It’s been an interesting few days in Toronto since the Maple Leafs pulled out at Game 7 over the weekend.
Those four days were full of taking a “reboot” versus “blowing it up.” In some circles, it’s a little over. No one should really be surprised—no matter how shocked and outraged they may be—that the coach and general manager of the 115-point NHL team will be back in the fold, especially with how rare any team achieves that. (This only happened 31 times in league history prior to this season.)
Yes, foliage failed. No, they didn’t fail amazingly.
It seems that most of the fan base is on board with this frame.
Do you agree with the Maple Leafs team in bringing back the General Manager and Coach?
– James Myrtle May 18 2022
The thing is also that the return of Sheldon Keefe and Kyle Dupas doesn’t mean the list will be back all at once. In fact, there wasn’t really a stern defense of the substance of the roster from either Brendan Shanahan or Dupas when they met the media, the way we’ve seen in the past.
Everything is not on the table here. But a lot.
It must be. What is very clear when looking at the Leafs’ salary cap position for next season is that if they don’t come out of a significant contract, they will find it very difficult to improve the roster.
Obviously we’ll be getting all kinds of off-season coverage and analysis here at the athlete in the coming months. But I think the starting point should be a deep dive into the Leafs cover photo and how much space they have to maneuver.
Let’s start with the basics.
2022-23 Maple Leafs: NHL players on contract
Salary cap area: $11 million
Players wanted: Seven
The Leafs have a lot of players heading into free agency, between the UFAs and the RFAs. Yes, the core has been signed, but neither is the primary goalkeeper, nor are the two-thirds of the bottom six strikers and four members of the Blue Line.
With the maximum salary increased by $1 million, the end of Phil Kessel’s $1.2 million salary retention, and the $212,500-overdue fine for Timothy Liljegren’s bonus last season, there’s an additional $2 million available.
Morgan Rielly’s $2.5 million increase eats up all of that plus more, but at least there’s a reserve available to absorb some of it.
Finally, 13 players are signed to the Leafs, if we don’t include the odds and extra bits like Kyle Clifford. They only have $11 million cap space to fill in the rest of the roster, which is no less than seven or eight other players.
The first step to creating more space is figuring out what to do with Peter Mrazek. In an ideal world, they would be able to miss $3.8 million in each of the next two seasons, but that would have to include some kind of sweetener that goes with the contract.
The Leafs have had to go this route in the past with Patrick Marlowe and Nick Ritchie, which has cost them several good picks. If the cost of trade settlement is going to be prohibitive, there is another option.
The NHL takeover window opens on July 1 and runs for 12 days, up to the day before the free agency. Because your merch is earning less than $4 million, It is not eligible for the subsequent second acquisition windowso the Leafs will have to decide to use this option relatively soon if they want to.
Buying Mrazek could mean a cap fee in each of the next four years: $1,033,333 the next season, $833,333 the following year, and then $1,433,333 in each of the next two years.
It’s a lot to lose a backup goalkeeper. A better option might be to keep the $1 million salary and transfer it to another team, as that would only stay with the Leafs for two years versus four.
It will be interesting what kind of market it will be available to him even at such a low rate, given his poor season and extensive injury history.
I’ll count it as a $1 million fee on the hat, which frees up $2.8 million and leaves Leaf without goalkeepers.
Maple Leafs 2022-23: Bye, Mrazick
Salary cap area: $13.8 million
Required players: Eight
Other players we can identify here are the free restricted agents: Ondrej Kase, Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Kase and Engvall have arbitration rights, which gives them more leverage in the negotiations; Sanden and Wellegrine don’t.
This is an important factor in predicting their contracts.
It’s worth taking a deeper dive into an entire article into all four players in order to determine exactly what they will be signing off on. But I can see Kase’s case where the player simply accepts a one-way contract equal to a qualifying offer – in this case his current salary, $1.25 million – to return, hopefully, for a season in which he’ll be in better health and they’ve formed an entire campaign.
Engvall will likely have more influence given his points production this season, but one thing working for the Leafs is that he has already been more than an in-depth player for one season. Even in his first year, he only played 13 minutes a night.
As a 26-year-old with just 168 NHL games experience and 62 career points, Engvall compares to players like Zach Aston-Reese, Josh Leivo and Markus Granlund, who all signed their deals around 2% off their cap. That would be the $1.65 million maximum hit for Engvall, which seems right.
In the meantime, Sanden and Lilligreen’s contracts really depend on whether or not they get a term. Given how tightly the Leafs’ cap is set, the correct play may simply be to sign short-term bargaining deals so that they play a full season in the top four and earn more money.
