Beyond Headlines: Injuries, salary cap could leave Leafs short-staffed

Chris Johnston and Elliotte Friedman break down the latest news from around the NHL, with the Maple Leafs facing roster decisions as injured players return and the Minnesota Wild struggle.

‘Beyond Headlines’ is a deeper dive into some of the stories — and even some that weren’t — discussed each week on Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘Headlines’ segment.

When Andreas Johnsson blocked a shot and hobbled off the ice at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night, it must have sent a chill through the Toronto Maple Leafs management box.

First and foremost, because Johnsson has become a key member of the team.

But also because the Leafs can ill afford to weather injury-related absences this season due to their perilous salary cap situation.

Now it sounds like Johnsson avoided any serious issues in this instance, with head coach Mike Babcock telling reporters his X-ray came back negative. But even minor problems — such as small aches and strains, or illness, or a suspension — could force Toronto
into playing undermanned with fewer than the 20 skaters typically dressed for games in the weeks and months ahead.

It won’t truly get interesting until Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Zach Hyman (knee) are activated off long-term injured reserve, something that can’t happen before next Saturday. Both have been skating with the team for weeks now so it’s reasonable to expect their returns to come around that time.

In order to make room for both Dermott and Hyman while remaining cap compliant, the Leafs will likely need to clear four current depth contracts off the NHL roster. Nic Petan and Kevin Gravel both make sense since they’ve already cleared waivers and can be sent directly to the AHL. Beyond them, Toronto would still have to remove two more players from a group that includes Nick Shore, Jason Spezza, Dmytro Timashov, Martin Marincin and Justin Holl.

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

Each of those players needs to clear waivers before being sent to the Marlies. A trade is also possible, with my colleague Elliotte Friedman reporting on "Headlines" that the Leafs have already made Petan available to other teams.

This is all predicated on the assumption that John Tavares won’t be placed on LTI with his recently broken finger — an outcome that seems unlikely since the Leafs announced a two-week recovery for their captain on Thursday and the earliest he could return is Nov. 10 if he’s given that roster designation.

Taken as a whole, the Leafs might only be carrying 20 healthy players as soon as a week from now.

Should that end up being the case, they’d have to go into a game with an empty roster spot if anyone else suffered a minor injury and became unavailable. If two or three players went down at the same time? That would mean two or three empty roster spots.

Fortunately, the collective bargaining agreement guarantees that those would only be one-off events — with Section 50.10 (e) calling for a "Roster Emergency Exception" that permits teams to bring in reinforcements once they’ve played a game with fewer than 18 skaters and two goalies.

The only condition on those call-ups is that players can’t carry a cap hit above $800,000, which is part of the reason why Toronto loaded up on affordable depth options this summer. (It also means, incidentally, that Rasmus Sandin and his $894,167 cap hit is excluded from a potential emergency recall under these circumstances).

One of the consequences of all the big-money contracts the Leafs have given their stars over the last 15 months is the serious potential for unusual lineups in 2019-20.

Given the physical nature of this sport and the unrelenting NHL schedule, it doesn’t just seem likely the Leafs are going to play short-staffed at some point this season.

It’s inevitable.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

TKACHUK vs. DOUGHTY

Brian Burke has some fantastic hockey tales.

If only they were all suitable to be told on-air.

Fortunately, the origin story behind the Matthew Tkachuk/Drew Doughty feud was safe for a family audience and Big Burkie did a great job of illustrating that during Saturday’s broadcast. If you missed it, it’s well worth your time to watch:

One detail Burkie omitted here that he shared with us backstage is that when Tkachuk was told in warmups that he had to fight Brayden McNabb, he responded: "Is he tough?"

The rookie wasn’t entirely sure who he was being squared off with.

That’s why Tkachuk initially went after Jake Muzzin, only to find out he had engaged the wrong designated dance partner. Former Kings coach Darryl Sutter made it easy for him on the next faceoff when he had the defenceman line up beside him in the circle.

WOUNDED WILD

The hard part for Bill Guerin wasn’t getting the general manager’s job with the Minnesota Wild.

It’s going to be doing it.

We’re only seven games into Guerin’s front-office tenure and the team he inherited looks old, slow and talent-deprived. The Wild are 1-6-0 entering play Sunday and have seven players on the wrong side of 30 with at least another year beyond this one remaining on their contracts.

