Because It’s The Cap: Toronto Maple Leafs

Over the next month, we at NHLnumbers are
going to be taking a look at where each team in the league currently
stands based on what we learned from them last season, and where they
realistically can and should go this summer with the resources and cap space they
have.

Leafs Twitter has been ablaze in recent weeks about what the best practices for the team would be this summer.  Should the team try to sign Steven Stamkos or not?  Should the team trade up or down with their second first-round pick?  What defensemen should the team go after?  How about the goalies?

I can’t give you any definitive answers there, but what I can hope to do is clear the picture up considerably.  In taking a closer look at what the Leafs have both hockey-wise and salary cap-wise, we can begin to better understand what the Leafs both can and should do to help the team not just next year, but even more importantly, in the many years to come.

Let’s begin.

ROSTER ASSESSMENT

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 10.52.52 AM

There’s a lot more to this team than just the above tables.  For example, even though Frank Corrado and Martin Marincin were the least productive defensemen on the team, they were 1-2 on the team among blueliners in Score- and Venue-adjusted Corsi For % on the team (52.97% and 52.26% respectively).

But generally speaking, this table gives you a pretty good idea at what the Leafs were last season and what the team feels they have moving forward.

People felt like after Van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Parenteau, Boyes, Kadri, and Komarov, the team lacked productive forwards.  This table backs that up to a tee.

Goalscoring was the biggest weakness of the team last season (the Leafs were 28th in the league in goals scored with just 192).  This table backs that up as well, since James Van Riemsdyk, the Leafs’ most productive player by 5v5 Primary Points Per 60, was 96th in the league.  So, the Leafs barely had a top-100 player in this measure, which just isn’t going to cut it.

Still though, the likes of Van Riemsdyk and Kadri are still rightfully well-regarded as very good players.  The problem is A) that these are the Leafs’ two best forwards (so, there’s a lack of front-end talent) and B) that the Leafs lack adequate depth up front.

Luckily the team is in the middle of a rebuild and isn’t supposed to be very good.  Even better is the fact that the team has three blue-chip forward prospects on the way (Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and yes, I’m counting Auston Matthews).  So while this is a short-term problem, it seems like something the Leafs can and will overcome over time as their young players develop.

As far as defense is concerned, there’s certainly some work needed there as well.  Just like up front, the team currently lacks a legitimate #1 defenseman.  The good thing is that they have Morgan Rielly, who some think can develop into that.  I definitely think Rielly is very good and could possibly develop into a #1 guy, though I think it’s far from a certainty.

As far as Jake Gardiner’s concerned, who some already think is a #1 guy, well, it doesn’t really matter.  It doesn’t matter because even if he is a #1 guy, he doesn’t and never has gotten played like one, and there’s little indication that that’s going to change.

The Leafs defense really isn’t that bad though.  Morgan Rielly is good.  Jake Gardiner is good.  Martin Marincin is good.

But again, there’s the same sort of problem as there is up front: there’s a lack of top-end talent (in the form of a #1 defenseman) and there’s a lack of depth.

Maybe Morgan Rielly develops into a #1 guy over time, which would put the Leafs in a really good position moving forward.  If not, the Leafs will have to look elsewhere for their go-to guy, which would be a lot tougher on the team as they’d almost assuredly have to give up assets to get that player.

The depth is less of an issue.  If we’re thinking long-term, the team just signed offensive defenseman Nikita Zaitsev out of Russia who should be able to contribute as a complimentary guy.  The team also figures to have Connor Carrick on the team full-time next year, who again seems adequate at filling a complimentary role.

So it’s really the #1 defenseman issue the team needs to sort out.  Hopefully Rielly can make it a moot point.

Goaltending is still a definite work in progress, but luckily this is the easiest hole to fill on a team if you know what you’re doing.

The situation is basically this: James Reimer was really good last year but the team traded him away, presumably deciding that as good as he was, he wasn’t someone they wanted to commit to long-term (he’s a UFA in July).

Jonathan Bernier has progressively gotten worse over his three seasons in Toronto, but he came on strong to end the year.  He was also highly-touted when the team traded for him, and he only has one year left on his contract.  He figures to be on the team next year as a low-risk, high-reward player.  He’ll be 28 in August so I don’t think the team, who again is rebuilding, will want to commit to him long-term.  But he’s a fine short-term option.

Garret Sparks finished the year with the team after the Reimer trade and, as the numbers would indicate, did not play good at all.  He’s done well for himself at every other level though.  He might be capable of being a backup goalie in the NHL at some point, but that doesn’t figure to be next season.  He’ll presumably be back with the Toronto Marlies full-time.

