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Forecasting the Leafs’ salary cap picture for the 2024-25 season
By Nick Richard2 months ago
The various NHL ownership groups assembled for the annual Board of Governors meeting earlier this week in Seattle, discussing a variety of topics from the future of international competition to the transition to a decentralized entry draft. The biggest news, however, may have had to do with the league’s salary cap, which is set to see its first significant increase since before the pandemic.
The league offered an estimated cap increase of a little over $4 million, bringing the upper limit to approximately $87.7 million for the 2024-25 season, and there is a chance that it could go up even more than that if the league and player’s union agree to it. After an average annual increase of around $2 million per season between 2015-16 and 2019-20, the cap has increased by a total of just $2 million in the four seasons since, causing a league-wide cap crunch that has impacted practically every franchise.
Many teams have felt the squeeze of the flat cap over the last few years, but the timing was particularly poor for the Leafs, who had just reset the market, at least to some extent, with massive financial commitments to their star restricted free agents. Those contracts to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, along with that of John Tavares, have forced the Leafs to pinch pennies elsewhere on their roster. That was always going to be the case, but the situation became much more difficult to navigate with the unexpected flattening of the salary cap over the last few seasons.
To the front office’s credit, the Leafs have done a good job of filling in the margins around their highly paid, star-studded core, but it has led to more roster turnover and bargain hunting than they would like. Now, there is still the matter of William Nylander’s pending unrestricted free agency, and a potential extension would likely eat up a large portion of the projected $4 million cap increase, but there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of salary cap flexibility.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the Leafs’ salary cap picture is shaping up for the 2024-25 campaign. There is plenty of guesswork involved here as far as the actual names on the roster, but the idea is to gain a better understanding of how the Leafs could assemble their lineup and allocate their cap dollars rather than identifying the specific players who could account for those spots. If you don’t think Robertson is on the team next year, just imagine a different name in his slot making similar money.
Beginning with the caveat that a lot could change between now and the offseason, the Leafs have 11 members of their current roster under contract at a combined cap hit of just over $53 million for next season. Their pending unrestricted free agents include Nylander, Tyler Bertuzzi, TJ Brodie, Ilya Samsonov, Max Domi, and Mark Giordano – many of whom would represent significant departures from the lineup. The Leafs also have a handful of pending restricted free agents, including Timothy Liljegren, Nick Robertson, Noah Gregor, and Simon Benoit. The team will hold their exclusive negotiating rights, but Liljegren, in particular, should be in line for a decent raise.
There are a lot of holes to fill there, but the Leafs should have around $34.5 million to work with and maybe a little more if they decide to move on from the likes of Ryan Reaves and Conor Timmins, replacing them with players who make closer to the league minimum. The entirety of Timmins’ salary can be buried in the minors, so the Leafs could save approximately $300k by replacing him, and they’d be on the hook for just $200k of Reaves’ $1.35 million if the buriable limit doesn’t increase and they opt to send him to the Marlies. That’s enough to replace him with someone making closer to the league minimum and still save another $300k.
Exactly what happens between the Leafs and Nylander remains to be seen, but general manager Brad Treliving has stated repeatedly that the club’s top priority is signing the superstar winger to a contract extension. The rumoured asking price has fluctuated again and again, but Nylander has all but cemented his place as a $10 million+ player with his performance through the first quarter of the season. The Leafs and Nylander’s camp have kept a tight lid on things, so it’s tough to nail down what the exact number would be on a potential extension, but $10.8 million per season feels like a generous projection for the player and a conservative one for the team in terms of projecting their overall cap structure. That would leave the Leafs with only 10 players on their roster and just under $26 million to fill out the rest of their lineup, but they would be in good shape with the top end of their forward group remaining intact.
The restricted free agents might not be next on the priority list due to the control the team will have over the negotiating process, but pencilling them in feels like the next logical step toward putting this lineup together. This is a big season for Liljegren as he looks to establish himself as a reliable top-four defenseman and secure a larger payday, and he may well have been on the way to doing just that before a high-ankle sprain knocked him out of the lineup in early November, but his runway will be limited by the time he returns to the lineup. He will certainly be due a raise on his current $1.4 million cap hit, and the term will be a key factor, but it doesn’t appear as though Liljegren is set to break the bank. Given that things will once again be tight for the Leafs – at least for next season – and the fact that Liljegren has arbitration rights next summer, a short-term contract between $2.5 million and $3 million seems likely.
Roberton is a more interesting projection for a lot of reasons. While he has looked the part more so this season than he has at any other point in past years, he is still far from a sure thing, and there is a wide range of outcomes for him. He could find himself back in the AHL before the season ends, he could be part of a trade to bring in more immediate help, or he could continue on an upward trajectory and lock himself into a roster spot with the club moving forward. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll go the optimistic route and assume that Robertson stays healthy enough to maintain his current pace and finish with 35-40 points while playing 65-70 games. Even with a season that successful, Robertson’s limited NHL track record and RFA status should keep him around $2 million.
Gregor and Benoit have fit in well and given the Leafs positive contributions so far this season, but neither player has the upside that Liljegren and Robertson do and figure to re-sign for close to what they’re making now. The Leafs could always opt to move on from either player, but they have proven capable of serving as cheap, useful depth. With approximately $6.7 million set aside for Liljegren, Robertson, Gregor, and Benoit, the Leafs would have 14 players under contract with around $19 million remaining in cap space.
