Mirtle: Things I think about the Leafs, Vol. 3: The delayed cap crunch, a Justin Williams bid, and Enter Sandman?
By James Mirtle
Jan 8, 2020
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
It’s funny. As soon as Mitch Marner signed his deal, in the early days of training camp, and it came in at nearly $11-million, it felt like the Maple Leafs would be in cap hell all season.
Bare minimum roster sizes on the road. Emergency recalls. Potentially playing games short a forward or defenceman. And possibly losing some useful players on waivers.
They had so little cap room, when healthy, that they seemed to be playing with fire.
It hasn’t really worked out that way. Mostly because of the “when healthy” part.
The Leafs have had eight different players on long-term injured reserve this season, three months in, which might set some sort of record. And it’s been a rotating cast that has allowed Kyle Dubas to more or less maintain a full roster all year.
They started the season with Travis Dermott and Zach Hyman on LTIR, and Hyman’s modest $2.25-million salary being stashed there was enough to carry another two or three league minimum contracts.
Dermott came off LTIR on Oct. 28. Then Marner got hurt and went on it on Nov. 10, opening up a ton of salary.
Hyman came off it on Nov. 12. Marner was healthy by Dec. 3, but then it was Trevor Moore (Dec. 4) and Andreas Johnsson’s turn (Dec. 6) to help the Leafs exceed the $81.5-million cap.
On Dec. 28, Ilya Mikheyev joined that group, likely for the rest of the regular season, due to a nasty skate-cut injury.
And now we’re waiting for Moore and Johnsson to return to the lineup, which could come as soon as the weekend.
Still, the Leafs will put off the cut down to a minimum roster situation. With Jake Muzzin out with a broken foot – an injury that typically keeps players out four-to-six weeks, depending on where the break is – he can go on LTIR as soon as Johnsson is healthy, which frees up another $4-million.
Capmageddon, then, may not come until mid-February when Muzzin returns. Assuming no one else is hurt by then.
It’d be idiotic to suggest all these injuries are a good thing. They never are. But what they’ve allowed the Leafs to do is get long looks at the top of their development system. Some of the results have been revelations.
Who could have known, for example, that Pierre Engvall was capable of piling up seven goals and 12 points in 22 games of limited ice time, while also looking like a premier penalty killer?
Adam Brooks also looks like a player, albeit in limited opportunity so far.
And it’s safe to say the Leafs have a better handle on what Dmytro Timashov is (or isn’t) after giving him 30 NHL games.
Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe now have a deeper understanding of what they have down their roster. They’ve had various players higher in the lineup than they likely would have had they been fully healthy. And they’ve been able to test drive a zillion different lines and D pairs.
All while rapidly climbing the standings the past seven weeks.
When the cap crunch finally comes, they’ll go into those cuts with a better idea of where they should come and what their roster looks like heading towards the Feb. 24 trade deadline. It might be quite a bit different now than back in November, given all that’s transpired.
The Leafs failed pursuit of Justin Williams is pretty interesting.
@PierreVLeBrunWhile the Hurricanes continue to work on a contract for Justin Williams, complicated by the 35 and over rules and bonuses and their cap situation, word is the Maple Leafs also made a pitch to Williams this week. Also heard that the Bruins inquired.
Adding talent was always going to be tough for Toronto given their cap and roster situation, as laid out above, but Williams was one piece that could have fit.
The contract he signed – league minimum with $1.3-million in potential bonuses – would only cause headaches insofar as any bonuses earned would carry over to the 2020-21 cap. This is because the Leafs are into LTIR, which pushes any bonus overage into the following season.
So there would have been a little risk there, assuming the Leafs could have convinced the Cobourg, Ont., native to come “home.”
Williams’ bonuses, however, are believed to be structured similar to those Corey Perry received from Dallas in July. That means much of the payout would be for hitting various games played and playoff advancement targets.
It’s safe to say the Leafs could live with a bonus overage if it came with a postseason run. And Williams is still good enough that he would have been worth the gamble.
What stands out, though, is he plays at the position where the Leafs are probably the deepest: right wing. With Marner, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen there, Dubas might have been banking on moving out someone to make room for Mr. Game 7.
That may have helped avoid a bonus overage, as they could simply give Williams more guaranteed salary. In theory.
And then traded another winger for help on D.
(Given we’re on this train of thought: The Leafs really should have pursued Williams over Patrick Marleau back in the summer of 2017, when Lou Lamoriello had a pile of dough to throw around on a veteran forward. He would have come cheaper and been more productive. And maybe Toronto would still have its 2020 first-round pick. Instead, Carolina has both Williams and the pick.)
You couldn’t help but notice Keefe’s lack of options against Connor McDavid in Monday’s game.
The fact that Martin Marincin was one of his go-to defenders, at home, against the best player in the world spoke volumes. Justin Holl also had a tough game, after playing so well against the Oilers in Edmonton a month ago.
It’s a big ask for him to do that routinely.
The Leafs missed Muzzin terribly in that game, but they also missed some of their depth up front (Mikheyev and Johnsson, in particular). The Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander line, which had played well to that point, was caved in by McDavid in basically every metric there is.
Toronto has played really well under Keefe, including a standout defensive performance against the Islanders on Saturday. But this is a team that still lacks many obvious candidates in these hard-match situations. It’s part of what’s hurt them in the playoffs against a team like Boston – which has one incredibly dominant line – the past two seasons, and it hurt them against Edmonton this week.