So, Cole’s Notes version: the Leafs have both front-end talent and depth issues to resolve at every position.  However, the team is in a good position to address these issues in the long-term given the young players within their organization.

CAP SITUATION

Here are the players that are extremely tentatively slated to both be on the Leafs’ roster next season and make more than $925k:

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 11.11.04 AM

This amounts to $55 million committed to 16 players, which means not a ton of roster flexibility when you factor in new contracts for Holland and Marincin as well as the likelihood of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Carrick, and Zaitsev also taking up roster spots.  So it’s a good thing the Leafs’ in-season cap situation next season is actually likely to look completely different.

First of all, cross Nathan Horton and Stephane Robidas, who spent the entirety of last season on LTIR and figure to do so again this year, off the list.

Next let’s cross Joffrey Lupul off the list because he finished  the season on LTIR and management has made veiled hints that Lupul may never play again due to the slew of injuries he’s suffered in his recent seasons.  In other words, from what little information we as fans have, we can guess that Lupul it LTIR-bound as well.

I’m also crossing Tyler Bozak off the list, who the team would logically attempt to trade this summer with Auston Matthews and William Nylander figuring to join the fray at center full-time next season.  He’s been productive enough over the last handful of seasons and has a small enough contract at this point that the team should be able to move him, perhaps for a mid-round draft pick.

This last one might be controversial, but I’m also crossing Milan Michalek off the list.  He was abysmal for the Leafs after coming over in the Dion Phaneuf trade.  And given that he’s 31, has played just 111 games of a possible 164 over the last two seasons, and has just 50 points in that span – while making $4 million – the team would likely be best-suited moving on from him.  Buying out the last year of his contract would carry a $1,333,333 cap hit in each of the next two seasons, which is pretty small, and it would save the Leafs $2,666,667 in cap space next season.

We should also account for the following: the Leafs carry an additional $1,833,333 on the books as part of Tim Gleason’s buyout, $1,200,000 in salary retention on Phil Kessel’s contract, and with the team promising to buy Jared Cowen out in the off-season, the team will actually save $650,000 in cap space.

So our new, unsafe, highly speculative cap situation looks like this:

  • $18,850,000 committed to 5 forwards (Nazem Kadri, Brooks Laich, James Van Riemsdyk, Leo Komarov, Colin Greening)
    • Peter Holland also needs a new contract
    • The Leafs will likely have several forwards on the team next season that carry cheap base-line cap hits such as Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Byron Froese, Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, and so on.  However, the team will need to account for performance bonuses that would make Matthews worth as much as $3,775,000, Zaitsev as much as $1,775,000, and Marner and Nylander worth as much as $1,744,000
  • $10,250,000 committed to three defensemen (Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Matt Hunwick)
    • Martin Marincin also needs a new contract
    • Connor Carrick and Frank Corrado need new contracts, which aren’t likely to be over $925k by much if at all
    • Nikita Zaitsev’s base-line salary next season is $925k
  • $4,150,000 committed to one goaltender (Jonathan Bernier)
  • $3,716,666 committed to three buyouts and one salary retention (Tim Gleason, Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen; Phil Kessel)

Total: $47,035,666 committed to 18 players, three buyouts, and one salary retention, with Peter Holland and Martin Marincin still needing new contracts ($33,250,000 committed to 9 players, $11,919,000 over 9 young players, $3,716,666 in buyouts and salary retention).

With the 2016-2017 salary cap projected to be in the realm of $73 to $74 million, this leaves the Leafs with a rough estimate of $26,464,334 in cap space to hand out to Peter Holland, Martin Marincin, and three additional players.

Obviously, this is just a shot in the dark.  The likes of Joffrey Lupul and Milan Michalek could be back next season, players like Peter Holland and Jake Gardiner could be traded, and so on.

OFF-SEASON PLAN

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 10.12.16 AM

Again, this whole process is highly problematic because what we know about what the team might look like in May will start varying greatly from week-to-week in June and July once both rumors and various acquisitions start taking place.  My experience is that what you think the team will look like in May usually differs greatly from what the team actually looks like in October.  One of the big problems here is that I think this team just looks too similar to the one that came dead last in the league this past season.  I’m not sure management would be comfortable with that.

But, all that said, this is the best we have at the moment.

