The bad news is that the Leafs are still a little over a million above the salary cap, according to Capgeek. While Leafs’ assistant general manager Dave Poulin complained yesterday that Capgeek doesn’t factor in the bonus cushion for Jake Gardiner, all the calculator apps on the site do. The Leafs will have to ditch two players on their current roster if they are more than $925K above the salary cap. For the sake of argument, let’s say they are. What happens next?
The Leafs have 24 players under contract. Subtract Korbinian Holzer and Trevor Smith, and the Leafs have 12 forwards and 7 defencemen for opening day:
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel
JvR – Kadri – Kulemin
Raymond – Bolland* – Colborne
McLaren* – McClement – Orr*
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Franson
Ranger – Fraser
Why am I sending Holzer down to the Marlies and not John-Michael Liles? While it would save a little over $100K—and this is going to sound awful—but in the event Liles gets hurt this season, the Leafs can shuttle him to the long-term injury reserve and open up some space. Perhaps a morbid way of looking at it, but from a more positive standpoint, Liles is also a good hockey player, and I’ll stand by that he’s worth having in the lineup for another season. Even if he’s overpaid, he’s in the top six best defencemen on this hockey team, and I wouldn’t be shocked if early in the campaign he won the job I have pencilled in for Mark Fraser.
The asterisks on the lineup represent players that may or may not be injured at this point. If the team doctor thinks that the player will be out for 24 calendar days or 10 regular season games, that’s until October 22, then the team will get cap relief for those players. Neither injury sounds serious enough to happen, but the asterisks do point out the risks (see what I did there) of skating with an undermanned roster with no scratches. If something tightens up for a player during a morning skate and he can’t go during a game, you have to skate with a 17-skater roster. Thankfully, the Leafs have experience in that department but it’s a dangerous game to get into, particularly when three players in the top nine of the lineup above (Lupul, Raymond, Bolland) have all had significant back injuries in their careers.
It seems like a cop-out, but the Leafs could play with just 17 skaters to make the cap. The New Jersey Devils in 2010 and Calgary Flames in 2009 had periods where they went down to 15 skaters to make the salary cap. This only becomes a possibility for the Leafs if nobody on the roster moves and somebody gets hurt. This becomes a possibility after Clarkson returns as well, but they’ll at least have an extra added body at that point. There’s also an exemption for a “Roster Emergency” that states if a team falls below the minimum number of skaters thanks to an injury or suspension and doesn’t have the cap space to call a player up in the interim, they can call a player up as long as that player’s cap hit is less than $650K so they don’t play a second consecutive game with 17 or fewer skaters. Given the team only has one back-to-back in the first month, and that comes in the first two days of the season, I don’t think that’s a possibility, but we’ll see what happens.
Anyway… I think I had $7-million pegged for both Franson and Nazem Kadri in the wayback machine, and it turns out Dave Nonis got them both under contract for less than $5-million which is excellent. I’ve said before that Nonis is pretty good at getting his restricted free agents locked up, and he has a clear understanding of the actual value of players with zero arbitration rights. Sean Gentille of the Sporting News called it “lowball and mothball” which is appropriate. Because Nonis got those two guys for $2-million less than reasonable people projected, the cap issues won’t really start until opening day if McLaren or Orr are still not able to play, but it’s not like either of them haven’t played a full game without breaking a sweat. I think the minutes played by those players in the third period amounted to single digits last season.
The Leafs aren’t out of trouble yet, but they’re in a lot less trouble than we assumed they would be in, and they could get into more trouble for a month or so, but Nonis just may pull this one off, which is a pretty significant feather in his cap. Kudos to him for that, and more kudos will be granted once the Leafs find themselves out of these woods.