TORONTO – Dave Nonis may not get the final say on how the remaining pieces of the Toronto Maple Leafs roster are fit under the $64.3-million salary cap.
An arbitrator could be involved as well.
Maple Leafs defencemen Carl Gunnarsson and Mark Fraser filed for player-elected salary arbitration prior to Wednesday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline and will have their contracts decided by a neutral third party if a deal with the team can’t be reached in the next couple weeks.
Toronto still has four unsigned restricted free agents in total — Cody Franson and Nazem Kadri are also in need of new deals — with under $10 million in open cap space to spread between them.
In what has been a busy off-season so far, the RFAs haven’t been a major priority for Leafs management.
That will change now.
Arbitration hearings are slated to be heard between July 22 and Aug. 2 — the meeting schedule will be finalized on Friday — and in most cases teams and players would rather reach a deal on their own to avoid the potentially contentious process.
However, Nonis hinted last week that negotiations with his restricted free agents were proceeding slowly.
“We’re still slugging along,” he said. “That may take a little while.”
Gunnarsson and Fraser were mainstays on Toronto’s blue-line last season and are expected to continue filling a similar role moving forward.
The biggest challenge is getting them signed to deals that will leave enough money for Kadri and Franson as well. That won’t be easy with all four players in search of raises.
Toronto has held a number of discussions with Gunnarsson’s agent, J.P. Barry, who expressed hope that a contract would be reached before the sides were scheduled to make their case in front of an arbitrator.
“We’ve had some good discussions on longer-term options for Carl and expect those to continue next week,” Barry told sportsnet.ca on Wednesday night.
The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement sets out very specific criteria for the arbitration process.
The party that is being drawn into it — in this case, the Leafs — decides whether the arbitrator will make a ruling for a one- or two-year deal.
Both sides consent to accept the arbitrator’s decision — except in cases where a contract in excess of $3.5 million is awarded. When that happens, a team can choose to sign the deal or walk away from the player and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.
Assuming that neither of the defencemen gets a deal worth that much in arbitration, the Leafs would have no choice but to allow the neutral third party to determine two of the final spots on their salary grid.
That isn’t ideal.
Nonis has tried to be extremely careful with that amount of money spent on returning players this summer.
“We have to be mindful of how much we’re committing,” he said last month. “We want to make sure that we have the ability to take advantage of opportunities that come our way.
“If you don’t have cap space you’re locked into players that might be eating up too much of that cap space and you’re going to put yourself in a difficult situation.”
If he can’t agree to a deal with Gunnarsson or Fraser before arbitration starts later this month, the decision will be taken out of his hands.