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Photo Credit: © Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

How Mitch Marner’s Extension Changes the Leafs Roster

It’s done. It’s finally done.

They could and they did.

The Leafs finished off signing ‘The Big Three’ on Friday. It’s been a long, uncertain year, but in the last 12 months, the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to extend William Nylander, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner to deals that will secure the trio for at least the next five seasons.

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At a combined cost of $29,489,366, the Leafs are assuredly banking on their first-round picks from 2014, 2015, and 2016 to produce a ton of offence.

The Come Up

Briefly, let’s rewind to June 24, 2016.

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The day the Leafs draft Auston Matthews signalled the end of a decade-long era of pain where the Leafs appeared in the playoffs just once. ‘The Big Three’ took very little time demonstrating that the page in Leaf history had been turned in their first game, combining for six points.

A new logo, jersey, and team triumphantly clinched a playoff spot that season in an unforgettable game against the Penguins. After a thrilling series against Washington, the Leafs entered the offseason with a taste of the playoffs. They must have liked it, because Toronto went out and signed FA Patrick Marleau to push for a longer playoff run. This was the first sign the Leafs were ready to go for it, and while we know how that worked out, it opened a window of contention that I don’t foresee closing anytime soon.

The page was turned, and the young Leafs began writing new history as fast as they could, recording a team record 105 points in their second season as a trio. It wasn’t until 2018-19 started with no William Nylander that the realities of a capped league began to set in.

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Sure, the Leafs were tight against the cap in the seasons leading up to that, but it was by way of cap dumps. It was a summer of change for the entire organization, including a new GM, Kyle Dubas. His first order of business as new GM was to sign superstar UFA John Tavares, and in doing so, enter an era of cup contention and cap concern.

Now, Dubas has assembled a Leafs team tighter to the cap and closer to the cup than most of us can remember. Whatever your personal opinions of the contracts given out are, the Leafs face a new reality than they did a year ago.

When a player signs a 6 year contract, there’s inherently going to be long-term implications. How long the window is going to stay open, how that player can exceed the value of his contract, what the cap landscape is when that deal expires. We’ve been waiting for these deals to get done for a long time now, and we’ve got a pretty good picture of the Leafs cap space moving forward. I want to focus on the 2019-20 season, and how things have changed for the Leafs in the wake of a $65.358 million dollar deal.

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Long Term Injured Reserve

First off, the Leafs will be using LTIR this season. A lot of it.

Toronto took on David Clarkson’s contract in order to have the flexibility to sign Marner in-season, and in addition to Nathan Horton’s $5.3 million, they have $10.55 million tied up in players who will remain on LTIR for the entire season. The Leafs will also be without Hyman and Dermott for the first few weeks, meaning they’ll have access to $13,663,333 in LTIR relief to start the season. The good side of that, is that the Leafs will be able to carry a full roster to start the season. There are a lot of names in the mix, but only 4 forward and 3 defence spots open. Some combination of Nick Shore, Nic Petan, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, Jeremy Bracco, and Frederik Gauthier will likely take those spots, while Kevin Gravel, Martin Marincin, Ben Harpur, Teemu Kivihalme, Rasmus Sandin, Jordan Schmaltz, Justin Holl, and Timothy Liljegren compete on D.

Zach Hyman is expected to miss around 15-16 games to start the year, which is where things get interesting.

One way or another, the Leafs will need to cut their roster to 21 in order to activate Hyman. That means 18 skaters, two goalies, and one scratch. I’m not a betting man, but if I had to bet, that scratch would be a defenceman. The problem is, not only do the Leafs have to cut to 21 on the roster, but they can’t recall players they don’t have the cap space for.

I’ll explain the rules in a moment, but the important part is that whoever is on the roster as a scratch will have to play if there’s an injury. We’ve seen Tampa Bay, New Jersey, and Edmonton occasionally use seven defencemen in a game, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team run five defencemen and an extra forward. The truth is that a mistake on defence is a lot more costly than a mistake on offence, and given the strength of the Leaf’s offence, they’d be better off carrying an extra D.

For simplicity sake, let’s assume Petan is the player who wins the job on the 4th line, and Schmaltz is the bottom pairing D. At $775k, Petan’s still cheap for NHL depth, but perhaps not cheap enough. With Petan on the roster, the Leafs simply do not have the option of carrying anyone making more than $772,301 at 7D. That means Sandin, Liljegren, and Kivihalme immediately off the list. With all due respect to Marincin and Harpur, if the Leafs have to carry someone on the roster who could slot in at F or D, it’s not them. Holl and Gravel are the remaining options, and neither of them is exactly Brent Burns.