With Morgan Rielly battling through an injury all season (as outlined nicely by Jonas in his piece this morning), Keefe doesn’t really have a lot of choice on the back end against a player like McDavid. Or really any high-end offensive weapons on teams they’ll face in the playoffs.
Even with Muzzin and Johnsson back, it remains a pressing need heading towards the deadline. If they move a forward, it has to be to address that weakness. They can’t be rolling out Marincin against Boston or Tampa’s best with their season on the line.
On a somewhat related note: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Leafs potentially recalling Rasmus Sandin, now that he’s back from winning a bronze medal at the world juniors with Sweden.
It’s tough to say this would help solve their “hard match” issue, given Sandin is just 19 years old. But, especially with Muzzin out and a hole open on LD, he is an obviously better fit for the possession-heavy, puck-movement system Keefe wants this team to play than D-men like Marincin and Ceci.
There are cap ramifications to consider, too. Once Sandin clears the 10-game mark – he’s at six right now – it’ll burn a year from his entry-level contract. The Leafs similarly burned Nylander’s ELC a year early back in 2015-16, which was a meaningless, lost season. That led into the contract stalemate that impacted him last season, so it’s not always a guarantee that a smaller sample size of games played will help get a smaller second contract done.
That said, I think the Leafs have to focus on this season, and what lineup best positions them for success. This is meant to be a contending season, so it’s not worth frittering away points by playing someone like Marincin in key minutes if they feel like Sandin can help them now.
At minimum, they have three games to test it out while Muzzin recovers. Maybe you play Rielly with Holl and unleash Sandin offensively alongside someone like Barrie?
Then worry about the cap implications in 2022, when the Leafs should have more space to work with and their blue line is going to look vastly different. Ideally with Sandin playing a big role.
I mentioned Kerfoot earlier and want to cycle back to his new assignment. Frankly, I like him on the wing. A lot. He’s got terrific vision and can make smart, quick passes in tight areas that some of the Leafs wingers struggle with.
It’s already created goals in a limited sample size with his new line.
The Leafs are uniquely constructed compared to a lot of NHL teams in that two of their best shooters are their top two centres. Matthews and Tavares are going to play two-thirds of most games. And what the Leafs really need are players who can win battles, get the puck and get it to their triggermen in scoring positions.
It’s part of why Hyman’s had so much success on this team. And while he’s more of a finesse player, it could be a good fit for Kerfoot, given his skill set.
@TicTacTOmarThe Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander line is good
The trouble with putting Kerfoot up on the top two lines is the Leafs don’t really have a great option at 3C without him. Jason Spezza has struggled the past few games as he’s moved higher up the lineup – his expected goals mark is down around 43 percent since Christmas – and you don’t really want The Goat or Brooks in for more than 10 minutes.
It’s been a few years now that Toronto hasn’t had many wingers who can play in the middle of the ice, which limits their options. But Kerfoot excelled in the minutes he got on the wing with Nathan MacKinnon the past two years in Colorado, and I think that long term that might be the best fit for him.
He very well could be the type of player who elevates when he’s with stars, as opposed to driving a line with lesser talents.
Engvall’s emergence could be really important on this front because if he can play down the middle, higher in the lineup than anyone expected, it might allow them to keep Kerfoot on the wing. Or move him there when injuries hit. He’ll need to improve on draws at the NHL level to accomplish this, but it’s early days for him at this point.
This is all less of a concern when everyone is healthy, obviously, as Johnsson, Hyman, and Mikheyev give Toronto plenty of depth on LW. But as Dubas is making the cap puzzle pieces fit the rest of the year and in the off-season, this unexpected look at Kerfoot alongside Tavares could change some of the front office’s decision-making.
If it continues to work, that is.
Let’s end on the goalie carousel.
I was surprised to see Keefe start Michael Hutchinson against the Islanders, a team they’re battling with for positioning in the Eastern Conference. And I was doubly surprised to see Frederik Andersen get the early pull on Monday against Edmonton.
Keefe’s clearly built up a little bit of leeway to experiment here, given his 15-5-1 start, and seeing if Hutchinson can play more frequently makes some sense. It obviously worked out brilliantly on Saturday. Hutch was clutch.
But Andersen is in a mini-funk right now and needs to play his way out of it. I wondered if maybe he should have been put back into the net for the third period against the Oilers, with the Leafs down 4-3, to try and battle back into the game?
It’s never ideal to keep throwing cold goalies in, but in a situation like this, where Andersen’s been your MVP all season and clearly didn’t want to come out of the net, that might have been a goodwill gesture that made sense.
It also probably would have given them a better chance of winning the game. Which is more important than trying to send your team a message about how poorly they were playing defensively early on. (The Leafs incredibly allowed 20 scoring chances in the first period alone in one of their worst 20-minute stretches of the season.)
It’s going to be fascinating to watch how Keefe uses his goalies the rest of the way. The softest part of the Leafs schedule is largely over, save for a few opponents later this month, and they have an eight-day break coming up quickly for the all-star game in St. Louis. (Andersen, notably, will be in attendance rather than resting on a beach somewhere.)
Even if your confidence in Hutchinson is growing, how much rope do you need to give Andersen to ensure he’s in the right headspace for the stretch drive? Can you risk many more in-game pulls, given how infrequently he’s been taken out of games?
There will always be this rest-versus-rust debate with goaltenders. More and more teams seem to be moving towards a tandem setup and that’s often what Keefe had at his disposal with the Marlies.
This, however, feels like a different animal, a situation where having Andersen at his best trumps all else. The big question is how do you get him there?