Almost all the comparisons I could find to players like these two – young defenders without refereeing qualifications and playing less than 100 matches in the doubles roles – were for a million dollars or less. I’m going to plot those two numbers a bit longer, as their hat-trick will go up if they get a bit longer – two years come to mind, the $1.55 million in the season that Jusso Valimaki signed with the Flames last summer – but they’re not likely to receive big paychecks this summer. .
This helps the foliage a bit, assuming they can both take the next step.
2022-23 Maple Leafs: Hello RFAs
Salary cap area: $8.1 million
Required players: Four
Beyond this point is where we get into more guesswork on the list. The way the Leafs’ goal-guiding placement is arranged will obviously be complicated, given that they would need two network professionals with NHL experience. And they’ll have to find that with cap constraints in mind.
The Leafs could simply sign a fourth streak – including simply bringing back Jason Spiza – and call up a potential team like Nick Robertson, and they’d have a team similar to last season, as well as whatever happens in goal.
A “stay on the track” track with the skaters would leave them $6.5 million to spend on these two bouncers — possibly including Jack Campbell, who will likely charge around $4 million — and an extra man of defense. In this scenario, Ilya Mikheev, Mark Giordano, Ilya Lyubushkin and Colin Blackwell would likely lose to free agency, eliminating some of the depth they created during the 2021-22 season.
It’s honestly hard to see this list as an upgrade to last season’s squad, other than some growth from young defenders, one of whom will likely play in the top four regularly for the first time.
In fact, in some ways, it could be a downgrade as Jake Muzzin, John Tavares, and other older players will likely decline as they approach their mid-30s.
So what is the alternative?
Everything outlined above is why the Leafs will have to dig deep and have some tough conversations about the key players they’ve committed to. The only way they can change their mix – off target – is by going from a big salary, and there are only so many options to do so.
Auston Matthews Not Going Anywhere – The Leafs’ intention would be to freeze a team good enough that they die to sign an extension in July 2023. Neither are Mitch Marner or Morgan Riley.
Nor does it make sense to trade TJ Brodie, Michael Bunting or David Kampf, who all offer more value than their contracts. And John Tavares has an immobility clause.
That doesn’t leave a long list of names to think about to go from.
One idea that piqued my interest was seeing what it would take to bring back Giordano. He realizes he’s getting up there, but might be willing to sign for a hometown opponent to end his career in Toronto, allowing the Leafs to add a man of defense who gave them 20 minutes in the playoffs for less than $2 million.
Would Giordano and another cheap defender agent (like Lyubushkin or someone similar) be enough to replace Muzin and Hall, assuming Sandin and/or Lillegren can play a bigger role next season? Could you do something interesting up front with an extra $4 million and change that would happen?
Do you risk falling back, given that you’ll sacrifice some experience?
This would be a bit bold. But it’s one reasonable route I see here, as a way to reallocate some rooms and change the look of the menu.
Salary cap space: $0.2 million
Players Wanted: None
Another idea Leafs could look at is to do something more exciting up front, by moving around some of your key pieces.
If you want to try Tavares on the wing, the way Lightning has turned around Steven Stamkos at times, could he play with Matthews? Or can you visit Nylander again in the center? Perhaps Marner was tried there, as was envisioned when it was drafted?
Or are you looking to add another position by pulling a portion of your max spend away from the blue line and diving into the free agent market, bringing in six more attackers who can save a different item?
I also wonder, what all the changes might mean for someone like Kerfoot, who has had a strong regular season only to struggle in the playoffs. It feels like a twinner between the top six and the bottom six, at times. The UFA, who likely lost for nothing, will be in the summer of 2023.
If you decide to move it early, that’s another $3.5 million to move it around in the available pool.
I think two of the main things I think the Leafs will have to solve for next year are (a) get to a place where they are two goals they like and trust, which is not an inexpensive proposition and (b) get more offensive and built into the final. Forward across the lineup. And do both without harming the Blue Line.
In an ideal world, the Leafs would have young players rushing in all positions for ice time, but I’m not sure the pool of possibilities is ready in prime time in that sense yet. It will mean finding more value buys like Bunting and Kampf that can push Kerfoots and Engvalls for ice time – and push players like Wayne Simmonds, Spezza and Clifford down the depth chart to 13th and 14th positions.
If the Leafs can make it through, they stand a chance of being better than the 115-point team they were last season.
And no city debating whether it should be torpedoed 12 months from now.
(Top image: Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)