6 Maple Leafs who could be traded to ease the cap crunch

Toronto Maple Leafs' Andreas Johnsson (18) celebrates his goal with William Nylander (29) and Patrick Marleau (12). (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Mitchell Marner stood at the north end of the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room the morning after Auston Matthews was guaranteed $58.17 million and surveyed the banks of name plates.

“It’s a great contract for him. I’m very happy for him. It’s great for this team as well,” Marner said. “We all want, including myself, to be a Leaf for a long time — and I’m sure that’ll happen.”

Despite this week’s agent-fuelled drama, we’re certain Marner will re-sign in Toronto.

But with Toronto likely carrying three star forwards with eight-digit AAVs — Matthews, Marner and John Tavares — into 2019-20 and beyond, something’s gotta give.

The Matthews deal, coach Mike Babcock says, “allows us to understand where we’re at and then you know what you can do.”

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The Leafs’ trickle-down economics will push one or two middle-class residents out of the room this summer and put an even greater emphasis on the importance of cheap, role-playing labour provided this season by the likes of Par Lindholm ($975,000) and Tyler Ennis ($650,000), both of whom will deserve modest raises of their own come July 1.

Fourth-line centre Frederik Gauthier ($675,000) and winger Trevor Moore ($775,000), who don’t have a guaranteed spot on the current roster when everyone’s at full health, are expected to become regulars in 2019-20 – valued for their bargain-basement price points but also because, at 23 years old, both forwards are projecting upwards in their development.

Unless Jake Gardiner wants to win here so badly that he’s willing to take — what, $2 million? — less to remain a Leaf, this is last spring in blue and white.

Igor Ozhiganov (RFA) and Ron Hainsey (UFA) have tumbled down or out of the lineup since Jake Muzzin crashed the party, and there’s no guarantee either returns next season.

Righty Ozhiganov, 26, did not leave the KHL to join the Marlies.

We suspect Babcock would appreciate Hainsey’s leadership and stability on his third pairing again, and the American did move his family here two years ago, but he’ll be 38 when the puck drops on the 2019-20 season, and Dubas hasn’t given a major-league contract to anyone over the age of 29 since he got the gig.

Like Moore, expect 25-year-old defenceman Calle Rosen ($750,000 cap hit through 2021) to get promoted for a similar reason. Maybe Justin Holl ($650,000) finally gets a legitimate shot, too.

The decisions up front will be even more difficult. And that’s where the trade speculation will swirl.

So, let’s look, in brief, at the candidates Dubas could move, ordered from least to most desirable.

It’s a business, and it can be harsh. They won’t all be lifelong Leafs.

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William Nylander, $6.96 million cap hit through 2024

The $12 million in salary the Leafs are paying Nylander this season and the juicy $8.3 million signing bonus cheque they’ll cut him on July 1 helps the player with cash up front, but such a structure also makes the contract more transferrable.

This means the dynamic, versatile forward will only cost his club $6 million in real money from 2020-21 through 2023-24. Nylander 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 — this autumn’s epic contract saga would be a heck of a battle to endure for a player you don’t want, and the Swede is back to buzzing again — but starting July 2, there’d certainly be interest.

Patrick Marleau, $6.25 million cap hit through 2020

It’s not the player; it’s the term. From the day Marleau signed in Toronto, all concerns zeroed in on that third year, when he’ll be 40 years old and the Matthews and Marner raises kick in.

On paper, this is the cap hit that will cost an emerging Leafs winger his job by September.

The deal is virtually buyout-proof: 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 schedule. So while we still believe there’s an outside chance Marleau ends his career back in San Jose, any waiving of his no-movement clause would be the player’s choice. We can’t see Marleau — adoptive father of the franchise’s fresh faces and the most universally beloved member of the dressing room — getting the Robidas Island treatment.

Plus, he’s still a useful player on and off the ice, even as he trends from a top-line to third-line threat.

“There’s ebbs and flows. If you look at Patty’s career, he’s been like that a bit too. He’s had some moments where it wasn’t going as good,” Babcock defends.

“When you’re 25 and it doesn’t go as good, everyone says, ‘No big deal.’ When you start getting higher, they always say, ‘Oh, the wheels are off, you’re done.’ The wheels ain’t off. He ain’t done.”

Kasperi Kapanen, $863,333 cap hit through 2019

Kapanen has been absolutely soaring this season, the 22-year-old’s first full one at the NHL level. After starting on the fourth line, he made the most of his opportunity to leap into the top six during Nylander’s stalemate. He’s on pace for a 47-point campaign, despite being used significantly more on the penalty kill than the power play.

His trade value is high, but the team loves the trajectory of his development. The push will be to keep him under $3 million. Kapanen and Andreas 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 bind.

“Those are relatively both rookies, so both getting their feet wet in the league, and they’ve developed well under Mike and his staff this year after graduating from the Marlies last year, so we’re just continuing to see them grow and mature,” Dubas said.

“We know they need contracts as well, but we’ll continue to let the season play out and let that sample size grow. We’ll begin having some discussions with their people probably after the trade deadline.”

Andreas Johnsson, $787,500 cap hit through 2019

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 have exploded of late, despite being limited to fourth-line status.

On Monday, Johnsson became the first Leaf since Kyle Wellwood (2005) to rack up four points in less than 12 minutes, and he sniped again on Wednesday. Fearless on the forecheck, he meshes Connor Brown’s work ethic with sharper offensive instincts.

“He’s making a case,” Babcock said. “The great thing about him is, he hasn’t sat there and said, ‘I’m not getting any minutes.’ He just decided to produce and see if the coach is smart enough to get it figured out.”

Like Kapanen, the Leafs like the player but won’t like what he’ll cost them.

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Connor Brown, $2.1 million cap hit through 2020

Poor Brown. As a 20-goal rookie and giddy-to-be-here local guy, Brown conceded to a very team-friendly bridge extension in 2017 that could well see him ousted in 2019.

Sliding to the bottom six, the 24-year-old has become more dispensable than Babcock favourite Zach Hyman and his goal total is about to drop for the second consecutive year.

How he’s currently deployed on a deep Toronto club makes him a candidate to be replaced with entry-level labour, but Brown would excel elsewhere. He kills penalties, is responsible defensively (plus-11), doesn’t miss games and does the dirty work pure-skill guys appreciate.

Some baseless speculation: old Erie pal Connor McDavid would love Brown’s character and relentlessness in Edmonton.

Nikita Zaitsev, $4.5 million cap hit through 2024

Hard to think the Maple Leafs would want to allocate less money to their blue line, or 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.

He’s 27. Despite getting top-four minutes, his production is set to decline for the second year, and there are too many nights he struggles in his own end.

Would Dubas eat some salary to facilitate a move? How worrisome would it be to see Holl shoot to the right-shot depth chart? Will either Timothy Liljegren or Rasmus Sandin (who both battled injury this season) be ready to make the jump in 2019-20? The Leafs’ D depth is in for a shock once Gardiner walks.

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