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When the Toronto Maple Leafs signed Roman Polak to a $2.25M contract last month, did they do it with the intention of having him play some or all of the 2016-17 NHL season with the Toronto Marlies? The question seems silly. Why would you sign a player to a $2.25M NHL contract if you wanted him to play for your minor league affiliate? I admit that it is not the most likely scenario. No team that I can think of has ever done something like it. The Leafs probably intend for him to be an NHL player. And yet there are a few pieces of evidence that hint at the possibility that the question might not be as bizarre as it initially seems.
SHANAHAN ON POLAK
Shortly after the Leafs signed Roman Polak back in early July, Brendan Shanahan was on TSN 1050 to discuss the state of the Leafs. He was asked about the Leafs summer moves, and had this to say about Roman Polak (around the 8:00 mark):
A couple of years ago he was coming to us as a number five or six. Now
he’s coming to us as a bit more of a depth guy to support some of our
There isn’t much lower to go on an NHL’s team’s depth chart than being a bottom pair defenceman, but Shanahan says that’s what they intend for Polak to do, and he says that Polak understands that’s his role. Most teams carry seven defencemen, and the Leafs even carried eight for much of last season, so it’s possible that Polak is being brought in to fill in one of those roles. However, $2.25M is an awful lot of money to pay a guy you expect to be a healthy scratch most games, especially for a team like the Leafs that has a cap crunch. So why would the Leafs do that? I’ve got a theory that I’ll get to in a bit.
BABCOCK ON POLAK
What really got me thinking about the possibility of Polak playing for the Marlies was an answer Mike Babcock gave in a press conference on July 9. When asked about the addition of Roman Polak, he had this to say:
We’ve got some kids in Valiev, Nielsen, and guys like that need to be around good people and learn how to play.
That struck me as kind of a weird remark because Valiev and Neilsen are going to be playing for the Marlies this season, not the Leafs. With eight NHL defencemen already under contract for next season (Gardiner, Rielly, Hunwick, Marincin, Carrick, Zaitsev, Corrado, Polak) and other Marlies like Viktor Loov knocking on the door, it’s hard to see a situation where someone like Andrew Nielsen sees much time on the Leafs roster this season. That would suggest that, if the Leafs want Polak to be around those guys on a day-to-day basis, teaching them how to be good pros, he’s going to have to be playing for the Marlies.
It’s certainly possible that Babcock just meant that they want guys like Polak in the organization in general as an example, and not that they want him working with the young Marlies every day, but it struck me as a kind of strange remark.
Let’s get back to my earlier question: why would the Leafs give a $2.25M contract to a player they expect to be a healthy scratch for most of the season? Well, if that’s what they expected it would be very strange. But what if that’s not the plan? What if the plan is for him to play for the Marlies?
In that case, the $2.25M kind of makes sense. In order to play for the Marlies, Roman Polak would have to pass through waivers. At a low contract value (say, $1M) there’s a reasonable chance that a team would claim him. By the beginning of the NHL season, there will almost certainly be some NHL team that has injuries on defence and could use a cheap replacement. But $2.25M is a very high cap hit for a waiver claim, especially if it’s a player who you only see as a temporary injury replacement. So by giving Polak a higher cap hit than his roster spot would seem to suggest he should have, you can protect him from waiver claims.
Because the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement got rid of re-entry waivers, the Leafs wouldn’t have to worry about someone taking Polak at half-price if they want to recall him later, as they would have under the previous CBA. And that could have been part of the pitch to Roman: We’ll pay you a higher salary than you’ll get elsewhere to be a mentor to our kids on the Marlies, and you’ll be our first call-up if one of our right-handed defencemen like Connor Carrick or Nikita Zaitsev gets injured. Polak would continue to be able to be an NHL player at least part of the time, while the Leafs would get the veteran leader they want on the Marlies as an example for the kids.
If that’s the plan, it does still come at a cost to the Leafs. If a player on a 1-way contract is sent to the minors, the amount of salary cap relief the NHL team receives is only $950,000; the rest of the cap hit remains. In Roman Polak’s case, that means the Leafs would still have a $1.3M cap hit to deal with even when he was on the Marlies. That does sound like a lot, but maybe the team thinks that’s a good investment to make in the development of their young players.
IS THAT REALLY THE PLAN?
I’ve tried to explain why the Leafs might want Polak to play for the Marlies, and I’ve given a bit of evidence to back it up, but the question remains as to whether any NHL team would really sign a player to a contract with such a high cap hit, fully intending to send that player to the minors. And I have to admit that the answer is most likely “no”. Babcock and Shanahan were speaking off the cuff and probably weren’t dropping hints about Polak’s future. The case I’ve laid out here is based on two fairly minor remarks, and while I find them a bit strange, the most likely explanation is that they don’t mean much.
And yet it does make a certain amount of sense. The Leafs already had seven NHL defencemen under contract when they signed Polak, including some young right-handed defencemen who deserve ice time, like Zaitsev and Carrick. It makes no sense to take away ice time from those guys and give it to Roman Polak. The Leafs also still have Frank Corrado on a very team-friendly contract, and he would figure to matter more to the team’s future than Polak. If Corrado winds up on waivers the Leafs would certainly lose him; Vancouver would surely put in a claim, even if no other team did.
So maybe the plan really is for Roman Polak to play at least some of this season for the Toronto Marlies, acting as a mentor to the younger players, providing a good example of the kind of work ethic, training regimen, and professionalism that it takes to have a successful career in the NHL. It seems like a long shot, but I think it’s at least worth considering.