Have you heard? Kyle Dubas has a lot of work to do this summer. With Auston Matthews’ extension set to kick in and multiple key restricted free agents also in need of new deals, Dubas is going to have to do some tightrope walking to get everybody under the salary cap ceiling.
The Leafs have two obvious problematic contracts: Patrick Marleau (for one more year at $6,250,000) and Nikita Zaitsev (for five more years at $4,500,000). Finding teams to take on those two deals would make life much easier for Dubas as he looks to figure out deals for Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson all while improving the roster.
Marleau was brought in back during the 2016 off-season when Lou Lamoriello was the general manager to be a veteran presence as the Leafs’ young core worked their way into the NHL. He had a strong season in 2017-18, racking up 28 goals, but his production dipped to 16 goals in the 2018-19 season and he was a non-factor in the playoffs this year. There’s no doubt he’s been an excellent leader to have on the team, but, a team in a cap bind can’t afford to pay him $6,250,000 to score under 20 goals.
It seemed the plan with Marleau was always that his first couple of years were going to be fine but the final year was going to be an albatross. That’s likely why Lamoriello and Co. structured his contract to be paid mostly in signing bonuses in the final season. Marleau will be paid $3,000,000 as a bonus on July 1 and then he’ll have an actual salary of $1,250,000 for the 2019-20 season. He’s the perfect addition for a team looking to reach the salary cap floor without having to pay much actual salary.
The Ottawa Senators are the obvious team looking to reach the cap floor as they currently have roughly $44 million tied into their 2019-20 roster. In the past, we’ve seen teams like the Arizona Coyotes get a first-round pick in order to take Pavel Datsyuk’s contract off of the Detroit Red Wings’ hands. The Leafs obviously don’t have their first-round pick this year, but they could send a prospect to Ottawa in order to get them to take on the final year of Marleau’s deal.
But would they be interested in helping the Leafs out like that? If not, Dubas could hit up other teams with cap room, like Colorado, New Jersey, or Vancouver. Colorado might not be as likely, but Vancouver and New Jersey are both in rebuild periods and would probably be willing to take on a bad contract for one year in order to get a sweetener.
Of course, Marleau has a full No-Movement Clause on his deal, so if he wants to stick around, there’s not much Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs can do.
This is a much, much tougher sell for Dubas to make. While Zaitsev played well for the Leafs in the playoffs this year, he’s pricey at $4,500,000. The big issue here is finding a team willing to take on five more years of Zaitsev, who is overpaid as a middle-to-bottom pairing defender. If the Leafs are going to move Dubas, you have to assume there’s going to be money coming back from the other side in a deal.
This is somewhat reminiscent of the Dion Phaneuf dump. Back in 2015, Lamoriello traded Dion Phaneuf’s horrid contract to the Senators in exchange for a collection of smaller bad contracts. He got Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, and Jared Cowen, all of whom were buried. None of those players had a cap hit against the Leafs after the 2016-17 season while the Sens are now paying Phaneuf to play for the L.A. Kings.
The goal for Dubas should certainly be to move Zaitsev as soon as possible. He should have increased trade value due to his solid playoff showing and he gets to submit a 10-team no-trade list on July 1.
One option that comes to mind with Zaitsev is a deal with the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers need a defender, particularly one that plays the right side, and the team has a bevy of bad contracts to deal with. Kris Russell, who is blocking young defenders like Caleb Jones on the Oilers’ roster, has a $4,000,000 cap hit with two more years left. If the Leafs added something, they could swap Zaitsev for Russell, thus lessening the years they have to pay a mediocre defenceman from five to two. They could also do something to free Edmonton from one-year bad deals like Sam Gagner and Brandon Manning, much like we saw with the Phaneuf deal.
Who else would be interested in Zaitsev? Lamoriello clearly sees something there, so a trade with the New York Islanders is a possibility. The Florida Panthers could use depth on their blueline and Dale Tallon loves defensive defencemen. The aforementioned Devils have a bunch of cap room and a brutal blueline. As I said, though, wherever Zaitsev goes, the Leafs will very likely have to take money back in return. The key here, though, is to ensure the term is much smaller than the five years left on Zaitsev’s deal.