5 ways for the Toronto Maple Leafs to create some cap space

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas says everyone needs to be evaluated in the organization from top to bottom, and it has to start with him, but wouldn't give any guarantee to anyone.

No wonder Kyle Dubas’s first answer in his season-ending press conference included the phrase “long summer.”

If only the general manager had a million salary-cap dollars for every headache he’s about to face with a Toronto Maple Leafs roster facing inevitable change.

“It’s the first time in seven years where the team I was most primarily involved with [has] been done in the first round,” the rookie GM said last week. “That part was certainly disappointing; it’s not a feeling you want to get used to.

“Everyone in the room knows the business we have to attend to over the summer and how imperative it is for the growth and development of our program, so we’ll get to that right away.”

Even if the 2019-20 salary cap raises to its projected $83 million and even if Dubas let all his unrestricted free agents walk, he’d still only have about $8.8 million left over to keep key RFAs Mitchell Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, plus fill the minutes-munching gaps in his defence corps left by UFAs Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey.

The first step, Dubas says, is signing his leading scorer, Marner: “He is priority one for us, and we’ll get right to it.”

In order to make the rest of the pieces fit, however, something has to give.

“With how fluid the situation is, I wouldn’t give any guarantee to anybody in our whole organization,” Dubas said. “We’ll do what we think is best, and we’ll let you know when we know.”

Here are five not-so-easy ways Dubas can ease his cap issues. Pain is coming.

1. Let the free agents walk

Jake Gardiner, UFA
Just as the Maple Leafs could’ve used Tyler Bozak winning a defensive-zone draw or James van Riemsdyk tidying up a power-play rebound in their first-round loss to Boston, this one hurts.

Like the long-serving Leafs who left town last summer, Jake Gardiner’s departure on July 1 — barring a dump trade for his negotiating rights — feels like a necessary evil. Dubas simply cannot match the riches the puck mover will fetch elsewhere, bad back be damned.

As difficult as Gardiner’s experience and breakouts will be missed, his leaving is the reason Babcock looked at Travis Dermott moments after the Game 7 loss and proclaimed, “He’s got to get a lot better.”

The Leafs’ locker cleanout felt like an unofficial wake for Gardiner’s eight-year tenure in town.

“One of the things that is sad for me, particularly about Jake, is that Jake has been a driving force from 2014, walking in here the first day, to where it is now, it’s night and day,” said Dubas, showing the door with kindness.

“Jake has been such a huge part of turning this franchise around, and I don’t think one game or a series of games should change that. I think in time the way that people view Jake will be so positive. People will be so appreciative of what he’s done with the group.”

Ron Hainsey, UFA
“Even if I had a plan, I wouldn’t tell you what it was,” media darling Ron Hainsey told Leafs reporters before he embarked on summer vacation.

If the 38-year-old elects to retire, it shouldn’t be for lack of offers.

No NHL free agent registered a better plus/minus than Hainsey’s plus-30, which rated him sixth-overall league-wide in the category. It’s a benefit of riding shotgun to Morgan Rielly up-ice and knowing where to stand in his own zone. As troublesome as Toronto’s penalty kill was, how much worse could it be without Hainsey, Babcock’s most trusted killer?

No doubt 20-plus minutes a night for a man of Hainsey’s vintage and foot speed is too burdensome a workload and $3 million (his current cap hit) is too pricy for a bottom-pairing D-man.

Dubas knows well the analytics of the aging player, but there are worse ideas than bringing Hainsey back on a one-year extension at a reduced rate, if he’s willing. He’s the rare Toronto lefty whose skill-set translates seamlessly to the right side and a positive voice in the ear of a young D corps with much to learn.

And the rest
At less than a million bucks a pop, Tyler Ennis (UFA), Igor Ozhiganov (RFA) and Martin Marincin (UFA) are all candidates to find work somewhere other than Toronto in 2019-20.

Ozhiganov and Marincin were healthy scratches when the season was on the line, with Babcock opting instead for banged-up Gardiner-Dermott pairing.

Ennis excelled in his role as a versatile, bargain-buy 13th forward, scooping the club’s 2019 Bill Masterton Trophy nomination in the process, but he’ll earn more money, term and opportunity elsewhere.

2. Trade a roster player (or two)

William Nylander, $6.96 million cap hit through 2023-24
Dubas accepted full blame for Nylander’s underwhelming seven-goal, 20-assist campaign because the sides waited until the 11th hour to put pen on paper. “It’s not acceptable,” Dubas said. “It didn’t set William up to have success.”

But what Dubas should get some credit for is making the Nylander contract transferrable — should it come to that.

By frontloading $12 million in salary for 2018-19 and shelling out a juicy $8.3 million signing bonus cheque on July 1, the dynamic, versatile forward will only cost his employer $6 million in real money from 2020-21 through 2023-24.

Nylander turns 23 years old this week and showed his ability to play centre, filling in for the suspended Nazem Kadri in Round 1. He has said that Dubas assured him he won’t be dealt, but no formal trade protection kicks in until 2023.

Among those listed here, we believe Nylander holds the longest odds of being traded — last autumn’s epic contract saga would be a heck of a battle to endure for a player you don’t want — but starting July 2, there’d certainly be interest.

St. Louis and Carolina already kicked tires, and you wonder if teams like Los Angeles and Minnesota, who must get younger, faster and score more, would explore their options here.

Patrick Marleau, $6.25 million cap hit through 2019-20
From the day Marleau signed in Toronto, all concerns zeroed in on this upcoming third year, when he’ll be 40 years old and the Matthews and Marner raises kick in.

On paper, Marleau’s the cap hit that will cost an emerging Leafs winger his job by September.

“That’s going to be something to Kyle. That’s his job,” Marleau said on locker cleanout day. “That’s tough to swallow, being a tight group.”

