William Nylander’s short and long-term impact on the Maple Leafs cap situation

Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
6 months ago
Let’s start with the obvious and get that out of the way early on. If you have the opportunity to re-sign William Nylander and keep him on your team, you absolutely do it. That much should be obvious and with COVID protocols in the rearview mirror, the NHL is back to putting butts in the seats and the ticket sales driven league will likely reap the rewards of that revenue along with their newfound love of sports betting revenue.
The cap will go up and retaining good players will become easier. That doesn’t just apply to the Maple Leafs though and with teams having more money available to retain their players, the free agent market potentially will look pretty bare and has the potential for some pretty mid-level players to cash in during this offseason based on being the best available and teams having way too much money to throw at them. The Leafs being tapped out due to the Matthews and Nylander contracts might be the best thing for them as can help prevent the next John Klingberg style mistake.
Things aren’t completely rosy in the short term either though. Beyond getting Matthews and Nylander signed the Leafs have some pretty critical positions to fill and somehow have less money to work with than they had in previous years. T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano, John Klingberg, Ilya Samsonov, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Max Domi are all pending unrestricted free agents and while the Leafs might be okay with moving on from some or even the majority of this group, there are some key positions that need to be addressed and typically are hard to fill in a cheap fashion. That list includes a starting goaltender, top pairing defenceman, let’s say another top four defenceman, two top six forwards, and a reliable bottom pairing defenceman. If that was all the Leafs needed to do, that would still limit them $3.5M per player and that’s before factoring in there are other players that need to be considered like Noah Gregor, Simon Benoit, and Timothy Liljegren.
This Capfriendly summary reduces the amount the Leafs can spend to $2.3M per vacancy. This isn’t cap hell but this also not something where you can blindly bring back Bertuzzi, Brodie, and Domi and hope the rest will figure itself out. It’s more like cap purgatory and there are some ways the Leafs can manage it well.
Some of details get resolved fairly quickly when you factor in that Noah Gregor, Timothy Liljegren, and Simon Benoit aren’t exactly going to be breaking the bank if they are re-signed. Both Benoit and Gregor returning would be well received but neither one should be at the point where they are exceeding the $1M mark. All three are arbitration eligible and that should help the Leafs control their costs. The same is true of Nick Robertson if he is returning. The Leafs need for affordable players with upside should keep Robertson around unless there is a GM in the league who attaches a lot of value to him at the upcoming trade deadline. All of a sudden this is more about grabbing three or four good players for around $15M-$16M combined and that is far more doable. Knowing the Leafs could still jettison more excessive salary they shouldn’t be paying like $1.35M AAV on an enforcer or $2.4M AAV on a fourth line centre and the Leafs can continue with a similar run it back approach in 2024-25 to what they’ve been doing in recent years.
Beyond the 2024-25 season, dare I say the Leafs are nearing a place of flexibility, even if they are running it back. Whatever the Leafs need to give Marner as a potential increase should be easily covered out of what the Leafs would save on the next Tavares contract. And if it doesn’t work out that way there is a good chance that the Leafs are better off parting ways with either of them that have excessive contract demands. Having William Nylander signed does provide a bit more security to the Leafs to be tougher with Mitch in his next negotiation and with John Tavares it seems to be a bit more of landing on a number that both sides can be happy with in order for him to retire as a Leaf. (For the purpose of avoiding the lengthy additional topic of trading one of Marner or Tavares, we’ll operate under the assumption that the Leafs would prefer to bring them both back and save that topic for another day.)
The 2025-26 cap situation will also have the Joseph Woll and Matthew Knies contracts to factor in, but being RFAs they won’t pose too much difficulty. If the NHL salary cap is truly on a rocket to the $100M mark, it seems like this is the offseason when the Leafs might get a chance to fully embrace their desire to shop free agency.
Looking to the long term, William Nylander will be 36 when this contract ends. There are a lot of things that can change about a player in eight plus years and with a $11.5M cap hit attached to that player and full no movement clause there are risks that need to be considered further out. Even if the cap reaches $100M in advance of any decline in play of Nylander, his contract will still represent 11.5% of 100M and that is still about equal to a $9.2M in the league right now. Will Nylander be playing at the calibre of a $9.2M player at 36? You can point to positive examples like Anze Kopitar but there are also players like Niklas Backstrom who slowed down considerably before landing on the LTIR. The fact that there is a new collective agreement coming certainly throws some unpredictably into the mix and with an eight year deal it is entirely possible that Nylander sees two CBAs in his contract’s lifespan.
Nylander’s deal is also buyout proof and that was to be expected. If the CBA’s offer compliance buyouts as an option, that would be something to revisit based on performance at the time, but for standard buyouts this deal is structured to see Nylander get paid and get paid by the Leafs.
Not knowing the cap amount in the later years of the deal, there is at least a modest decline and if Nylander is traded after his signing bonus is paid in the final year, that is at least a means of trimming salary.
Rather than end this post on the sour note of talking buyouts, declining performance, and cap hit dump trades, let’s circle back to the main point and that is the Leafs have re-signed one of their star players and for a long time. Nylander will likely be one of the top five scoring Leafs of all-time when his career is over and that’s pretty cool. And if he continues to build on his success for a couple of years and the NHL continues to play full seasons, he might even have a shot at becoming the highest scoring Swede in franchise history.
As for the Leafs salary cap situation. The moral of the story is that it is the same as it ever was. It would be great if Toronto had more money to spend or that the Leafs star players would take a shave on their contracts to make that happen, but it’s hard to say a player should take less from Rogers and Bell and given that we’ve seen that the money left over goes into the hands of Ryan Reaves, John Klingberg, and David Kampf, I’d just as soon see the Leafs give it to Willy and force the hockey ops department to get creative, which they’ll need to be again this summer.
Salary data from Capfriendly.

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