TORONTO – For all the ways the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs can flex their financial muscle in a league of varying franchise wealth, they too are staring at an immovable object: an $81.5-million salary cap that isn’t going anywhere for at least two seasons beyond this crazy one.
Upon the ratification of the NHL and its Players’ Association’s pandemic-salving collective bargaining agreement, GM Kyle Dubas will be forced to strangle his budget long after signing his four major offence-drivers — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — to gaudy, long-term contracts that he expected to look more palatable under normal cap inflation.
Heck, it was only a little more than four months ago that NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly projected 2020-21’s cap ceiling could stretch as high as $88.2 million. With juicy gambling, Seattle and U.S. broadcast revenues on the horizon, the cap possibilities were infinity and beyond.
There is no use dwelling in alternate realities, however. Tight circumstances demand tough decisions.
Yet Dubas, holding court with reporters over Zoom on Sunday afternoon, doubled down on his commitment to his talented nucleus and suggested the real roster pain could be delayed until the 2021 off-season, when important pieces Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen will both coming knocking for raises.
“If we were facing a situation where some of our core players were up at the end of this year and were unrestricted, or they had a large amount of leverage as some of our past [RFA] players have had, I would maybe feel differently and say that we’re going to have to make a major move and delete from our core,” Dubas said.
“But with everybody signed going into this offseason, I think we’re gonna have some space to take care of our restricted free agents that we have and potentially look at some of our own UFAs.”
This should come as welcome news to faithful concerned about the future of impending RFA defenceman Travis Dermott, who might be best served navigating the crunch with a bridge deal and had begun to find his stride before the pause. And to those worried that enticing KHL import Ilya Mikheyev (also RFA) might have priced himself out of town after over-delivering on his one-year, $925,000 foray on this side of the Atlantic.
While UFA defencemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are super-long shots to re-sign, particularly with entry-level talents Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren pushing for ice time, there is mutual interest in contract extensions with UFA depth forwards Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford. Hometown discounts may be in order, however.
Foreseeing a tightening of the cap, which won’t rise until league revenue exceeds $4.8 billion, Dubas shrewdly signed a pair of coveted KHL free agents, winger Alexander Barabanov and defenceman Mikko Lehtonen, to inexpensive deals during quarantine.
And while a middle-class forward (Kasperi Kapanen, Alexander Kerfoot, Andreas Johnsson) might be expended the way Nazem Kadri or Connor Brown was last off-season, Dubas is not threatening to break up the Fab Four if they can’t shoot their way past Columbus in August’s best-of-five qualification round.
“I don’t feel that this season there should be any added pressure,” said Dubas, encouraged by the commitment and conditioning he’s witnessed in Phase 2’s voluntary practices.
“The players have an expectation — and we have an expectation — that we’re going to be competitive and that we’re, of course, trying to contend to win the Stanley Cup.
“I don’t look at the situation and say, because the cap is going to be flat, this is our only chance to do so. If we didn’t have our core guys locked up for this year and next, I would maybe feel a little bit differently, quite honestly. But I don’t. We got everybody set for ’19-20 to finish and then ’20-21.”
That’s when Hyman and Andersen are due.
That’s when Sandin (RFA 2022) and Morgan Rielly (UFA 2022) will be eligible to start negotiating extensions.
That’s when the Leafs are expected to lose a useful roster player in the Seattle expansion draft.
That’s when the pain is coming.
Fingers crossed, Dubas & Co. will have two playoff runs to sort out who must be kept under the fixed ceiling no one imagined being so stubborn.
Until then, let ’em skate.
“Then we’ll have to continue to see how different things progress and develop over that time,” Dubas said. “We have time right now to just continue to see this group develop and grow and get us where we need to get to — and we’re excited about that.”
• “Auston is fit to play,” Dubas assured. Breathe a sigh of relief, Leafs Nation.
• Dubas does not expect any of Toronto’s Phase 3 invitees to opt out of a return to play but would be “fully understanding” if that were the case.
• Peterborough Petes standout Nick Robertson, 18, has been training with the Maple Leafs throughout Phase 2 and will be given “every shot” to make his NHL debut in 2019-20. “If he can force his way into the mix and onto the roster, that’d be great,” Dubas said. “There’s going to be a degree of latitude given to the players that have proven they can contribute to our team and be pieces that can help our team win and they have in the past. But if Nick or Kenny Agostino or Adam Brooks or any of the players (that) have been with the Marlies step up and are beating down the door throughout training camp, we’re going to give them opportunity.”
• Because forward Nic Petan was recently deemed fit to play, he will join the club’s Phase 3 training camp Monday, replacing defence prospect Mac Hollowell on the originally announced roster.
• There is hope left wing Andreas Johnsson (knee) could be rehabilitated in time for the start of the second round of the playoffs, should the Maple Leafs make it that far.
• The 28- or 29-man group the Maple Leafs plan to bring into the bubble will include 15 or 16 forwards, nine or 10 defencemen, and three or four goalies. Dubas and club president Brendan Shanahan will join the team’s coaching staff inside the hub.