Why a flat salary cap would be extremely beneficial to the Toronto Maple Leafs

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Nearly every time Elliotte Friedman drops one of his “30 Thoughts” columns, the hockey world stops and scrambles to react to whatever neat nuggets of information he spent days hiding under his sleeve. Today’s was a particularly interesting one: the Salary Cap might stay stagnant this upcoming season, making no movement from the $73,000,000 teams are operating under this year.

I highly recommend that you read the first component of Friedman’s post in its entirety if you’re looking for the exact wording; this is something that’s a bit more than putting a paragraph in a blockquote and walking away from it. If you’re not feeling like reading an article just to read another article, the short form of it is that the players are unhappy with how much they’re paying into Escrow at the moment and that a stabilization of the Salary Cap should help with that. 

That’s a nightmare for most teams, though, as far as building. Most have rolled their eyes on a summer-by-summer basis,  spending 20% more on whatever mediocre free agent they think will make their depth spots 2% better, justifying every move with “the cap will go up”. Despite the fact that the highest paid players in the league (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane of Chicago) make less than 75% of the maximum single-player salary, we currently have a league where 14 teams are within $1 million of the ceiling, 19 are within $2 million, and 25 are within $5 million. New Jersey, Florida, and Carolina are the only clubs closer to the floor than the ceiling. The league, for all intents and purposes, is broke.

But starting next year, the Leafs aren’t. Stephane Robidas, Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening, none of whom are actually playing for the team, are all off the books, to the tune of over $11 million in relief. Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick, Ben Smith, and Curtis McEhlinney will all have to be re-signed or replaced (preferably the latter), but that should come in at close to the minimum in every case. Toronto is in a good spot for RFAs as well, with just Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, and Zach Hyman to worry about, and they’re in a negotiating spot with those rookies to get them all locked up cheap.

By comparison, here’s where the league stands right now. I’ve sorted them using TLN contributor Dominik Luszczyszyn’s projected standings points as of today, to give an idea of which teams are likely looking at being competitive next season: 

capchart

Toronto, who sits 11th in the projected standings, have more of its current roster players locked up than anybody other than the New York Islanders and have the 12th most available cap space based on what they’ve committed. To make that even better, they don’t have many significant commitments to make through resigning or replacement, and to make all of that even better, their salary total doesn’t even include the ability to put Nathan Horton and/or Joffrey Lupul on Long-Term Injured Reserve if needed, which could free up another $10.5 million.

Of course, there’s still a month until the trade deadline, there will still be an offseason to carry out, other teams have their own (smaller) Robidas Islands, and the Expansion Draft will cause all sorts of shenanigans for teams. But, as it stands, there isn’t a team in the NHL that has a better combination of

  • Players already signed
  • Players left to re-sign
  • Available raw cap space
  • Additional cap flexibility (LTIR) and
  • Available real-world dollars to spend (sorry, Arizona and Carolina)

In fact, in the east, it’s not particularly close. Most of the conference is either broke or have a ton of holes to fill come the summer; Toronto is more or less in a position where, outside of maybe getting one or two more minute eating (hopefully offensively driven) defencemen, their holes are in lower minute areas that can be filled with rookies and/or late-offseason depth signings.

This could give Toronto a lot of bargaining power once the offseason approaches, in a lot of different ways. For instance, an already competitive-looking and known to be improving Leafs team, armed with a bigger bag of money than anybody else, can field a short-term contract offer to a big-name free agent that blows a longer-term offer from another team out of the water. Toronto could theoretically pitch historically high one-or-two year deals at the likes of Kevin Shattenkirk, Joe Thornton, or Alexander Radulov simply to get a rental star or two while everybody else is simply trying to balance the budgets. Even thinking smaller, you can offer your typical $1-3 million free agents, say, $3-5 million on a one-year deal, just to ensure you’ll get them. Almost nobody else has that flexibility right now if anyone at all.


