Johnston: Don’t fall in love with these Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer, right, will become a restricted free agent in the off-season, while Dion Phaneuf, left, becomes a UFA. (AP/Charles Krupa)

TORONTO – Even though Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis has only just solidified his lineup for this season-signing defenceman Cody Franson to a cap-friendly $2-million, one-year deal on Thursday-he’ll have to start charting the road ahead immediately. And if you’re a fan of this version of the team, don’t get too comfortable. Nonis has plenty of big decisions looming in the coming year, and change is inevitable.

Call it the cold, hard reality of the salary cap.

The NHL’s latest projections for 2014-15 have the ceiling being set at roughly $67-million, which would put Toronto in a tough spot. It’s hard to imagine there being enough money to spread among the eight pending unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents now on the books. Some of the decisions could come in the near term, too — either in the form of trades or contract extensions.

The latter would mark a change in approach for Leafs management for a group that has not faced many summers as tricky as the next one looks to be. “In the past, you never negotiated contracts during the season but at this point in time, you may have to start,” said assistant GM Claude Loiselle.

Even though the Franson standoff ended with him signing for less than market value, it was significant that the Leafs gave in on his demands for a one-year deal. They had previously been set on a two-year extension to try and bring a little more certainty to the roster moving forward. At present, Toronto has just 10 players signed beyond this season and one of them, John-Michael Liles, might not even crack the roster out of training camp this year.

Sportsnet’s season preview of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Deciding what to do with top scorer Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf — both of whom are eligible to test the open market in July — could end up defining Nonis’s tenure in Toronto. It might take as much as $15-million per season to hang on to both and that would obviously come at the expense of other players.

Leafs who will be looking for a raise next summer include Jake Gardiner, James Reimer and Franson, who is hoping his next contract negotiation with the team goes a little smoother than the last two did. “They’ve got a job to do and that is to make everything work — I understand that,” he said. “This is where I want to be. This is my dream place to play. I’m hopeful that it’s a long-term deal coming up after this.”

The team’s top priority is almost certainly Kessel and it’s believed that some preliminary talks will be held with his camp in the coming days. The flashy winger has no intentions of negotiating during the season and if he stays true to that word then the immediate window to complete a deal closes Tuesday for at least six months. Either way, the salary cap promises to be a hot topic around the Leafs for at least the next calendar year.

Toronto is already facing the possibility of sending a short-handed squad to Montreal for the season opener because of cap considerations and the longer-term roster choices will only get more difficult, especially if the team continues having success on the ice. “It’s difficult,” said Loiselle. “Everybody wants a raise every year, but unfortunately (we can’t). We saw this coming and it’s a tough process.”

Player by player breakdown of Leafs roster

It’s worth noting that as recently as a couple weeks back many doubted that Nonis would be able to get Franson and Nazem Kadri signed with the $6-million in cap space he had remaining. Not only did he accomplish that, he also added veteran winger Mason Raymond while staying under that figure.

It will be interesting to see if Nonis has another bit of cap wizardry in his bag of tricks before next season. But in the meantime, the Toronto players entering the final year of their contracts haven’t seemed overly surprised by the lack of chatter about extensions. Many have taken note of what’s being going on and know that their futures are tied together. “(They had) a lot of things to get done,” said Reimer. “They’ve got a lot of things to evaluate.”

It’s a process that has already begun.

A look at the Maple Leafs’ pending free agents, with current cap hit, for the summer of 2014:

Unrestricted free agents

Dion Phaneuf ($6.5M)

Phil Kessel ($5.4M)

Dave Bolland ($3.375M)

Nikolai Kulemin ($2.8M)

Jay McClement ($1.5M)

Mark Fraser ($1.275M)

Paul Ranger ($1M)

Mason Raymond ($1M)

Restricted free agents

Cody Franson ($2M)

James Reimer ($1.8M)

Jake Gardiner ($1.1M, including bonuses)

Joe Colborne ($600,000)

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