How a flat salary cap could impact the Toronto Maple Leafs

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins HC to explain why he thinks the league and the players main focus will be to build back the business, and not on a salary cap number, once the NHL resumes.

What a difference a week makes.

Just seven days before the NHL hit pause on its season — and, by extension, its hockey-related revenue — deputy commissioner Bill Daly flew to Boca Raton, Fla., to bring the general managers good news.

The league’s salary cap was projected to jump up from 2019-20’s $81.5 million to somewhere between $84 million and $88.2 million.

An indefinite work stoppage and an unpredictable blow to the economy will certainly render those early cap guesstimates irrelevant and give GMs headaches.

While the NHL’s cap ceiling has yet to dip since its introduction in 2005-06 (at $39 million), there is concern among players and execs that it may flatten at $81.5 million — or even regress. Horrible timing for the Torey Krugs and Taylor Halls of the world.

Historically, the most stagnant hockey’s cap has been was during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. Technically the ceiling dropped from $64.3 million to $60 million that season, but teams were permitted to spend a pro-rated $70.2 million over those 48 games. (In 2013-14, the cap returned to $64.3 million.)

All of this brings us to the most urgent COVID-19 question of all: “Yeah, but how does it affect the Toronto Maple Leafs?”

Even under that hopeful, increased cap, Kyle Dubas and capologist extraordinaire Brandon Pridham would’ve been facing some tricky issues:

• Up front, Toronto has a pair of bargain-priced impending unrestricted free agents who’ve injected maturity and leadership into the group while delivering reliable bottom-six minutes. There is a case for trying to hang onto both Kyle Clifford ($800,000 cap hit) and Jason Spezza ($700,000), but would they continue to accept something near the league minimum?

• On the back end, the expectation is for UFAs Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci to walk, clearing space for entry-level, cap-easing youngsters Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. But surely two established veterans on the blue line — Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin, both lefties — isn’t enough to contend. So, who do you add via free agency or trade? And at what price?

• Less clear are the fates of the club’s restricted free agents, and there are some intriguing ones. While the underwhelming Denis Malgin ($750,000) and minor-leaguers Jeremy Bracco, Pontus Aberg and Adam Brooks could be retained easily, winger Ilya Mikheyev ($925,000) and defenceman Travis Dermott ($863,000) are valuable talents in line for nice raises. Depth centre Frederik Gauthier ($675,000) fills a void and has steadily improved. He, too, needs either pay bump or a suitable replacement, right?

• Technically, 2021 free agents are eligible to re-sign as early as July 1. In light of the new uncertainty, it makes sense for both players and executives to delay negotiations until there is a clearer cap projection. For the Leafs, this could mean playing wait-and-see with two core pieces: Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen.

• Complicating the Leafs’ 2020-21 cap picture are the raises already committed to Muzzin, Pierre Engvall, Justin Holl and Jack Campbell. Combined, that’s an extra $4.25 million of the cap those players aren’t taking out of the 2019-20 pie — a sum Dubas surely would’ve thought absorbed by an increased ceiling.

Something’s gotta give.

With the raises already given and the ones on deck, salary will need to be shaved to address the gaping hole on the right side of the blue line.

The nuclear option, of course, would be breaking up the Big 4 — William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares — but we don’t detect any desire to do that, especially in light of Nylander’s 31-goal breakout performance.

That puts the Maple Leafs’ tradeable middle-class forwards on the same shaky ground that Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown found themselves in during the 2019 off-season.

Trading one or more of Kasperi Kapanen ($3.2 million through 2021-22), Andreas Johnsson ($3.4 million through 2022-23) or Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million through 2022-23) could alleviate Dubas’s cap pressures while giving an opponent a proven NHL forward in his mid-20s with cost certainty.

Dubas & Co. have proven creative in finding ways to keep their high-priced, elite talent in blue and white, but those signings were made on the presumption that the ceiling would only go in one direction.

A flat or reduced salary cap would present a host of fresh challenges.

There is pain coming.

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