If those guys don’t make it to July, they could perhaps acquire a higher priced 2018 UFA from a cash-strapped team in a trade for pennies on the dollar (looking at you, Rick Nash, Paul Stastny, Mikko Koivu, and/or Mike Green), or even just agree to take on a single year cap dump in exchange for some free assets.

There are other routes that they can go as well, but it all comes back to the same point: the Leafs are going to enter July with some of the greatest cap and financial flexibility that a competitive tier NHL team has ever had, and they’re going to do it in an era where most of the league has no money to spend. The fact that the league and the players association have landed on this year to likely freeze the cap is a gigantic blessing; one that might turn “pain” into “parade” in less than 40 months. Wouldn’t that be something?

  • LukeDaDrifter

    I look to how the Leaf brain-trust addressed the rebuild last year. They were aware they would have some goal scoring coming from the rookies expected to make the team. They identified their most pressing needs and then Lou worked hard to fill those gaps. Last year those needs seem to have been

    1. Top center – Spot filled by winning the lottary = Matthews.

    2. Top goalie – Spot filled by trading draft picks = Andersen

    3. Boost Physicality – Spot filled by signing UFA = Martin and to a lesser degree Polak.

    4. Improve defence – Leafs didn’t see a deal that made sense for the rebuild. = It looks like the Leafs decided to wait a year to see how Carrick, Corrado, Marincin, Nielson, Dermott, Valiev, and Zaitsev developed.

    This year I conclude the top nine looks good offensively and should be expected to slowly improve defensively. = No changes needed

    Fourth Line. This line has been tinkered with all year. It looks to me to have finally found some chemistry. = Not a major area that needs improvement.

    Top four – Rielly, Gardiner, and Zaitsev appear to be in for next year.. Carrick has be slowly improving. = Will Lou make a big move here adding a top two defender?

    Bottom six. – Part of a very important PK team. This is one area most folks want to see both Hunwick and Polak replaced. = I haven’t heard anyone yet say who they would replace them with that would be considered better. The easy part is letting guys go.

    Is there any danger if we might acquire new players on the bottom six, who generate tons/more offence and play a fast transition game, and ignore defensive play entirely? (Something like the first period last night in Dallas)

    PS

    Best line I heard on yesterday’s broadcast was ” The Stars are cutting through the Leaf defence like a blowtorch though butter.”

    • Pete Smith

      Right. I get this, and agree with your assessment. That said, there is a difference between “need” and “upgrade”. Needs are clear, upgrades are entirely based upon what becomes available. Like, Joe Thornton would be a 3C upgrade on Tyler Bozak (especially if you could get another asset for Boxak). I don’t actually think Thornton would leave SJ, but I’m using it to make a point. 20 million in cap space for the next two years gives the Leafs a lot of options. And they MAY not have a better opportunity to actually win it all than that.

      • LukeDaDrifter

        Your point that Joe Thornton would be a 3C upgrade on Tyler Bozak is questionable. Joe has 3 goals and 29 assists so far this year. Joe will be 38 years old in a few months.

        Bozak will be 31 next month. So far this year Tyler has, 13 goals and 18 assists.

        You did say you “don’t actually think Thornton would leave SJ, but I’m using it to make a point.”. Which UFA may be available is certainly something Leaf management should consider.

        If you are getting rid of Bozak then what about our own Adam Brooks. In 41 games this year he has 29 goals and 57 assists?

        • Pete Smith

          Ok. Maybe not Thornton. It doesn’t matter. I’m just using him as an example because he’s mentioned in the article above. My point was that although they may have very few areas of need, they can always upgrade at most positions based on what options become available. Also: I like Brooks. But let’s see him play in the AHL first.

  • NemRad

    A flat salary cap might help the leafs in the very short term but it could cause problems down the line. in 3 years you will need to have Matthews, Marner, Gardiner resigned. In two years you will need to resign Nylander, JVR, Bozak (who might not be on the team) and Uncle Leo. All these player will cost salary cap money. Once you throw in the fact that we need another top 2/top 3 defenceman, the salary cap space disappears quickly. That is why it is better to have the salary cap grow, even by a bit each year, every million counts.