The salary cap. There is no greater rivalry in hockey than the Leafs vs. the cap ceiling. The Leafs have more money than God and really want to spend it. They’ve found ways to spend a lot of it. They’ve found ways to spend more than they thought they could. Somewhere along the way they also found out there’s no salary cap for management. They’ve done the best they can.
That all sounds pretty good. That definitely takes the pressure off signing Nylander, and sets up the Leafs to explore free agency and/or have some discussions about bringing James van Riemsdyk back. If they want to swing for the fences this encourages a blank check approach with John Tavares even more than before.
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Worry about the Leafs finding ways to spend cap space has never been an issue. They’ll find a way to spend money. The interesting thing about the Leafs could save money and potentially jettison some question contracts in the next couple of years to help teams like Arizona reach the cap floor (which has historically been $16M-$18M under the cap ceiling).

Nathan Horton’s Contract Isn’t Going Anywhere

Remember that Nathan Horton is a Leaf because the Blue Jackets couldn’t get insurance for his contract. They dealt for Clarkson because they didn’t want to pay actual money to Nathan Horton. Most LTIR players have their contracts picked up by insurance, and this isn’t the case here. For that reason Horton will not be an Arizona Coyote. They don’t have money to pay someone not to play. They barely have money for players who can play.
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Players Who Are Getting Cheaper Than Their Cap Hit

The players that the Leafs could be moving are the players who aren’t as expensive as their cap hit makes them seem. Anyone with a contract trailing off has value with half the teams in the league. According to NHLNumbers.com The Leafs have three such players who come in cheaper than what their cap hit is in 2018-19, and those players are Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey and Matt Martin.
In Martin’s case he’ll be paid $2.25M instead of his $2.5M cap hit. I don’t think that’s enough of a deal that teams will be lining up for Matt Martin, but in 2019-20 Martin’s salary drops to $1.75M and we’re getting closer to something that could be moved.
Ron Hainsey will be paid $2.4M, which comes in $600k under his $3M cap hit. He’ll also be an expiring free agent and coming off a pretty solid season with the Leafs. Based on what we’ve seen so far it seems like it makes more sense for the Leafs to bring him back with open arms next year anyway, but this feels worth noting.
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Patrick Marleau will still cost a team the hefty price of $6M, a mere 250k less than his cap hit. On the other hand, he’s also Patrick Marleau and like Hainsey he’s doing a good job of showing that his age hasn’t caught up with him yet. The 2019-20 season is a lot more impactful, as Marleau’s salary is $4.25M and if he’s still playing like he is now, or close to it, that’s a tradeable contract for an expiring free agent.

Let’s Go One Step Further And Talk Signing Bonuses

Typically signing bonuses are paid out on July 1st, and give the player a large lump sum of money on that date and their salary throughout the season is smaller because of it. This type of contract impacts two players we discussed in the previous section and could make them tradeable assets.
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Matt Martin gets $1.5M on July 1st, 2018 and $1M on July 1st, 2019. So assuming a team trades for Martin on July 2nd, 2018 they’ll be on the hook for $500k of salary in 2018-19, and $1.75M of salary in 2019-20. Basically it’s like you have Martin signed for $1.125M for two years, but he carries a $2.5Mx2yr cap hit. That still seems like a little much to me, but I’m sure there are teams out there that would do this.
Assuming Martin makes it until July 2nd, 2019, a team could get a year of Matt Martin for $750k while carrying a cap hit of $2.5M. That’s the kind of situation that makes me feel comfortable we won’t see Matt Martin play the final year of his contract in a Leafs uniform.
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Marleau’s situation is pretty dramatic as well. He’s receiving a $4.25M signing bonus in 2018, and a $3M one in 2019. The team that brings in Marleau on July 2nd, 2018 would pay him $1.75M for the 2018-19 season and $4.25M for the 2019-20 season, making it like a $3Mx2yr deal which I can’t imagine many teams would object to. Obviously the situation improves on July 2nd, 2019 when a team can just pay $1.25M for a year of Patrick Marleau. If he’s close to what he’s doing now, there should be bidding wars for him amongst the NHL’s stingiest, but competitive teams.
I’d imagine that Marleau and Martin are players that teams were considering even before the cap increase became part of the discussion, but this could potentially help drive up the price for Toronto at a time when they will be prioritizing squeezing Matthews and Marner into the long term picture of the franchise.
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Zaitsev?

The Nikita Zaitsev contract was a bad idea. He’s a player that showed some promise last year and has come crashing down to earth this season. I enjoy pointing out how bad I think he is, but there’s no reason to believe that there won’t be some short term improvement. Right? RIGHT?
Anyway, like Marleau and Martin, Zaitsev is another player with a signing bonus as part of his salary structure next season. He’ll receive $3M on Canada Day and then $1.5M over the course of the rest of the year. He’d be incredibly affordable for that one season. His payment structure is the same for the 2019-20 season too, so if a team misses out on that opportunity next summer, they’ll have another chance. It’s just they’ll be saddled with a lot more years of Nikita Zaitsev at $4.5M, and if he doesn’t improve, that would be ungood for them.
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The other thing about Zaitsev is that moving him in an aggressively increasing cap world is both easier to do, and a less appealing option for the Leafs. It’s much more likely that with teams having more money to burn, there are going to be a lot more players who are worse than Zaitsev making more money than him, some already are (SEE: Orpik, Brooks). As much as Zaitsev will never be my favourite player, his contract is going to begin looking very tolerable over the next couple of years, and he’s far from the untradeable asset some of us believe him to be.

There’s A Downside, Right?

Yep. Good chance that this increases what Matthews, Marner, and Nylander are going to ask for. Jake Gardiner’s unrestricted free agency contract is probably going to be pretty disgusting too. The money is already spent before we ever really had a chance to enjoy it.
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There’s also the small matter of the CBA expiring in the next few years. I’m willing to bet a lot of teams are going to want to roll back the cap again. That should be a fun discussion, but luckily it’s not one will have to deal with for a few more years. It should serve as a reminder that the Leafs window to win needs to be looked at as before the CBA expires though, because lockouts aren’t good for even the best laid plans.
So for now, let’s enjoy the money, live in the now, and all buy jet-skis!