Forget the Battle of Winterfell, I want to know who survives the Battle of Cap Hell, Amirite? Folk’s…

I remain the worst.

Anyway, about that salary cap situation. It’s going to be less than kind to the Toronto Maple Leafs this off-season and some tough decisions are going to need to be made. I’m going to break this down in the same manner pretty much every Game of Thrones site, Pop Culture site, want to be hip news site has been breaking down the Battle of Winterfell and give you the most likely survivors and work our way towards who is most likely to be going.

God-Tier, Not Going Anywhere

John Tavares- These always start off so damned uninspired and my list is no exception. At this point you’re just looking at the name and not reading this text anyway because the name you saw at the top makes so much sense. You’re thinking, okay, this guy isn’t trying to hot take me yet, I’m going to scroll fast to see if he’s put William Nylander way too high for my liking (or not high enough.) Anyway, for those wanting some analysis on Tavares, the guy in year two of his $77 million contract isn’t going anywhere, especially after a career year.

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Auston Matthews- Noticing a theme. I don’t think the Leafs should give up on their elite centers that they’ve got locked up long term.

Jake Muzzin- Outside of Jake Muzzin making it abundantly clear that he is not interested in re-signing with the Leafs, Jake Muzzin is a pretty safe bet to last at least until the next trade deadline. You’re going to be hard pressed to find a defenseman of Muzzin’s abilities available at that price, and even if you only get him for next season you’re definitely not walking away from him now.

Morgan Rielly- Speaking of bargain defensemen, here’s another pretty darn good one. Rielly ain’t going anywhere and if he does, it’s not to provide cap relief.

Freddie Andersen- “BUT GAME SEVEN!!!” Go away anyone who has that thought in their head. Andersen had his rocky moments in a crucial game. He had some rocky moments at other times to. All players have them, they are incredibly visible when they happen to goaltenders, and a game seven bad goal or two has the ability to survive a nuclear winter. Bad opinions of Andersen aside, he’s got a great contract, there isn’t anyone that can be considered capable of replacing him available, and there is no chance he’s going anywhere.

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Safe Bets to Survive

Zach Hyman- He might be wounded, but he’s going to stick around. Hyman has been a strong complimentary player to the Leafs top two centers and has a very manageable contract. You’re not going to find someone to play his role as cheap except for…

Trevor Moore- The Zach Hyman understudy will get his chance to play a full season with the Leafs next year, and if he didn’t earn it on merit, he’d earn it out of the necessity of sliding his $775k contract into the roster. ‘

Travis Dermott- Some of the shine might have worn off Dermott down the stretch, but since he was rehabbing an injury he deserves significant benefit of doubt. He was often handed less than ideal defensive partners. His entry level deal definitely keeps him a Leaf next season.

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Calle Rosen- At this point it should be clear that the Leafs are going to want to keep cheap players

Nic Petan- Embrace the theme people this category is about cheapness

Freddie Gauthier- I mean c’mon, the Goat is terrible and I’m still betting he’s likely to be back.

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Mitch Marner- Okay, now we’ve switched it up from the opposite of cheap and gone with the guy who will have more money than God soon enough. The man who never met a product he wouldn’t endorse is about to get a big endorsement from the organization, and that’s fine up to a point. If Marner is in fact seeking Matthews/Tavares money, well, that’s why he’s in the safe bets to survive category and not the God Tier.

We’ll Hear a lot about them, but they are probably staying

William Nylander- Probably over half of you reading this have Nylander pushed out the door already. I mean, assuming he goes that does wonders for addressing a lot of the Leafs cap issues. The downside to this is that you’d be selling really low on a very good player, and also, he’s a really good player that you should want to keep around. There will be rumours, and I’m willing to bet there will be one that starts floating around at the draft and carries over to free agency day, conveniently when TSN and Sportsnet are trying to bring Leafs fan eyeballs back to their TVs.

Patrick Marleau- The Leafs front office will certainly try to make Marleau disappear, but with Marleau having a no movement clause on a 35+ year old contract, it pretty much means he holds all the cards. He’s not going to move his family for one year. He’s not going to play on a bad team. And at this point he’s said he’s not retiring. So if we take Marleau at his word he’s a Leaf. Somethings could change after his signing bonus is paid out on July 1st, and he might choose to revisit whether he wants to continue playing, and perhaps in that situation the Leafs can trade his dead cap space to a team that needs to get to the cap floor. That is really wishful thinking. Marleau has the potential to hit 800 games in his ironman streak. He has the potential to hit 1200 points. He still hasn’t won a cup. He’s going to stick around.

Nikita Zaitsev- Unfortunately the first three games of the Bruins series wasn’t enough of a Nikita Zaitsev redemption tour, and we’re probably still looking a hard to move defenseman. Moving Zaitsev would potentially free up needed cap space, but it’s hard to imagine being able to move Zaitsev without taking back an equally disappointing contract. He’s kind of in the same situation as Marleau where we know they are disappointing, but moving them now might be more harmful to the Leafs in the long run and it is better to just reduce the capacity in which they are used.

At least two of these guys are probably gone, but not the whole lot of them

Nazem Kadri- Aside from his tendency to go rogue there really isn’t a good reason for putting Kadri here. His cap hit is reasonable, his output for that cap hit dropped last season, but largely from a reduction in role and decreased quality of linemates. Kadri is pretty darn good, and shouldn’t be treated as the sell low guy he’s being portrayed as. The fact that he’s a center definitely adds to need to keep him and with the decision pretty much in on Nylander being a winger going forward, he’s the most untouchable of this group.

