By James Mirtle 4h ago
The Alex Pietrangelo stalemate in St. Louis has been really interesting to watch all year.
You keep hearing, over and over, that they will find a way to make it work, that the player wants to be there and the team wants to keep their captain.
Then … it doesn’t happen.
At its base level, this is a game of chicken over money. Our Blues writer Jeremy Rutherford breaks down the latest here really well and comes to the conclusion that they need to find a way to make this work.
At the heart of the issue, what you’ve got is one of the best defencemen in the league, still in his prime, who won the Stanley Cup last season. You have similar defencemen (with fewer credentials) like Roman Josi in Nashville getting eight-year deals for more than $9 million a season.
You also have a Blues team that is basically capped out, with a savvy GM trying to get the Pietrangelo asking price to come down a little, likely with the realization that the player wants to stay.
And he does, but at this point, with free agency a little more than a month away, the odds Pietrangelo tests the market appear to be rising. The pandemic and the flat cap have really complicated things, as the Blues’ offer of $8 million a season now looks more reasonable than it did previously, when we were expecting regular cap growth annually.
But when you consider GM Doug Armstrong gave Justin Faulk, a far lesser defenceman, $6.5 million on a long-term deal recently, I can see why Pietrangelo is holding out for more.
The thing is St. Louis can make the cap dollars work if they start shuttling out the likes of Alex Steen, Tyler Bozak and Jake Allen. But it won’t be easy, especially in an offseason where teams aren’t going to want to take on money.
If this stalemate goes much longer, meanwhile, other teams are going to come circling. Which brings us to Toronto.
Given where the Maple Leafs are at, and the gaping hole at right defence, it’s worthwhile to ponder if Kyle Dubas should be part of the potential bidding war.
Here at The Athletic Toronto, we’ve been examining some free agent options for the Leafs on defence for the past few weeks since they were eliminated. Many of them are second-tier options, like T.J. Brodie, Chris Tanev and Travis Hamonic.
The response in the comments, from many of our readers, has been: Is that really going to fix Toronto’s problems?
Losing to a team with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski anchoring their top pair only added to the feeling in the fan base that what the Leafs really need is another marquee defenceman, someone who can play with Morgan Rielly and give Toronto a legitimate top-pair option.
The issue there, however, is going to be how much those players typically cost.
Can the Leafs even afford, for example, to give Pietrangelo $8.5 million, given their cap situation?
What about some of the other big money defencemen who might be available? Drew Doughty makes $11 million. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Aaron Ekblad and Kris Letang range between $7.25 million and $8.25 million a season.
Their teams might consider them expendable as they rebuild or retool and try to make their cap (and cash) dollars work in the new world order. Buyer beware, obviously, given they’ve all had issues with injury and performance over the past few years.
Let’s set some ground rules before we dig further into the Leafs cap situation, just to anchor this in reality somewhat.
1. We’re not trading Auston Matthews, John Tavares or Mitch Marner.
The Leafs aren’t going to do this so it’s not an option for our theoretical situations either. Maybe in a couple years, but not now.
2. We’re not trading one of our defencemen that makes a significant salary.
Moving Rielly or Jake Muzzin to get help on right D, by weakening the left side, doesn’t make a lot of sense.
3. William Nylander stays … for now.
The answer that many pundits — and executives with other teams around the league — have for the Leafs dilemma is to trade Nylander. But as I explained in my column last week after the Kapanen trade, the offers the Leafs field from around the league for Nylander are all subpar. He’s not valued highly enough at this point to make a trade likely, and other than freeing up cap space, he’s probably not going to solve the “get a top-pair D” problem.
(Also: Keeping Nylander on the roster makes this exercise much more challenging and, frankly, interesting. If you trade him, the answer is simple: Yes, the Leafs can likely afford whoever they want.)
If we resolve to keep those six players, that’s obviously a lot of the Leafs cap space: $51.1 million, 63 percent of all available cap space.
Add in the $1.2 million the Leafs are still retaining on Phil Kessel’s salary for another two years, and that rises to 64.2 percent. The Leafs would then have just $29 million to spend on another 14 players: eight forwards, four defencemen and two goaltenders.
If we fill in some of those gaps with low-salary players the Leafs are likely to bring back (Mikheyev, Dermott, etc.) and sign Pietrangelo for $8.5 million — which is probably the minimum he commands on the open market, even in this flat-cap environment — that gives us a roster that looks like so.
Hey, that looks like a fairly strong version of the 2020-21 Maple Leafs. They’ve only lost Kapanen up front, they have a little bit of forward depth, and that blue line is better than it’s been in many, many years in Toronto. So maybe they should just try to do that?
The issue: That roster is $4.8 million over the salary cap.
This illustrates how much harder the flat cap is going to make life on teams like the Leafs. Before, when the cap was projected to rise to around $84.5 million, making another large salary fit on the back end was much more reasonable.
Now, Dubas would have to squeeze. A lot.
This isn’t impossible, however.
We know, for one, that the Leafs have Andersen, Johnsson and Engvall out there in trade talks of various seriousness. If we move all three in cost-cutting measures, that gets us very close to where we need to be to fit a player like Pietrangelo.
I’m filling in those three roster slots with unnamed free agents. I’m also replacing The Goat with Jason Spezza, as that gives us a bit more skill on the fourth line. That results in a 20-player lineup that looks like so.
That roster above is cap compliant, albeit just barely, with only $85,000 to spare. Probably not enough to buy a flying Winnebago.
You could theoretically shave off a little more if you moved someone like Kerfoot, but we’re getting down to the chassis here. And a roster like this would mean the Leafs are spending a whopping 60 percent of their cap space on five players and nearly 75 percent of their cap space on seven players.
I don’t believe there’s ever been a roster that top heavy since the salary cap came in back in 2005.
Would it work? Well, they’d be very susceptible to injuries. And they’d need some players playing on entry-level contracts and for near the league minimum to really step up and produce.
It wouldn’t be a completely outrageous thing to try for a season, however, with the notion that you could adjust by trading a big-money forward either in midseason or in a year’s time.
We’ve really only subtracted two forwards of consequence — both of whom only contributed as third-liners this past season — and shifted our spending in goal down a little. If there was a free agent defenceman more in the range of $6 or $7 million, that would be an easier fit than what Pietrangelo will command.
I don’t think it’s likely that Pietrangelo leaves St. Louis, even with where the talks are at, but this is a worthwhile debate for the Leafs as an organization to have. Can they fit in a big salary expected of a No. 1 defenceman? And, if not, are the secondary options going to be good enough for them to make real progress?
If the answer is no, and the cap remains flat beyond the 2020-21 season, at some point a forward will have to go.