This looks like a big project.

Guerin is vowing to take a patient approach, which is the only sensible thing to do when you bear no responsibility for creating the mess but will eventually be graded on the clean-up job. No need to rush into anything. The first-time GM, hired Aug. 22 following Paul Fenton’s abrupt dismissal, watched two games this week alongside owner Craig Leipold and wants to get a proper lay of the land before making deals.

Changes are coming, but they’re going to be thoughtful changes rather than emotional ones made in haste under the cloud of this dispiriting start.

FANTASY POOL ALERT!
Play the Sportsnet Fantasy Hockey Pool presented by RAM for your chance to drive away with a 2020 RAM 1500 Sport or win cash prizes! It's FREE and easy to play!

EXTENDING RFA’s

The great summer of restricted free agents has given way to the great fall of restricted free agents.

There’s been a rush to lock up young talent early, with Nico Hischier becoming the latest to eliminate a potential headache by signing a $50.75-million, seven-year extension in New Jersey on Friday.

That followed the recent deals given to Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat, Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot, Arizona’s Clayton Keller and Colorado’s Samuel Girard — deals that could just as easily have waited until next summer since they’re not going to kick in until the 2020-21 season.

However, there seems to be less appetite than ever before to wait. These negotiations tend to get more difficult rather than easier with time, something that could be observed in the dragged-out Mitch Marner/Matthew Tkachuk/Patrik Laine/Kyle Connor/Mikko Rantanen talks.

The next player to watch is Mathew Barzal of the New York Islanders. There’s no urgency to his situation, but the team has expressed interest in exploring an early resolution with the flashy centre.

Barzal will likely end up as the highest-paid member of the 2020 RFA class. His numbers compare favourably to Marner’s through two NHL seasons and he’s started Year 3 with seven points in eight games.

SUPER STUTZLE

It is not very difficult for scouts to identify Tim Stützle after making the trip over to Germany to watch him play with Adler Mannheim.

As a 17-year-old in a men’s league, he wears a full cage.

And as one of the top projected picks for the 2020 NHL draft, he possesses a set of skills rarely seen in the DEL. Stützle put on a show with five points in Friday’s 8-3 win over the Augsberger Panthers, including this incredible assist to Ben Smith that must have reminded Smith of a certain former Chicago Blackhawks teammate.

There is an early buzz building around Stützle in his draft year. He started the season as a projected top-15 pick, but some believe he’ll climb inside the top-10 or perhaps even the top-5 when the selections are made at the Bell Centre in June.

The dynamic quality to his game is difficult to ignore. Scouts are monitoring his progress closely.

BOLTS’ BURDEN

Jon Cooper calls it the elephant in the room.

The shock of last year’s 62-win regular season and subsequent four-game sweep by Columbus in the first round of the playoffs.

That’s why the Tampa Bay Lightning coach hasn’t shied away from discussing the heart-breaking 2018-19 campaign — both behind the scenes with his players and during media scrums. He recently told reporters: "I’d be lying if I didn’t think there was a burden carried over."

Tampa is off to a ho-hum start: 4-3-1 following Saturday’s 6-2 loss to smoking-hot Colorado. These are still very early days, but the Lightning have been outshot, out-chanced and out-attempted at even strength. They are not nearly as dominant on specialty teams, either, scuffling along at a 70 per cent penalty kill rate after losing trusted soldiers Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi in the off-season.

The results don’t scream powerhouse just yet.

And that’s OK.

In the autopsy of what went wrong during last year’s playoffs, some around the Lightning believe it was tied directly to how much went right for them in the regular season. That they lost their edge while barnstorming the league for six months.

"I think we got comfortable," said goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. "Obviously we were good — everybody thinks [so]. That’s why we won the Presidents’ Trophy with 10 games left in the regular season. I think we kind of let ourselves go, kind of relaxed.

"Probably in our minds it was like ‘In the playoffs we’ll be all right because we are great in the regular season.’ Playoffs, of course, it’s a different game, a different work ethic and probably that’s why.

"But that’s experience and I hope we’ll be better this season. We’ll be smarter."

It already looks like they’ll have to endure a little more struggle along the way. That may not be the worst thing for them.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.