I think one thing is clear: the Leafs could stand to add at least one forward (and really more like two) that can contribute some offense.  Whether that’s a guy like Steven Stamkos or a much cheaper player in a similar vain to P.A. Parenteau, I imagine the Leafs will likely go after someone via trade or more likely via free agency that can help the team in at least somewhat of a meaningful way offensively.

Things look set on defense, and this is where I think things will differ the most from what I’m projecting versus what will actually be next season.  This blueline looks too similar to the one they had last season and I don’t think that would satisfy the Leafs.  It’s difficult to say where the movement would be, too.

For my money, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, and Connor Carrick will definitely be on the team next season.  And given how strongly he finished the season, Martin Marincin almost assuredly will be too.  That leaves Gardiner, Hunwick, and Corrado as possible trade candidates.

Gardiner is a great player and I don’t think a numbers-savvy Leafs front ofice would just throw him away.  One apparent issue on the Leafs’ defense is that Morgan Rielly, a left-handed shot, currently plays the right side.  So maybe a trade that sees Gardiner go for a right-handed shot could make sense.

Matt Hunwick and Frank Corrado are tough to really figure much out of.  I got the sense last year that Babcock really liked Hunwick (he was, unfortunately, a staple on the top pair) and that the organization really liked Corrado (he played almost zero hockey in the first half of the season but the team held onto him instead of risking losing him on waivers).  And, all that said, I don’t think either has much trade value.

Both would be a lot more expendable than others on the team.  If they want to sweeten a package trade, recoup smaller assets, or open up additional roster spots, moving those two makes sense.

Goalie is the one place the Leafs are guaranteed to make some sort of move.  With the way he played last season, I can all but guarantee Garret Sparks won’t be handed a roster spot for next season – at best he’d be given the opportunity to earn a job in camp.  Antoine Bibeau doesn’t look to be NHL ready, either.

It’s hard to say which direction the Leafs will go in net.  They aren’t ready to contend yet, so it probably wouldn’t make sense to go for broke on that position.  But is there really much point in just going after short-term options, either?

Nevertheless, the Leafs should have plenty of options there.  If they want to go after goalies with a good track record that have played poorly of late they can likely go after the likes of Jimmy Howard, Ryan Miller, and Kari Lehtonen on the cheap.  If they want to go after potential long-term solutions, the looming expansion draft will force multiple teams to make good young goalies available – we’re talking names like Vasilevski, Andersen, Subban, and Pickard potentially being available.  And if the Leafs don’t want to give up any assets at all to fill their other goalie spot next season, the likes of James Reimer, Chad Johnson, Jhonas Enroth, and Cam Ward pose low-risk possibilities.



Conclusion 

The bottom line in regards to the off-season plan for the Leafs is that they’re a young team that’s not ready to contend and probably isn’t even ready to make much of a push for a playoff spot yet.  Luckily though, most of the solutions to their long-term problems are already in-house.  Thus, sticking to the long-term plan is what makes the most sense for the Leafs this summer.  They should look to fill their roster up mostly via young players already in the organization, or with cheaper free agents that have the potential to be productive.  The Leafs will likely look to make a couple of trades – say for a defenseman or a goalie – but they shouldn’t feel too much pressure to do so.  And if they do trade for players, they figure to be no older than say 25 or 26, so that they can possibly contribute when the team actually is ready to compete.

Really what I’m saying is that the Leafs should take a very similar approach this off-season to the one that they had last off-season.  Marry yourself either to young assets with upside or to cheap veterans with potential.  This gives the team a good balance of being possibly competitive next year while still keeping the long-term the point of focus.

The Leafs’ rebuild just had a great 12 months.  If they continue to do what they’ve been doing, the next 12 months will be great for the rebuild too.

  • Zaheer

    The Leafs have a number of young players who haven’t really proven themselves at the NHL level yet, but will lack waiver exemption next season. Particularly on the blue line. Will be curious to see how they manage this situation.

    Scott Harrington, Stuart Percy, Connor Carrick, Frank Corrado on the back end.

    Josh Leivo up front, as well as Colin Smith (though he is probably viewed as expendable).

  • CMpuck

    I have to agree with Lupul going to LTIR as Lou has said as much. And the same with Michalek getting bought out and I read some equally good ideas on hockeybuzz and hfboards talking about Laich and maybe Hunwick getting bought out too.

    That will make plenty of room to bring in Stamkos, Radulov and Taveres in a few years after that. We should also consider some offersheets by acquiring on draft picks back as well.

