Elliotte Friedman put out his 31 Thoughts today and it was loaded with Leafs content. Let’s dive in.
At the Board of Governors meeting last week, the NHL provided 2019–20 cap estimates ranging from $81.4 million (no NHLPA inflator) to $85.4 million (the full five per cent). (The players committed to 1.25 for 2018–19.) Looking at the last six Stanley Cup champions and their four highest-paid players, the percentage of the cap spent on them ranges from 35.5 (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford and Patrick Sharp on the 2015 Blackhawks) to 45.2 (Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel on the 2017 Penguins).
The advantage Pittsburgh had that Toronto doesn’t is Crosby and Malkin are on back-diving contracts no longer allowed under CBA rules. The defending-champion Capitals were at 40.2 for Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby. Those deals all have acceptable structure. We already know John Tavares is at $11 million, so if the Maple Leafs want to stay at 45 per cent, they have between $36.6 million (low end) and $38.4 million (high end) for Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander. Matthews is going to come in above Tavares, and Marner will wait to see what he signs for. It’s a tight, tight squeeze.
The NHL’s salary cap is currently set at $79.5 million and it’s safe to say it’ll continue to rise as time goes along. We saw a pretty big spike this summer which was due in part to the spike in revenue seen from the Vegas Golden Knights joining the league. Friedman mentions that the league will see the cap spike to somewhere between $81.4 million to $85.4 million for 2019-20. The goal for the Leafs, as Friedman mentions, is to get the Big Four of Tavares, Matthews, Nylander, and Marner signed at 45 percent of the salary cap, which is between $36.6 million and $38.4 million. Tavares already accounts for $11 million of that figure, leaving the Leafs with about $25 million for the other three players.
This is why the Nylander negotiation is so important to the future of the team. If Kyle Dubas caves and gives Nylander the $8.5 million that Peter Chiarelli handed out to Leon Draisaitl like it was a wedding gift, there’s no way they’ll be able to fit all four players under that 45 percent threshold. The reality is Nylander is going to make the smallest paycheque of all these players, and an $8.5 million deal sets Marner up for north of $9 million, which skews everything.
Chicago and Pittsburgh alleviated cap stress with five-year second contracts for Crosby, Kane, Malkin and Toews. It’s unlikely Toronto would want that term for Nylander, since it takes him right to free agency. Maybe six is the answer. I do believe they’ve looked at something in the three- or four-year range, but the gap remains. The other issue is that I don’t see many easy trades, if Toronto ever decides to go that route. Monetary differences aside, they like the player. A lot.
Friedman goes on to talk more specifically about Nylander’s contract situation, comparing him to star players in Chicago and Pittsburgh after their entry-level deals. The Leafs wouldn’t really be doing themselves any favours if they signed Nylander for five years, given that it would eat up the rest of his RFA years and no UFA years. I mean, it’s better than nothing and it’s better than trading him for a mediocre defenceman, but the goal here is to get the player locked up to the longest deal possible, of course.
Early-season prediction: The number “34” shows up somewhere in whatever extension Auston Matthews signs.
Auston Matthews’ entry-level deal expires at the end of the season and it’s very clear that he’s going to get paid. Freidman mentions that he figures the number $34 will end up somewhere in the negotiations. My guess is that means he wants his cap hit to show up at $11.34 or $12.34 million annually. Unless, uh, he’s going to take a $3.4 million annual deal, which would be sweet.
So, yeah, there’s nothing really new here but Freidman maps it out nicely. The goal for Toronto is to get all of their players under that 45 percent threshold which sets them up nicely for the long-term. Teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, and Chicago have made it happen, and while dancing around the cap isn’t going to be easy, it’s the reality of having good players.
If the Leafs get all three players locked up to the longest term deals possible and they’re already under that 45 percent mark when it happens, life will get easier as time goes along and the cap rises. When the Oilers signed Connor McDavid to a deal worth $12.5 million annually for eight seasons, it was miles above what everybody else was making. Some, hilariously enough, said it was too pricey for one player. But now, as the cap continues to rise, it looks like a bargain.
Let’s say Matthews comes in at $12.34 million. He and Tavares would cost $23.34 million, giving Toronto a shade over $13 million to get Nylander and Marner under the $36.6 million figure. So that’s a high-end guess for Matthews and a low-end guess for the cap.
It’s certainly doable, but the key really is getting Nylander at the right number to set everybody else up.