Maple Leafs approaching uncertain salary cap future one year at a time

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discuss Mitch Marner signing a six-year deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

PARADISE, N.L. — One year at a time.

That’s the simple, unsexy answer to how the Toronto Maple Leafs plan to balance the most top-heavy lineup in the NHL.

No one can say with certainty if it will work. Not even Kyle Dubas, who flew here Saturday with new signing Mitchell Marner and new papa John Tavares, and seemed relieved when he met reporters at Paradise Double Ice Complex with a day or two’s worth of facial hair growth.

His Leafs are trying to become the first team in the NHL’s Salary Cap Era to win a playoff series with a $10-million player on its roster. And Toronto now has three, with Marner and his freshly signed $10.893-million contract joining John Tavares and Auston Matthews in the penthouse district of the dressing room.

"I understand that people will look at it and say that no team has done it this way before," said Dubas. "That said, we have these guys committed to us for an extended period. We’ll get into a stretch here where we can just come to the rink every day and play. We won’t have any of this hovering above."

The bet is understandable given where the Leafs started from when he was elevated to general manager in May 2018. They’ve since locked up elite talent for prime years and that’s the most sought-after commodity in the sport.

Where it could turn problematic for the front office is that the elite young talent came with UFA price tags, and that’s going to bring on roster construction challenges sooner than they would have originally forecasted.

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Friday night’s Marner signing also comes against the backdrop of the collective bargaining discussions between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, which bear watching. While nothing has yet been agreed upon between those parties, sources with knowledge of the talks believe the salary cap could end up being frozen at its current $81.5-million ceiling for two more years — or raised only minimally — as a way to lower players’ escrow payments.

That will unleash reverberations across the entire industry if it happens, but will arguably impact a team with $40.5-million tied up in four forwards most acutely.

Just navigating the upcoming 186-day regular season should prove difficult enough. The Leafs have committed something in the neighbourhood of $94-million to players — a number they can only carry because they’re going deep into the long-term injury provision.

Operating beyond the cap will limit in-season changes to dollar-for-dollar transactions and should prevent them from carrying more than an extra player or two on the roster most of the time. They may even have to play a game without a full bench depending on injury luck.

Still, the Leafs find themselves in an enviable spot.

There was speculation going back two years or more that they wouldn’t be able to find room for Marner, Matthews and William Nylander, and they not only accomplished that, they also added Tavares to the fold.

"It was a very unique situation," said Dubas. "You’ve got young players who are extraordinarily talented and already some of the best at what they do. I think we all have room to grow and I think they would be the first to tell you that they’re not close to reaching their potential yet."

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.

The degree to which it happens will probably dictate whether this is ultimately viewed as a successful team-building strategy in a cap world.

However, even if it doesn’t immediately result in a big playoff breakthrough, it’s not as if there won’t be opportunities to change course. Each of these players has a bonus-laden, front-loaded contract and will remain a highly movable asset, if necessary.

That’s where the year-to-year evaluation part comes in. The Leafs are arguably only locked in as long as they want to be.

Further to that, they’ll also continue to have the resources to search for value at the margins by signing European free agents and replacement-level depth players on league-minimum contracts while also prioritizing skating and skills development below the NHL level.

You need only look at someone like veteran Jason Spezza at this current training camp for an example of how to plug holes while trying to limbo under the cap. He’ll earn just $700,000 in his 17th NHL season because he bought into the organization’s vision.

"Kyle was pretty aggressive in calling me," said Spezza. "I thought it was a great opportunity and wanted to do whatever possible to make it work and knowing the team was going to have salary restraints. I was willing to kind of accommodate that and not get hung up over that."

There’s something to be said for taking care of another major contract decision long term.

It brought a little extra excitement to camp when Marner joined his teammates on the ground in Newfoundland. He’d only technically missed three days of team activities and already his absence had been noticed.

"I’m just glad it’s all done and let’s get on with it," said coach Mike Babcock. "You can say ‘Oh it’s not a distraction,’ it’s a huge distraction. You can say whatever you want, but that’s not reality."

"Of course it’s kind of the elephant in the room," said Matthews. "Now we don’t have to hear about [contract negotiations] for a bit. So check back in three, four, five years and we’ll do it all over again."

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