  • Mitch92

    Lou has his work cut out for him this summer to remove the dead weight from the present Leaf line-up to make room for the young up and coming players who will make up the core of our roster for the foreseeable future. We may have to hang on to a few guys like Hunwick, Greening and Michalek for another season and let their contracts expire naturally. I suspect that we have seen the last of Joffery Lupul in a Leaf jersey but if he doesn’t retire we will be stuck with him on LTIR for at least another year. The big question is Stamkos. I think they will sign him to be captain and leader of this young squad.

  • Mitch92

    Am I missing something, or is this article written by Shawn Reis inconsistent with the article on LTIR by DragLikePull on this site at http://theleafsnation.com/2016/5/7/ltir-isn-t-free-cap-space-and-the-leafs-need-to-be-cautious-in-using-it? It seems that Reis is ignoring the issues raised by DragLikePull, in particular not dealing with the last day of training camp issue (must not exceed the cap the day before players can be placed on LTIR.)

    It seems to me as well that since the cap relief from LTIR is the cost of the replacement player, not the cost of the injured player (per Article 50.10 (d) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement) simply crossing Horton, Robidas and Lupul off the list isn’t the way long term injured reserve relief works.

    • Tybot

      I was going to mention the same thing.
      So really, the Leafs management only have about 13mil to spend this off-season, and jumps up to 26mil after the season starts. Big difference. This means any “big moves” the leafs want to make are restricted to possibly one Steven Stamkos or 2-3 smaller contracts tops.

  • Gary Empey

    1. Regarding the Lupul situation- Lupul underwent successful sports injury surgery. He will likely show up at training camp with a clean bill of health. You can’t simply put him on the LTIR to get around the salary cap. A doctor would have to state that continuing to play hockey would lead to permanent damage. With Robidas this was fairly easy to do. Robidas had already had two devastating broken legs, broken in the exact same spot. At age 37 another one could cripple him for life. For Lupul to end up on LTIR the Leafs will have to play him and wait it see if he gets injured.

    2. Zaitsev…Do you really think the Leafs went over to Russia to sign a bottom six defenceman? Zaitsev is a KHL allstar. Only a couple of our D could even make a KHL team.

    3. The Babcock factor. We have now had a full year to study Babcock’s “play to win” coaching style. He puts tremendous value on the penalty kill and winning faceoffs. Bozak fits that role to a T. Babcock seems to be content to play 5 on 5 even and then finish them off with the power play or huge push at the end of the game. With Marner, Nylander, Matthews, Zaitsev and others all expected to make the team, our power play could be a game changer this year.

    4. Maybe I am too optimistic. I do remember we lost around 20 games by one goal last year. While Hunter, Babcock and the GM have been over in Russia checking on Matthews and Laine it wouldn’t surprise me if they spot some hidden gems. A goalie would be nice

    • Gary Empey

      To trade for a real #1 usually costs you your best offensive player plus something else fairly big. Not very many GM’s will go that route.

      The only real way to get one is through the draft(Timothy Liljegren). The problem there, is no one including most GM’s can get past the stats of high scoring forwards. D is always undervalued in the draft until about half way through the first period of the next season. And then we spend the rest of the year speculating on how we can make a trade for one.

      • Mitch92

        I think the problem with drafting a goalie is that you then are waiting for anywhere from one to five years to find out whether you have drafted a consistent NHLer. I would not recommend drafting a goalie before the third round. With the resources the Leafs have at their disposal they are better off searching high and low for undrafted gems who took a little longer to get noticed but have higher ceilings than the eighteen year olds are showing. They did that when they pursued 23 year old Mantis Armalis and when they missed out on him they signed 22 year old Finnish over-ager Kasimir Kaskisuo from Minnesota-Duluth of the NCAA. I think the Leafs will continue to search for their goaltender of the future in this manner rather than waiting three or four years for 18 year-old’s to develop.

  • Gary Empey

    Patrik Laine’s debut World Championship was a storming success. The 18-year-old prospect from Tappara Tampere picked up a silver medal with team Finland and won the tournament MVP, as selected by the media covering the tournament.

    • magesticRAGE

      Yes, he did. I don’t think he did anything to tilt the scales on his side when it comes to Matthews, and the #1 pick. Matthews is the guy the Leafs need, and quite frankly, is the superior talent. Laine lacks maturity to his game, which shouldn’t surprise anyone with his age. He gives up the puck too much creating turnovers, his linemates bailed him out quite a few times. Matthews backchecks and can hold possession while waiting for plays to develop, even board play. Laine is a great complimentary piece for Winnipeg.