Mirtle: Analyzing the Maple Leafs salary cap situation: Can they afford to go big at the trade deadline?
By James Mirtle
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
In the NHL these days, there’s always the cap to worry about.
But it’s been interesting this season how little of a factor it has ended up being in Toronto, with all of the injuries the Maple Leafs have had. Because of a revolving long-term injured reserve (LTIR) setup, they haven’t had to cut down to a minimum roster or trade anyone because of cap considerations in-season, which were fears entering the year.
There’s no denying things are going to be tight once Morgan Rielly returns from injury, roughly six weeks from now. If the Leafs elect to keep Rasmus Sandin around after that point, they could be as close as $3,000 to the cap with only a 21-player roster in mid-March. That obviously complicates things given the trade deadline is Feb. 24.
Any deals they make are going to have to include dollars in and dollars out, almost to the loonie.
Here’s the Leafs projected roster with everyone except Ilya Mikheyev healthy, via CapFriendly. This lineup is calculated at only $3,134 under the $81.5-million max after waiving and demoting Dmytro Timashov, who is averaging only eight minutes ice time a night and has been scratched for a third of Toronto’s games.
The obvious fat to trim here is going to be on the blue line. If the Leafs are (a) comfortable with either Sandin or Dermott playing RD during the playoff push or (b) they intend to acquire another experienced RD, then moving out either Barrie or Ceci makes sense in order to facilitate a pre-deadline addition.
Ceci’s contract is significantly larger, which would allow the Leafs to accommodate a bigger deal coming back. If they could eliminate that $4.5-million entirely by sending it to a seller such as Anaheim, Detroit, LA or New Jersey that is willing to take on a contract in exchange for an asset, and they demoted Sandin, they would have the ability to add roughly $5.4 million in salary before the deadline and still fit in Rielly when he returns from LTIR.
(The Leafs could even bump that up to a little more than $5.6-million by sending Engvall, who doesn’t require waivers, down for someone on a league-minimum deal. They could then recall him when the playoffs start, when the cap is no longer a factor. That would come with obvious risk, however, given the dogfight they’re in just to make the postseason right now.)
If the Leafs also included someone like Kapanen or Johnsson in a potential trade for a defenceman, they would then have even more flexibility under the cap, to the point they would only have to trade part of Ceci’s deal in order to make the math work.
One benefit there would be Sandin could remain on the roster even when Rielly returns.
It’s probably easier to illustrate this with an example. I’ll go with a really simple one, even if it’s not the most likely deal:
Anaheim deals Josh Manson
in exchange for
Kasperi Kapanen and Cody Ceci
(with the Leafs retaining $2M of Ceci’s contract)
The Leafs get a top-four RD making $4.1-million for another two years beyond this one. They also shed $5.7-million this season, freeing up cap space to give them some breathing room the rest of the season.
A trade like that would leave Toronto with a projected D core of:
Muzzin – Manson
Rielly – Barrie
Sandin – Holl
extras: Dermott, Marincin, Liljegren
Everyone there slots fairly well, especially Holl, who now doesn’t have to eat tough minutes every night.
Now, I’m not sure Anaheim wants to get thinner at RD, as it is not exactly loaded with NHL calibre blueliners. And the Ducks are probably going to want some sort of prospect or pick package that could expand this deal on both sides.
But this is a good example of the kind of trade that makes sense before the deadline, even if the particulars are going to be different. (I do know that the Leafs have had a modest level of interest in Manson within the past couple years. It’s hard to say how active those talks have been this season.)
There’s another wrinkle here, though. What complicates any salary-cap analysis with the Leafs and a 2020 deadline deal is they aren’t going after rental players. So any deal has to be analyzed while keeping in mind future roster and cap configurations.
Which brings us to next season.
For all the hand-wringing about the Leafs cap situation and having too much cash allocated to four forwards, things do improve next year. For one, the cap is expected to go up, potentially to as much as $85 million. And all those expiring contracts (Ceci, Barrie, Muzzin et al) will give them freedom to rework things.
Not having Nathan Horton and David Clarkson’s zombie contracts will also allow them to exceed the cap using bonuses, if necessary. (Yes, the great unkillable Clarkson deal mercifully ends this season.)
Now, the Leafs are trying to re-sign Muzzin. I suspect that’s a contract that would land in the range of $5.5 million on a cap hit, depending on the term involved. Maybe a little lower if they can dramatically front-load it, which, of course, Toronto often does.
If the Leafs re-sign their RFAs like Mikheyev, Engvall and Dermott on reasonable bridge deals, they will have somewhere around $9-million to allocate to Muzzin (or another defenceman) and upgrade on Hutchinson in the backup goal role.
Here’s what that roster looks like with Muzzin signed and $4 million still to spend…
The problem with that lineup isn’t really the salary cap. It’s that you’re very thin on RD, with hardly any experience there and either Sandin or Dermott playing on their off side. And you’ve got a $3-million+ winger potentially on the fourth line, if Engvall continues to prove a capable third-liner.
That’s why moving a depth forward for a RD, right now, makes so much sense. The Leafs would be making a deal not just for the final six weeks of the season and playoffs. It would be something that better balances their roster and cap situation next season, which they’re going to have to do anyway.
For fun, here’s how that 2020-21 roster looks with our purely theoretical Kapanen-for-Manson swap factored in…
The Leafs would be about $3 million under the cap with that lineup and needing only a backup goalie.
They would also have some depth on defence to play around with. One of the interesting ramifications of keeping Muzzin is that it takes away a LD slot from either Dermott or Sandin. So either one of them has to play RD, and take away opportunity from Liljegren, or you need to make another deal.
Suddenly, they could have seven defencemen who you want to have in the lineup every night.
So, two key takeaways here:
1. The Leafs definitely have the flexibility to make a pretty big trade in the next four weeks, as freeing up $7 or $8 million in space (Ceci + a forward) shouldn’t be difficult given there are roster players involved in any likely deals. And they should be able to accommodate whatever contract they acquire beyond this year, as their cap situation is more favourable next season with the cap going up, UFAs moving on and RFAs not likely to break the bank.
2. Because this year’s deadline addition isn’t likely to be a rental, there are going to be ripple effects if the Leafs add a veteran defenceman. They have a lot of young players they want to give minutes to on the blue line, but they also want to get more experienced (and, frankly, better) on right defence, which isn’t something they have in the organization. Where everyone plays in that scenario remains to be seen.
Still, at some point, this type of forward-for-RD deal is probably going to be a trade they need to make.
Getting it done now, to help their current season, makes sense – especially given some of those also-ran teams the Leafs will be trading with are likely going to be fine with absorbing an expiring contract like Ceci’s while doing so.
Get better now, solve a roster imbalance later, and make it all fit under the cap.