider it. Barrie doesn’t bring what’s needed on the right side, and that’s a much sturdier defensive presence who can hang tough with dangerous players in a playoff series. We’re looking at a (very) likely one-and-done here.
Cody Ceci: Well, it was interesting. You wonder what he’ll get in free agency in this environment. A pay cut certainly feels inevitable.