This is John Tavares’ world and we’re all just living in it. Tavares has the enviable task of picking a team that is about to give him more money that most of us can imagine what to do with, and at least four of the teams he’s speaking to have a very good chance to compete for the Stanley Cup next season, especially with his addition.
At the same time we’re going through this whole wooing stage of Tavares and his agent at the CAA office in Los Angeles, for me there’s still a belief that ultimately Tavares will go with what he knows and stay in Brooklyn. While that is ultimately what I believe, things like this can’t help but give me hope that the Leafs have a chance.
Dreger: “Tavares isn’t talking. Pat Brisson isn’t going to give you that sort of intel because they’re being respectful of the process. But the word that I received from a secondary source, I will call it, was that (JT) was very impressed w/ the Toronto Maple #Leafs.” #Isles 1050
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) June 26, 2018
I mean, very impressed could mean a whole lot of nothing, and I’d hope that most teams can put together an impressive pitch to potentially the biggest free agent to test the open market in NHL free agency.
Who is in on this?
The Leafs, Islanders, Bruins, and Sharks have already made their pitch. Today the Stars and Lightning will wrap up courting process before the decision making begins. The Leafs, Bruins, Sharks, and Lightning all can point to recent playoff appearances as a sign they are heading in the right direction, with the Bruins and Lightning having a particular edge in that area.
The Islanders have the advantage of familiarity and the ability to offer an eight year contract.
The Stars seem to be the wild card in this process, but they are there at the table, and good for them. As you can see from the TSN contract calculator, they have an advantage on par with the Lightning there…
That extra year with the Islanders doesn’t look like such an advantage once you see that 3 of the 6 teams would be paying more on seven year deal at the same salary, but again familiarity.
That familiarity also closes the gap for Toronto, which has to be hoping that hometown means almost as much as money, and young core group.
Can The Leafs Afford That?
I took a look at this back in a post in December, trying to figure out Nylander and Tavares can work into the cap for 2018-19 and we’d see where it goes from there. We know a little more now, the logic remains the same.
The bulk of my time spent writing this has been spent staring at NHLNumbers.com and trying to figure out how to make the money work. The departure of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Roman Polak, Dominic Moore, Eric Fehr, and Martin Marincin creates $14M in cap space while opening up 5 roster spots. The Leafs also get $2M back in the form of Tim Gleason and Jared Cowen’s buyouts coming off the books. The cap ceiling is also potentially going up to $80M (now we know it’s $79.5M), creating an additional $5M of spreading around money. The priority is still William Nylander’s next contract which is likely to eat up $8M of that space.
For the sake of argument, I assumed Tavares at $10M and Nylander at $8M (now I’d assume Tavares at $11M and Nylander at $7M). Both seem like the higher side of what they’ll get, but it’s generally better to prepare for the worst when guessing what will be available.
Those roster holes are less intimidating when you figure that Kapanen, Liljegren, Dermott, Rosen, Gauthier, and Johnsson all have the potential to be affordable solutions. As does the wealth of late summer unrestricted free agents (cough, Cody Franson, cough). The Leafs will likely have performance bonuses carrying over into next season, but it’s entirely possible that they won’t be as significant as the previous season which saw them stuck with the bill for Auston Matthews winning the Calder. As long as he doesn’t win the Hart this year, the performance bonus carryover should result in found money, since I’m assuming the maximum impact here.
I don’t think anyone is truly worried about Year One of this though. The bigger hit would come in year two when you are potentially seeing the Leafs pay an additional $17M to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner over what they are making today and presumably that’s coming up at the same time you have to pay Jake Gardiner and Kasperi Kapanen too. Expecting another significant inflation in the cap is a pipe dream, but there’s bound to be some new money. Looking at the situation today, it’s a matter of deciding whether Tavares is significantly better than what you’ll be able to add down the line, and the Leafs trust in their ability to move the assets they need to over the course of the next few years to maintain one of the best cores in the league.
Year two of a potential Tavares add, would likely mean players like Marleau and Martin would need to be dealt at the very least. A tough decision would need to be made on Jake Gardiner, but hopefully we’re all so in love with Timothy Liljegren at this point we don’t even notice that this needs to be done. Finally there’s Nikita Zaitsev, who is already looking like a bad idea. Finding a way to make Zaitsev go away is probably critical to an expensive acquisition.
With the departure of Bozak, Moore, Plekanec, and Aaltonen, the Leafs have lost all of their center depth and there isn’t much available in free agency that could help them. It’s going to be time to explore the trade market. The upside of the Leafs losing out to teams like San Jose, Tampa, or Dallas is that other players may be made available via trade that could help the Leafs as well.
If the Leafs don’t sign Tavares they have a lot more control over the future cap space and can spend more freely in the short term as well. These options pale in comparison to having Tavares on the Leafs, but they are something.
Perhaps no Tavares means the Leafs have to entertain the idea of William Nylander at center and they can explore the winger free agent/trade market which seems to be much more wide open.
Or you know, they could just prioritize finding a defenseman.
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