We dove into the Marleau conundrum in detail here. Due to Marleau’s being over age 35, the deal is buyout-proof. Barring a trade or sudden failed physical exam, Toronto is on the hook for his full cap hit.

Still, poor Marleau’s name has become the most frequently searched on CapFriendly.com’s buyout calculator.

Once Marleau collects his $3 million signing bonus on July 1, he’ll only be owed $1.25 million in salary over the course of the 2019-20 season, which could make him more palatable in a trade. The catch here: He has a full no-movement clause, and we have a difficult time seeing him uprooting his family again for anywhere that’s not California.

Marleau is certainly a useful player on and off the ice, even as he settles into a bottom-six role, and Dubas would have to nudge him out. He’s not volunteering.

Nazem Kadri, $4.5 million cap hit through 2021-22
All the reasons for keeping Kadri are the all the reasons for moving him.

He’s on a reasonable contract with term, centre depth is at a premium in the NHL, and he’s precisely the type of X-factor that can make a great team better — if he’s in the lineup.

Kadri’s consecutive playoff suspensions rankled the franchise enough that the Leafs stopped bringing him to road games and had Babcock wondering aloud if he could be trusted again.

“Temperance is a major point,” Dubas said. “It’s a major challenge for him character-wise, and talking to him, I think with all that he brings and how important he is to our group, we need to help him as well. It’s not just on him. We need to do everything we can to make sure he keeps himself available, and we’ll do that.”

Connor Brown, $2.1 million cap hit through 2019-20
Brown’s name popped up in trade deadline discussions, and we expect it to make the rounds again in the days leading up to the NHL Draft.

Poor Brown. As a 20-goal rookie and giddy-to-be-here local guy, the blue-collar winger conceded to a team-friendly bridge extension in 2017 that could see him ousted in the off-season. (I did find it notable that he was one of a select few not brought out to speak during the season-ending media availability.)

Sliding to fourth line when everyone was healthy at season’s end, the 25-year-old has become more dispensable, and his goal total (eight) dropped for the second consecutive year.

As much as Babcock appreciates him, Brown is a prime candidate to be replaced with entry-level labour and would excel elsewhere. He kills penalties, is responsible defensively (plus-11), doesn’t miss games (three straight 82-gamers) and does the dirty work pure-skill guys appreciate.

Nikita Zaitsev, $4.5 million cap hit through 2023-24
Hard to think the Maple Leafs would want to rid themselves of their only regular right shot, but Zaitsev has not lived up to the $31.5-million contract Lou Lamoriello (not Dubas) handed him, and his name was bandied about during mid-season trade discussions.

Despite getting top-four minutes and forming a decent shutdown partner with Jake Muzzin late, Zaitsev doesn’t contribute offence, and there are too many nights he struggles in his own end. Budget teams might appreciate Zaitsev’s penalty killing and cost certainty.

Zaitsev will turn 28 years old in the first month of next season. Is this his peak?

3. Bridge, trade, or let an opponent offer-sheet the RFAs

Andreas Johnsson
The 24-year-old, late-blooming support player was sluggish this fall in following up his Calder Cup MVP performance, but his confidence and production exploded in the second half of the season, particularly once he saw prime minutes on Auston Matthews’s flank.

Most teams would be thrilled to keep a 20-goal, 43-point rookie who can chip in on the power play and get his nose dirty in front of the net.

But extension talks with Johnsson’s camp did not go so well this winter, and in order to keep the Swede past his entry-level deal at a reasonable cap hit, a bridge pact makes the most sense.

Johnsson is eligible for arbitration and could well be headed there. If he’s not traded and he’s unwilling to sign a contract that begins with a two, we could see this stalemate lasting into midsummer.

Kasperi Kapanen
Starting out buried on the fourth line, 22-year-old Kapanen leaped into the top six during Nylander’s stalemate and finished with 20 goals and 44 points, despite being used significantly more on the penalty kill than the power play.

The speedy Finn’s trade value is high, but the club loves the trajectory of his development. The push will be to keep him under $3 million. Kapanen and Johnsson are precisely the types of player susceptible to a mid-level offer sheet because the cost would be low and Dubas is in a pickle.

Like Johnsson, Dubas met with Kapanen’s representation around the deadline, but not enough traction was made to seal a deal, and Marner remains the priority.

Unlike Johnsson, Kapanen doesn’t hold arbitration rights, so there is potential for his situation to remain unsolved into the fall.

4. Find an island for Nathan Horton’s contract

The 2019-20 season marks the final year remaining on Nathan Horton’s contract, a leftover from the David Clarkson glory days.

Toronto has been carrying Horton’s $5.3 million cap hit on the books up until this point, but in light of the impending crunch, Dubas could slide the Horton deal onto off-season long-term injured reserve (LTIR), giving himself a payroll cushion and allowing the club to temporarily exceed the cap.

Another, more creative option for in-season relief would be packaging Horton’s paperwork with something more enticing (a draft pick or prospect) as part of a trade with a cap-floor team happy to use its cap space to its advantage (see: Clarkson to Vegas, Dave Bolland and Pavel Datsyuk to Coyotes, et al.).

5. Embrace cheap labour

When you have three forwards raking eight figures (assuming Marner signs for $10 million minimum), it goes without saying that your middle class will suffer.

Due to their confirmed sub-$1-million salaries alone, Trevor Moore, Calle Rosen, Frederik Gauthier, Justin Holl, Nic Petan and Garret Sparks are now in a position where they’d have to play their way off the 2019-20 roster.

How many of the next wave of Marlies — Rasmus Sandin, Jeremy Bracco, Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Andreas Borgman — can follow in the footsteps of Dermott, Moore, Johansson and Kapanen and make the cheap leap?


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