• Leafs both a buyer and seller
• Team can operate $15 million above cap
• Shattenkirk open to extension if acquired?
The regime running the Toronto Maple Leafs has shown itself to be among the most creative at cap management in the entire league.
So as the March 1 trade deadline approaches we should not endeavour to label them either a buyer or seller – at least not in the traditional sense of those terms.
They could, however, be pegged a potential major player.
You see, the Leafs find themselves in a unique spot. They are currently hovering roughly $750,000 below the salary cap ceiling and will be on the hook for as much as $5.6-million in entry-level bonuses because of strong performances from rookie players.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that they should clear out as much cap space as possible to lessen the overage penalty they’re certain to carry into next season.
Toronto’s brass has another idea.
They quietly placed Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) earlier this season — giving themselves the flexibility to operate more than $15-million above the $73-million cap for the remainder of the year.
That unlocks a world of possibilities in a cap-strapped league, especially since the cap itself is projected to rise only minimally in 2017–18.
In fact, some executives out there believe that cap space is almost as big an asset as draft picks when it comes to completing trades. And Toronto owns more of it at the deadline than any team not restricted by an internal spending budget.
Here’s the real kicker: Given their current situation, the Leafs are arguably incentivized to convert that LTIR room into something tangible.
They’re facing a significant 2017–18 overage either way and the $750,000 extra hit they’d take for going above the cap now could theoretically be offset by what they get in exchange for doing it.
At this stage, adding an $800,000 depth player in a deadline trade would have the same long-term impact on Toronto’s cap picture as acquiring someone who makes $4.25 million or even $7 million. They could even fit in all three of those hypothetical players, assuming each is on an expiring deal.
That puts the Leafs in position to take a problem contract off another team’s books – for a handling fee, of course. It’s a similar strategy to the one they employed last season when they added picks and prospects while assuming the unwanted contracts of Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening and Raffi Torres.
It makes them both buyer and seller — a luxury they won’t enjoy for much longer.
But with their own roster chock-full of impact players on cost-controlled, entry-level contracts, the Leafs recognize that they’re operating in a window where they enjoy more cap flexibility than virtually everyone else in the league.
That gives them distinct leverage in a tangled trade market with the deadline looming.
They’re prepared to use it.
Strange as it may sound, the only truly “need” this organization has right now is stockpiling assets. Internally, they’re focused on building a team capable of dominating for a decade, not just one that ends the NHL’s longest Stanley Cup drought and fades away.
They need to keep filling the pipeline with quality draft picks and prospects.
In the longer term, the Leafs would like to acquire an impact defenceman but that doesn’t have to be accomplished via trade at this deadline.
If we’re identifying an ideal shorter-term addition, a depth forward would be nice. Preferably an experienced centre with the ability to kill penalties.
PENDING FREE AGENTS
Ben Smith, 28, $675,000
Roman Polak, 30, $2.25-millon
Matt Hunwick, 31, $1.2-million
Curtis McElhinney, 33, $800,000
Stephane Robidas, 39, $3-million
Brooks Laich, 33, $4.5-million
Milan Michalek, 32, $4-million
Colin Greening, 30, $2.65-million
POTENTIAL ASSETS TO MOVE
From the roster:
Roman Polak: The rugged defenceman helped net the Leafs two second-round picks from San Jose in a deadline deal last year and could be moved again if there’s another solid return out there.
Josh Leivo: He’s had a recent run of strong play and there’s been interest from other teams in the past. There doesn’t appear to be a long-term fit for Leivo in Toronto.
On the farm:
Forward Brendan Leipsic. Currently working his way back from a suspected concussion, the 22-year-old is having an excellent season for the AHL Marlies. He'd probably be in the NHL already if the organization wasn't stocked with so many quality young forwards.
2017: 1st, *2nd (own), *2nd (SJ), *2nd (OTT)
2018: 1st, 2nd (own), 2nd (SJ)
*The middle of Toronto’s three 2017 second-round picks will be sent to Anaheim to complete the Frederik Andersen trade.
ONE BOLD MOVE THE TEAM COULD MAKE:
Trading for Kevin Shattenkirk. This doesn’t seem to jive with management’s long-term philosophy, but it would unquestionably improve the odds of getting in the playoffs. The fact Shattenkirk is believed to be open to signing an extension with the Leafs is notable.
BUT THE MAPLE LEAFS SHOULDN'T...
Trade William Nylander. This has strangely become a topic set on loop in Toronto, where perception doesn’t often fall in line with reality. Down the road, when the Leafs start paying the kids big bucks, it’s possible that they’ll have to contemplate it. Right now — when a 20-year-old Nylander is earning under $2 million (including bonuses) and on pace to produce nearly 60 points — it doesn’t make much sense.