Photo Credit: Raj Mehta/USA TODAY SPORTS
The Toronto Maple Leafs generate an outsized portion of the NHL’s revenues. The Leafs’ impact on revenue is so great, in 2012 the former head of English television for CBC said that the most recent Hockey Night in Canada contract would not be profitable for the public broadcaster if the Leafs did not make the playoffs. Because of the Toronto’s financial muscle, they’ve typically been near the top of the NHL in spending on salaries. And if you look at a salary cap web site, you’ll see that the team is currently within about $1M of the salary cap ceiling this season.
But that number is misleading. While the Leafs are indeed paying out quite a bit of money for salaries, a significant portion of that money is going to players who are not currently playing for the team. In fact, it’s pretty unusual just how the team’s salary cap situation is structured once you look into the details.
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA sets out both maximum and minimum amounts that teams must spend on player salaries each season. The salary cap ceiling – the maximum amount a team can spend in a given season – gets most of the attention, as teams near the top of the league have to engage in all kinds of roster moves to remain compliant. But the floor matters too, as teams at the bottom end of the pay scale sometimes have to add salary in order to meet the minimum requirement.
For the current NHL season, the salary cap floor is $54M. Only one team is within $10M of that amount at the moment: the Carolina Hurricanes, at about $58M. But there are teams below that mark, if you dig a bit deeper.
Carolina is one of those teams. If you subtract buyouts for Alex Semin and James Wisniewski, the roster is down to $52M, below the floor. You can also take out the $4M owed to Brian Bickell, who has only played 7 games this season and is injured long-term, bringing the Hurricanes down to $48M. So the actual roster the Canes are icing is well below the NHL’s salary cap floor.
The situation for the Leafs is even more strange. Here are the cap hits for all of the players Toronto is currently paying to not play for the Leafs:
Add it all up and the Leafs are spending an amount equal to half the salary cap floor to players not currently on the Leafs roster. That’s nearly three times as much as the Hurricanes are paying to non-roster players.
So what does that mean for their actual roster? Here are the cap hits of the players currently on Toronto’s roster:
So the cap hits of players actually on Toronto’s roster right now are slightly lower than those of the team with the lowest official salary cap total in the NHL. I think that makes the Leafs performance in the standings this year even more impressive – they’re currently 7th in the East while icing a roster that makes less than the salary cap floor.
Perhaps to be more fair we should add in performance bonuses. After all, Toronto’s rookies are tearing it up, and they’re going to hit at least some of their bonuses. If you add in all of the potential bonuses that Leafs players can earn the total jumps a bit to just over $53M, which is still slightly below the salary cap floor.
Of course there’s one team in the NHL that’s known for adding phantom cap hits in order to stay above the salary cap floor, and that’s the Arizona Coyotes. How much money do they have tied up in non-roster players this season?
Even the Coyotes don’t have as much cap space tied up in non-roster players as the Leafs do. The situations are a bit different; Arizona isn’t actually paying any money to Pavel Datsyuk, for example. But the effect in terms of the salary cap situation is that Toronto has more cap space dedicated to non-roster players than the Coyotes do.
But surely the cap hits of Arizona’s actual roster are less than Toronto’s, right?
Even the Arizona Coyotes have a roster with a higher cap hit than Toronto’s this season, to the tune of roughly $6M.
There’s one more unusual thing about Toronto’s salary cap situation this year, and that’s that they have the lowest paid highest paid player of any team in the league. The top cap hit for a player on Toronto’s active roster is shared by Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen, both coming in at $5M. Only one other team in the NHL has no players making under $6M, as you can see here:
In fact, the situation is even stranger: every team in the league has multiple active players with a higher cap hit than the Leafs’ highest paid players.
From the standpoint of where the Leafs are at in their rebuild, this makes sense. There’s no point tying up money in older players when the team will need cap space to give big contract extensions to Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner. But it is still a bit unusual that the league’s richest team has constructed a roster with such a low cost, especially given how well they’re doing in the standings.