Beyond Headlines: Maple Leafs have cap room to make trades at deadline

The Hockey Night in Canada panel discusses the expected contract extension between Jake Muzzin and the Toronto Maple Leafs, season-ending injuries around the NHL, and Evander Kane lashing out on social media after his suspension.

This was supposed to be the year the Toronto Maple Leafs were haunted by the salary cap.

When they made Mitchell Marner the NHL’s second-highest paid winger on the second day of training camp, it looked like they were bound to have a season so tight to the upper limit that it would include games they couldn’t even dress a full roster.

What’s that saying again?

“We plan, God laughs.”

Here the Leafs sit a week out from the Feb. 24 trade deadline and they are flush with the space needed to make short-term additions. With injuries mounting, Toronto could bring in as much as $10.6-million in cap commitments for the remainder of the year without even taking a player off its roster.

Now, there are a few caveats to throw in here.

This assumes that Morgan Rielly (broken foot) and Cody Ceci (high-ankle sprain) are both done for the regular season. Despite an encouraging update on Rielly’s recovery from head coach Sheldon Keefe on Friday, there’s been no indication from management that he’ll be back before the April 4 regular-season finale.

Until told otherwise, we have to assume the Leafs are willing to use his $5-million in long-term injury relief to make a deal. Rielly could then be activated during the playoffs when the salary cap disappears — along with Ceci and forwards Ilya Mikheyev and Andreas Johnsson, should the team play long enough for their health allow it.

Kyle Dubas is not a big believer in chasing rental players at the deadline and has been hoping to add a defenceman with term this year. That’s put the general manager’s focus on a player-for-player transaction, rather than the future asset-for-current asset swaps we typically see in February.

“We would want someone to move the needle for us in the long run, not in the short run,” Dubas told reporters earlier this month. “Unless it was a perfect deal, I think it would have to be something in the long run.”

The circumstances have changed.

With Ceci and Johnsson going down, it’s opened the door to new possibilities. The Leafs would no doubt still prefer to address long-range issues rather than simply today’s needs, but they also have the room to accommodate the salary of any pending unrestricted free agent on the market.

No one would have guessed they’d find themselves in this position five months ago, let alone five weeks ago.

Will they adjust their focus because of the cascading circumstances?

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.

KANE’S COMMENTS

Evander Kane has every right to express his opinion and George Parros, the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, understands that he signed up for scrutiny when he took this job.

However, what Saturday’s strongly-worded statement from Kane underlines is how difficult it is to mete out supplementary discipline in a sport where no two incidents are ever exactly the same.

Kane was frustrated after receiving a three-game suspension for an elbow that he believes is similar to those that have gone unpunished in the past. He also pointed to a cross-check from Zdeno Chara to Brendan Gallagher’s chin from earlier in the week — a play that resulted in a $5,000 fine, but no suspension to the Boston Bruins captain.

While each of us may quibble with the individual decisions rendered — I would have preferred to see Zack Kassian receive more than a seven-game suspension, for example, because of the incredibly dangerous nature of his kick to Erik Cernak’s chest — it’s hard to criticize the process used by the player safety department.

They are incredibly diligent in marking and reviewing questionable plays. They watch more games, more closely, than anyone in hockey. And they take a serious approach when it comes to meting out punishment.

Bringing in a third party without the institutional knowledge possessed by the DoPS carries no guarantee that the level of satisfaction with these decisions will improve.

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COACHING CAROUSEL

Another week, another coaching change.

Eight teams have turned to a different voice behind the bench this season after the Minnesota Wild replaced Bruce Boudreau with Dean Evason on Friday.

There’s no reason to forecast a quiet off-season, either.

Not only are decisions pending on four interim head coaches — Evason, Rick Bowness (Dallas), Geoff Ward (Calgary) and Alain Nasreddine (New Jersey) — but there’s also the usual performance-related changes to anticipate.

Add in a crop of free-agent replacements that includes Boudreau, Peter Laviolette and Mike Babcock, and, well, here’s guessing there’s much more to come.

GOING OUTSIDE

By the end of next season, the NHL will have staged 32 outdoor games — enough for each team to have hosted one.

Of course, there are still plenty of clubs clamouring for their chance, which is what made Saturday’s announcement of a 2020-21 Stadium Series game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., stand out.

The Carolina Hurricanes were chosen as hosts for three main reasons: Tom Dundon has been persistent in his pursuit of one since becoming owner; the tremendous reaction to the team locally in the last year-plus, particularly during last spring’s playoff run; and the overriding belief that it’s time to reward different markets coming off the success of the Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

The door appears to be open to Nashville, Arizona, Vegas and Tampa, among others, to get in on the outdoor act in years to come.

And, as colleague Elliotte Friedman has previously reported, Edmonton remains on track to host another Heritage Classic outdoors during the 2021-22 season.

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OF NOTE

• The NHL and NHL Players’ Association are scheduled to resume collective bargaining discussions this Wednesday and Thursday in New York. Last week’s talks were the first since September.

Washington Capitals defenceman John Carlson is currently on pace for 98 points and could become the first blue-liner since Ray Bourque in 1993-94 to hit 90.

• With Erik Karlsson due to have season-ending surgery on a broken thumb, San Jose has more than $17-million in LTI space at its disposal (according to capfriendly.com). The Sharks could turn some of that into assets by taking on expiring deals from cap-challenged teams.

Zach Bogosian is weighing his options after clearing waivers and being assigned to AHL Rochester by the Buffalo Sabres. He’s still owed more than $1.5-million in salary this season and needs to report to keep being paid.

Jack Campbell already has three wins for the Maple Leafs since coming over in a trade from Los Angeles. If he wins three more games this season, the Kings get a 2021 second-round pick from Toronto rather than a third.

• Shane Wright, an underage forward for the Kingston Frontenacs who turned 16 in January, has amassed 59 points in 49 games, giving him a better points-per game mark (1.20) than Connor McDavid (1.05) had in the Ontario Hockey League at the same age.

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