That being said, if a team wants to overpay, it’s time to listen.

Andreas Johnsson- The reality of having long term success as an organization means that any non-elite wingers need to be expendable. That includes the young ones just coming out of their entry level deals. Johnsson would probably come in at a very reasonable cap hit and that might still not be something the Leafs can work with.

Kasperi Kapanen- Is in pretty much the same boat. It’s going to come down to preference. Johnsson had the better season, but Kapanen is younger and faster. Johnsson is a solid power play guy, and Kapanen has had his moments on the penalty kill. My hot take is that I would ditch both of Johnsson and Kapanen, as they are best option for recovering draft picks, and you know what those draft picks will likely yield? More cheap wingers!!!

Connor Brown- He should probably be in a higher category, I’m putting Connor Brown in this group based on the philosophy of not being able to trade the whole team, nor should you necessarily want to. If dealing other players is optimal for the Leafs, Brown might survive.

Likely Gone, but will we even notice?

Garret Sparks- He’s not good but doesn’t cost a lot. If the Leafs are liking the work he’s been putting in he stays, but he’s received anything but a vote of confidence even though they re-signed him.

Justin Holl- The novelty of his debut last season has worn off and Holl is the guy who couldn’t get the coach’s trust and sat the whole year. He’s not a make or break guy, but if Babcock is canned, I’d imagine Holl gets another shot. If Babcock is back, it’s best to put Holl out of his misery and find a happy new home for him.

Igor Ozhiganov- The Leafs will likely give him a qualify offer, but he’s likely on his way back to the KHL. Not getting an opportunity to play every night is probably a deal breaker, and the money getting offered to him in Russia will likely exceed what Toronto should give him.

Martin Marincin- If Babcock is gone, do we see Marincin return? Possibly, but with the opportunity to explore free agency I assume Marincin will try to find the best fit for him.

Michael Hutchinson- Sparks is the backup under contract, and Hutchinson can probably find some NHL work elsewhere.

Tyler Ennis- I’d love for the Leafs to bring him back, but in these crazy times of Ennis absolutely deserving a raise, and frankly a bigger role, and the Leafs being in cap hell and having a coach that doesn’t want to use him, I think we’ll see Ennis move on. Too bad, he was often a delight.

He Dead

Jake Gardiner- The amount of time that Dubas spent celebrating the contributions that Jake Gardiner made as a Maple Leaf should be taken as a “thank you for your service” acknowledgement and assertion he won’t be re-signed. The fact that Jake now has some very real back issues that he’s dealing with, bringing him back is taking on a fair bit of risk when the left side of the blueline is already spoken for. Gardiner’s departure means the Leafs will need to shuffle pieces in order to bring in a replacement, or a lot of eggs will be put in the baskets of the Marlies defensive group.

Ron Hainsey- No matter how discounted Hainsey is compared to his last deal, I can’t see the Leafs bringing him back, especially while Babcock is the head coach. Playing Hainsey on the top pairing has been a bad idea for two years now, and yet it remains a thing. This is a chance to move away from that and why wouldn’t you want to do that?

The X-Factors in this

A lot of my assumptions here are based around:

  1.  Marner being signed to a deal around $10M
  2.  The Salary Cap being set at $83M
  3.  Mike Babcock returning as the Leafs head coach

Any variance from those three things likely changes the direction of the Leafs, and while they are going to be working towards cap compliance, they need to also be doing so with the acknowledgement that the team needs to be improved as well. The Leafs interest in Ilya Mikheyev is a good start to finding creative solutions of being competitive on a budget, and the development of players like Sandin and Liljegren are also reasons to be optimistic that affordable help is on the way, but somewhere along the line there will also need to be a more drastic action taken and that is what will make the Leafs one of the more interesting teams to follow up to draft and through free agency.

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  • Matmarwill

    This article is a good, thoughtful assessment. You may be right about kapanen/Johnsson, but I would tend to think that brown is the odd man out. Marner will likely get @11m, and then Dubas will have to squeeze Kappy + Andreas into @2.5m/year for whatever term. You don’t trade young guys of their potential, and both have a bit of grit. Brown is replaceable by Moore at a third of the cost.

    Defense is where Dubas needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Agreed that hainsey and Gardiner are gone. I can see liljegren being the 3rhd, however, the rhd for Reilly has to likely come from a trade/ufa. Khl/shl imports don’t seem to be working for the buds. Or perhaps Dermott moves to Mo’s right side. Otherwise, this is likely dubas’ biggest task, get a rhd, short term even, to play with Reilly next season. In a year or so, other rhd will likely be ready, in hollowell or duszak, but in the meanwhile Reilly needs a capable partner. This may be where the leafs have to part with a promising young player like bracco/kappy/Johnsson. If it’s one of the latter 2 then you get more cap relief. Johnson’s absence could be covered by the rusky rw ufa mentioned above.

    I think Muzzin extends with the leafs. I also think sandin will eventually replace Rosen as 3lhd. And, I expect engvall to replace Ennis.

    And even if Keefe gets a head coaching offer, I don’t see Babcock moving on. He’s a bit stubborn, but if Dubas eliminates Mike’s silly preferences, like hainsey, then Mike will have to play the team Kyle wants.

    That rhd ufa situation is the most interesting one, tho I’d be willing to give Dermott that role, and Liljegren the 3rhd in sheltered minutes. Should make the offseason somewhat interesting.