Now, this is where things get really difficult to project, and a lot of it hinges on Joseph Woll. He has unquestionably been the Leafs’ best goaltender this season, but we are still working off of a very small sample size, and the goaltending position is as volatile as any position in sports. It would obviously be a massive boon for the Leafs if Woll is able to bounce back from his latest injury to play the way he has through the early part of this season and proves capable of handling a starter’s workload while counting for just $766k against the salary cap. It’s becoming more of a two-goalie league every year, however, so it’s fair to assume the Leafs will have to allocate some money to their crease. The need will be less urgent should Woll continue to thrive, but it could also become a top priority if injuries become a problem or he falters as the season progresses. Samsonov is on the books for $3.55 million this season, and though he has struggled, he could still reassert himself as a reliable option moving forward as well. Either way, it seems reasonable to set aside another $3 million or so for whoever ends up being Woll’s tandem mate.
That leaves the Leafs with just under $16 million of a projected $87.7 million salary cap, with a couple of gaping holes left to fill in their lineup, and it stands to reason that the Leafs will sprinkle some money on their blue line this season in an effort to upgrade their top four and insure themselves against Brodie’s potential departure. Brodie is in the final year of a contract that carries a $5 million cap hit, and the Leafs will need that space, and then some, if they’re going to make a big trade or land one of the big names slated for unrestricted free agency. They have a couple of options here: going big for one blueliner or spreading out the wealth in an effort to achieve greater lineup balance. For now, let’s set aside $6.5 million for a top-four defenseman.
In addition to Brodie and Samsonov, the Leafs would still have Bertuzzi, Domi, and Giordano heading for free agency. Giordano is likely to retire, and Brodie could return on a bit of a discount on his current rate, but Bertuzzi or someone who can fill his role in the top six figures to be the next priority. Again, the Leafs have options here in how they spend their money up front: pay up to Bertuzzi or a comparable player to secure the services of a bonafide top-six winger and go cheap at the third-line center spot, or sign someone like Domi and spread the money out between those two spots. Similar to Woll’s impact on the goaltending depth chart moving forward, the development of prospects Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan could play a big part in influencing the Leafs’ moves up front.
Minten was the surprise of training camp, earning a spot on the opening night roster and getting into four NHL games before he was returned to junior. It isn’t difficult to envision him sticking around for the long haul next year, and Cowan will also be pushing hard after an impressive showing in his first NHL camp, but there are a couple of things working in Minten’s favour, in particular. Unlike this year, where he had to be in either the NHL or WHL, he will be eligible to play in the AHL next season, so the Leafs will be able to recall and demote him as they see fit. More importantly, next season looks like it could be the first one in a long time where the Leafs aren’t operating in LTIR all season, allowing them to bank their leftover cap space throughout the season and increase their flexibility to add at the deadline. All this is to say that Minten is a fairly safe bet to make the team next season, at least initially.
Even with Minten filling the third-line center spot, it could be difficult to fit in a Bertuzzi extension without spending less elsewhere. Still, even without adjusting any of our other projected figures, the Leafs should be able to spend around $4.5-$5 million on another top six winger.
Locking down a third defensive pairing and another fourth line winger with just $4 million in remaining cap space will be difficult, but the Leafs will have options. Maybe they don’t have to spend $3 million on a second goaltender, or perhaps they’re unable to land a defenseman who commands $6 million+. On top of shaving a bit of money off of some of the above projections, they could have Benoit playing a regular role for close to league minimum or demote him to run a 20-man roster, or they could attempt to find a taker for David Kämpf’s contract and save some money at 4C.
The Leafs will likely be relying on a couple of reliable veterans signing for a discount, maybe even TJ Brodie or rumoured trade target and Toronto native Chris Tanev, but it’s unlikely that either of them is ready to sign a Giordano or Spezza-esque contract just yet. The Leafs will want to land at least one more steadying presence for their bottom pairing, and that could eat up most of their remaining space, but they should be able to fill the last spot on their fourth line for close to league minimum, whether that be an in-house promotion or cheap UFA signing.
Some of the names could change, and the dollar amounts allocated to each position could be altered slightly, but this is a good picture of what a 21-man Leafs roster could like in 2024-25:
Yes, things are still going to be tight for the Leafs despite the increasing salary cap next season, but the situation is far from dire, and they’re in a good spot moving forward. Say what you will about Kyle Dubas’ tenure as Leafs GM, but one thing he did a great job of was maintaining the team’s long-term flexibility by ensuring there were no long-term anchor contracts on the books.
There is no reason to believe the Leafs can’t afford a Nylander extension and still put together a competitive squad around the core in 2024-25, and more relief is coming beyond next season. Marner, among others like Woll and Matthew Knies, will be due for new contracts, but the cap is projected to be somewhere between $90-$95 million as early as 2025-26, and they finally have some young players on the way who should provide some surplus value. 2025-26 also happens to be the season that John Tavares’ $11 million cap hit comes off the books. It’s hard to imagine Tavares playing elsewhere at this stage of his career, and even harder to imagine his next contract will come in anywhere close to his current number.
The Leafs, and frankly, most of the league, have been in cap hell for close to half a decade because of the pandemic. Things are finally starting to turn, and while the Leafs will still have to spend their cap dollars wisely, they are well-positioned to keep their window of contention open in 2024-25 and beyond.
Statistics from EliteProspects.com
Contact details from CapFriendly.com
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