By James Mirtle Aug 25, 2020
The Maple Leafs now have roughly $3.5 million more to spend on a top-four defenceman.
That should be your baseline takeaway after they traded Kasperi Kapanen back to Pittsburgh.
Overall, this deal was a clear victory for GM Kyle Dubas. He opened cap space for help on the blue line, but he also acquired a 15th overall pick and a promising prospect in Swedish centre Filip Hallander, who the Penguins drafted in the second round in 2018.
He also moved out a player the organization had grown tired of, both on the ice and off. Some teams that were initially interested in Kapanen decided against the deal after digging a little deeper into some of that. But the Leafs still had plenty of suitors for him much of the year, given his package of size and speed. That interest was enough that the futures bundle became what it did.
The rest of the flotsam involved in the trade is basically inconsequential, although the Leafs see depth potential in winger Evan Rodrigues, an RFA who may require a $2 million qualifying offer to be retained.
Assuming they walk from that, here is a look at the Leafs current salary-cap commitments, with their main RFAs re-signed.
I believe Rodrigues can remain in the picture at a lesser salary, assuming that can be negotiated with his agent before the qualifying offer deadline. He could end up filling one of the winger slots, perhaps freeing up someone like Johnsson to be moved in another deal. And Frederik Gauthier may not be back, as they search for more versatility upfront.
But the big hole remaining is on right defence, and the Leafs now have at least some of the cash flow needed to address that.
And they’re about to add some more.
Dubas and the front office have been very busy in the two weeks since they were eliminated by Columbus. According to multiple NHL teams, no fewer than four intriguing Leafs are being dangled to varying degrees:
1. Frederik Andersen. The Leafs starting goaltender can apparently be had for a “useful” but low-cost asset in what would largely be a cap-clearing trade. Andersen could be a really intriguing option for a team without a lot of cash, as he has only $1 million in salary remaining due to a large signing bonus the Leafs have already paid. I wonder if the Oilers might be a fit given they want to overhaul their goaltending situation, although they’d have to find a way to make Andersen’s cap hit work.
2. Alexander Kerfoot. Going back to his Colorado days, there were concerns over his ability to play centre and drive play without being paired with more talented linemates. At $3.5 million, the Leafs needed him to fill the 3C role well and the results were mixed at best there. Kerfoot is only due another $8 million in cash over the final three years of his contract, which could make him easier to deal. Or he could stay as a winger, if the Leafs don’t get offers they like.
3. Pierre Engvall. Even though he only signed his deal in February, his $1.25 million cap hit is outsized for a fourth-line role in a flat-cap NHL. And there remain many questions over whether he can play centre. The Leafs may push to add more of a physical element to their depth forwards, too, and that’s not Engvall, despite his size.
4. Andreas Johnsson. Far lower value on the trade market than Kapanen given his age and higher cap hit, Johnsson would be a sell-low deal given the injury-plagued season he is coming off of. The Leafs still like Johnsson and feel he can rebound, so I doubt they just give him away in a deal unless they absolutely can’t free up the necessary cap space to acquire a D any other way.
If the Leafs somehow wanted to clear all four of those salaries, their $3.5 million in cap space could balloon all the way up to nearly $17 million. Of course, they’d then have several more holes in their lineup, with a new starting goaltender (or at least a tandem option) and third-line centre becoming pressing needs.
But the notion of the Leafs being “capped out,” or lacking in roster flexibility, simply isn’t accurate. There are some puzzle pieces to shift around, and Dubas added a few more trade chips in the first-rounder and Hallander that could be included in any future deal.
They have plenty of options when it comes to improving, with the right deals and signings over the next six weeks.
What’s also worth noting is the names who are not currently out there in trade talks. The four forwards in the core are likely safe. So, too, are the existing defencemen, although I wouldn’t rule out one of the depth options getting moved to open a hole for Rasmus Sandin or Mikko Lehtonen on the third pair.
Nylander’s pal, Kapanen, may have been dealt, but it doesn’t sound like moving Nylander is in the cards. At least at this point.
Strangely, the outside interest and offers in Kapanen have always been greater than his actual value to the Leafs. Meanwhile, the outside interest and offers for Nylander are just the opposite: B players and grab bag deals.
If Toronto has been receiving out-sized proposals for Kapanen and undersized ones for Nylander, Tuesday’s trade was a no-brainer. Nylander is clearly the better player, even at more than twice the price. It’s not even close after a season like they just had, with Nylander rebounding and Kapanen struggling.
But moving Kapanen is a sign that Dubas won’t remain loyal to players he acquired and has had for a long time, forever. Especially those who don’t evolve and remain an ongoing frustration.
So while the Leafs makeover may not touch the main core this offseason, it won’t play favourites with anyone outside of that group. Dubas is open for business here and not feeling particularly sentimental. He also now has $3.5 million in cap space to offer any of the teams feeling squeezed by the NHL’s pandemic-induced flat cap.
What’s clear is management does not want a repeat of the failures of 2019-20. So they could be busy.
This is likely just the beginning.