It’s an unfortunate position to be in, but given the familiarity, Holl might be the best option.

If the thought of Justin Holl’s number 3 streaking down the wing isn’t particularly enticing to you, fret not, as the Leafs have other options. Swapping a Nic for a Nick, the Leafs could save $25k by putting Shore on the roster. That would be just enough to carry Teemu Kivihalme, whose 30 points in 60 games last year was good for 4th amongst U25 Liiga defencemen. On top of that, Kivihalme is waiver exempt, meaning in the case of a forward injury while in Toronto, they can send him down and recall a forward.

The other implications of LTIR is that the Leafs cannot accrue cap space, and they can’t account for any performance bonuses in this league year. To put that in layman’s terms, whatever small amount of cap space they have when the roster is settled, that is how much cap space they have for the remainder of the year. If they want to make a deadline addition, the Leafs have to move someone out to create space.

The only player with a significant cap hit that isn’t a key piece is Cody Ceci, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him going the other way if the Leafs seek a trade for a rental. As for performance bonuses, any earned by Liljegren, Sandin, and Bracco will result in the full amount of that bonus being charged to the cap in 2020-21.

Roster Emergencies

The rules I referred to earlier with regards to recalling players the Leafs don’t have the cap space for are in CBA Article 50.10(e), here’s the short version: In the event that a team has less than $100k plus league minimum salary ($700k) in cap space, a player becomes unfit to play, the team can’t afford to replace the player for $800k, and the team plays a game with fewer than 18 skaters and 2 goalies, the team can recall a player with no charge to the cap.

Full disclosure, there could be another caveat to that. When it says the team can’t replace the player for $800k, it means they can’t be replaced using LTIR. A player can only be placed on LTIR if “the Club’s physician believes, in his or her opinion, that the Player, owing to either an injury or an illness, will be unfit to play for at least (i) twenty-four (24) calendar days and (ii) ten (10) NHL Regular Season games”. This means the Leafs’ ability to use the Emergency Recall depends on whether or not the team doctor believes the injured player will miss enough time.

This doesn’t prevent the Leafs from placing players with injuries longer than 24 days on LTIR. I would presume they’ll place anyone with a somewhat serious injury on LTIR rather than waiting to see how bad the injury is and using the 21st skater to stay at full strength.

Another complicating issue is that the Leafs cannot recall anyone making more than $800k as an emergency recall. That’s another factor in whether or not Bracco, Sandin, and Liljegren play this year, as they cannot be the player recalled in a roster emergency. It’s also a supporting factor in my belief that the Leafs intend to play Kivihalme this year, as he’s signed for $792,500.

The main takeaway from this is that once Hyman returns, the Leafs could end up playing a game with less than a full roster. It’s a disadvantage, but it’s only a regular-season issue. Once the playoffs hit, the Leafs will be able to recall any eligible depth players they want, giving them the luxury of changing the roster depending on their opponent. This also means that Sandin or Liljegren can play in the playoffs if they’re capable of improving the team at that point.

Conclusions

Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.

The Leafs wouldn’t be going through this mess of clerical work if they didn’t think it would give them the best opportunity to win. At the start of the season, you’re going to see as many as 12 new faces on the roster, and they’re all going to be playing to keep a spot when Hyman and Dermott return. There’s going to be line shuffling, tons of depth players in the lineup, and probably a couple more lost on waivers.

When Hyman returns, there are going to be three players off the roster. When Dermott returns, there will be four. At least one of those players will likely be claimed on waivers. If you’re a Toronto Marlies fan, this will be quite the year to watch. Two fewer players on the Leafs roster means they need to keep two more NHL quality depth players on the Marlies.

Speaking of that, the Marlies seem destined for another extended playoff run. What that means for the Leafs is that they need to make arrangements at the trade deadline in order to have more players roster eligible for playoffs. While the team can have 3 recalls on the roster for playoffs, if the Leafs only have 21 men on the roster at the deadline, that’s still only 24 men. Most teams carry more than that, so depending on what moves they make at the deadline I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mikheyev (who is waiver exempt) sent down for one day to create cap space. Then, the Leafs could recall two players they want on the roster for playoffs, wait until the day after the deadline, and send those players down. When the Leafs then recall Mikheyev he technically counts as a recall, but they’ve essentially created an extra roster spot for playoffs.

As I mentioned before, Ceci seems like the logical move at the deadline. Although the Leafs can’t accrue space, the teams they’ll be trading with likely can. That means the Leafs could send Ceci back, and that team could retain on the rental the Leafs acquire, giving them just over $9 million to find the best fit.