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Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Ondrej Kaše will cost too much to return to the Leafs, most likely

As the Leafs get ready for the offseason, it’s well established that the top priority is goaltending. There’s also an abundance of quality defenders on the team, so a signing on the back end would be for more depth, which won’t be at the front of Kyle Dubas and company’s plans. However, on the forward side, there’s a lot of potentially moving parts, and one of those parts is Ondrej Kase.

Last season, Kaše joined the Leafs from unrestricted free agency on a 1-year deal when he was 25 years old. By the rules of the NHL CBA, when Kaše’s deal with the Leafs expires this offseason, he remains a “restricted” free agent, which means if any other team wants Kaše they have to sign an “offer sheet”. The Leafs have an opportunity to match the offer, and if they choose not to, the signing team must send the Leafs compensation. In order to maintain the “restricted” free agent status, the Leafs must give him a “qualifying offer”. This offer is dependent on how much the player made last season. For Kaše, it’d be the same as he made last season, $1.25M per year. The season before, the Boston Bruins chose not to offer Kaše a qualifying offer, which would have been worth $2.6M per year. They felt his market value sank below that number due to missing a season with injuries, and the Leafs’ 1-year $1.25M deal proved they were correct in that valuation.

If the Leafs do choose to offer Kaše the minimum $1.25M contract, he doesn’t have to accept it; in fact, he’ll almost certainly not accept it. After a good season last year, the Leafs will still have to negotiate an agreeable raise for Kaše. He has the additional leverage in this situation, because the CBA would allow him to enter arbitration. As noted by Chris Johnston below, the contract that an arbitrator would award could be in the range of $3M.

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In 2020, the Red Wings’ Tyler Bertuzzi filed for arbitration and the arbitrator awarded him a 1-year $3.5M deal. He was coming off of a pair of 52- and 55-point-pace seasons for Detroit where he made $1.4M. Kaše scored 27 points last year in the 50 games he played, a 44-point pace over 82 games. With that Bertuzzi measuring stick, and considering that the salary cap has gone up this year, $3M doesn’t seem like a far off estimate.

Just because Kaše can file for arbitration, and very well might, does not mean his salary will be decided by the arbitrator. In fact, the majority of arbitration cases are settled before actually heading to arbitration. According to salary projections by Alex Maclean of Dobber Hockey, Kaše would earn somewhere around $2,542,900 in the open market. The slightly more reputable Evolving Hockey projections have him at $1.445M if re-signing with the Leafs and $1.305M if going to the open market and signing with a different team.

I’d guess that neither of these models factor in arbitration eligibility because arbitration awards are so, so rare in the NHL. But the looming threat seems like it could be a strong influence in Kaše’s case.

There’s also not a lot of space to work with. The Leafs have just over $10.2M in cap space according to PuckPedia, with Rasmus Sandin, Pierre Engvall, and 2 goalies to sign. If signed, Kaše would be filling one of the at least 2 spots on the roster that the Leafs have need for NHL-quality forwards. So, 6 roster spots to fill including Kaše’s spot, and just $10.2M to spread among them.

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If we assume the following, there’s only about $1.5M to sign a 12th forward, like Kaše:

  1. A starting goalie like Jack Campbell takes up $4M
  2. Engvall gets his $1.25M qualifying offer
  3. Sandin gets at least $2M
  4. A backup goalie and 13th forward sign for league minimum ($750k next season)

There’s always room for the Leafs to pull of something that’s beyond my prediction ability, but at this point, I would wager on Kaše playing for a different NHL team next season. More likely they’ll use the room on a backup goalie that make up a tandem with Campbell or whoever else, and bring up Marlies players or fringe NHL players from free agency to fill the bottom 6.

Kaše moving on won’t be a massive loss for the Leafs, either. Evolving Hockey’s Expected Goals Above Replacement model has him as a 0.4 xWAR player, meaning that next season it’s expected that he’ll contribute less than half a win over the course of a season relative to a replacement level player. To me, that and the threat of arbitration are good enough reason to move on.