Jared Cowen’s contract quirk an asset for Maple Leafs

Jared Cowen may not be long for the Maple Leafs. After coming over in the Dion Phaneuf trade, the young defenceman may yet be moved again thanks to his very cap-friendly salary situation that makes him a good trade target.

TORONTO – Long after his teammates have finished answering trade-related questions and cleared the dressing room, Jared Cowen finally returns from an extended morning skate at Air Canada Centre.

Flying beneath the speculation, basically excluded from the wider conversation around the Toronto Maple Leafs entirely, the 25-year-old defenceman is facing just as much uncertainty as those being mentioned more prominently in the rumour mill.

Cowen could be dealt before Monday’s trade deadline because of an unusual quirk that would give any team that bought him out this summer a salary cap credit of $650,000 for next season.

Or, perhaps all of the rehab work he’s currently putting in on a four-year-old hip injury will be for an eventual audition on the Leafs’ blue-line.

It’s not yet clear what exactly Toronto has planned for Cowen – not even to Cowen himself – but he made it clear Thursday that he hopes it doesn’t include a trade out of town before he’s even played his first game for the team.

“If they are (looking for a trade), they haven’t told me or they haven’t led me to believe that,” Cowen told Sportsnet. “I have a feeling that they want me here and I want to be here.

“So I haven’t thought about it once.”

Since he’s now part of a Leafs organization combing the collective bargaining agreement in search of every advantage possible, a trade can’t be ruled out entirely. Especially with the unique circumstances surrounding Cowen’s contract.

He is due to earn $4.5 million in salary in the final year of his back-loaded deal next season, and that presents an interesting opportunity for a buyout. Since the cost to do so is only one-third of the remaining value – because Cowen is under age 26 – a team would get a rare $650,000 cap credit in 2016-17 and assume a hit of $750,000 the year after.

The potential to create extra space would have value to any of the cap-strapped teams, especially one like Chicago that is likely to carry a significant overage because rookie Artemi Panarin is in position to reach both his Schedule “A” and “B” bonuses this season.

In other words, Cowen’s unique contract situation represents an asset for the Leafs. What remains unknown is whether the organization views the player himself as being worth even more than the potential return he could garner in a trade.

It’s been a difficult few years for the former ninth overall pick, who underwent surgery for a torn labrum in his left hip in 2012 while with Ottawa Senators, and hasn’t been quite the same since.

“The next year was the tough year because I wasn’t feeling as good, the season kind of wore on me because it’s so long, so I felt worse and worse,” said Cowen. “I kind of just got used to how bad I was feeling so it didn’t even seem that bad anymore. It was the new normal.

“Then after that year, I kind of had a hernia and I played the whole next year with that hernia without knowing. It hurt a lot. I couldn’t skate well, so I just had surgery last summer.

“I’m just trying to get rid of all those symptoms I’m having but they just keep building up.”

Cowen has played only five games since Jan. 1 – he claims the Senators were reluctant to use him after he requested a trade – and doesn’t have a timetable for his debut with the Leafs.

When he arrived in Toronto as part of the Dion Phaneuf trade on Feb. 9, he was told to take some time to get healthy. That’s where things stand now.

There is the potential for reclamation here, with the Leafs in the middle of a patient teardown and Cowen having some ties with Mike Babcock through their affiliation with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. Babcock certainly isn’t talking in a manner that suggests Cowen’s stay is going to be short-term.

“His hip is very tight,” he said. “So we’re doing everything we can – he’s been skating and working and stretching, but an injury that happened in 2012 just doesn’t loosen up over night. So his power in his hip, it’s affected his skating obviously for a long time.

“What we’re trying to do is catch him doing it right – and by doing that we’ve got to get him to be at a level so that he play and be confident in his ability to skate and turn.”

In the meantime, Cowen is slowly adjusting to life in the big city and hoping he gets a chance to get his career back on track soon.

There will be a degree of uncertainty to his situation even if he isn’t dealt at the deadline because Toronto could still move him in June before the buyout window closes.

However, all Cowen is focused on now is getting stronger and healthier.

“Since I’ve got here I feel a lot better,” he said. “The medical team here is really good, they’ve done a lot of work. I’ve been going on a little bit of my own schedule here, which kind of sucks because I’m not with the guys all the time, but it’s been good for me to focus on trying to get rid of all the things I’ve built up over the years from having those surgeries.”