TORONTO — Until Mitch Marner’s signature is officially on a contract, it’s probably too soon to label this the Great Escape. But the way the Toronto Maple Leafs front office maneuvered while under salary cap duress these last few weeks would impress even Houdini.
It took a mix of creativity, guile and cold calculation from Kyle Dubas, Brandon Pridham and Laurence Gilman.
They managed to preserve more than enough cap room to sign Marner while overhauling their blue line, locking in two young core forwards and adding cheap depth around the margins. They accomplished this wizardry in a league squeezed tight by a lower-than-expected cap ceiling for 2019-20 and amid questions about how they might fend off predatory offer sheets.
All it took was swallowing one poison pill — the first-round pick sent to Carolina to extinguish Patrick Marleau’s $6.25-million cap hit — and moving one premium asset. That would be Nazem Kadri, the longest-tenured member of the organization, who was sent to Colorado on Monday night for defenceman Tyson Barrie and centre/winger Alex Kerfoot despite playing on a value contract with three years remaining at $4.5 million per.
Kadri was a luxury the Leafs could no longer afford. That he missed eight playoff games the last two springs because of suspension also cast doubt over whether he could be totally trusted.
In moving him, Dubas and Co. prioritized getting back an impact defenceman and a cost-controlled third-line centre option to take his spot. That would be Kerfoot, an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent coming off consecutive 40-point seasons. (Jason Spezza, signed to a league-minimum $700,000 contract in free agency, is a reasonable backup option should injury or performance issues arise.)
Toronto also sacrificed some draft positioning in the transaction — swapping a third-rounder for a sixth — and depth defenceman Calle Rosen, who was expected to see NHL action this coming season, but it convinced the Avalanche to retain half of Barrie’s $5.5-million salary.
That’s the maximum allowable and will see Dubas drop a $2.75-million premium puck-mover into a top-four that now features Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott (when healthy) and Barrie as a result.
It’s tidy business given the cap constraints at play and the importance of maximizing your chances of winning a Stanley Cup every season where you have teams built around in-their-prime Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Marner and William Nylander.
That the Leafs were also able to add another right-shot defenceman, Cody Ceci, while clearing cap space in an earlier trade with Ottawa only reinforces the idea that wealthy teams should always be able to creatively spend their way out of a bind.
They paid July 1 signing bonuses to Nikita Zaitsev ($3 million) and Connor Brown ($500,000) an hour before sending them to the Senators as reduced-dollar assets in exchange for Ceci, depth defenceman Ben Harpur and a third-round pick.
The net result is a blue line corps with better balance between left- and right-handed shots, not to mention a group that should be strong enough to buy Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren another year of seasoning in the American Hockey League.
It was also achieved by placing no extra cap burden on the organization — in fact, the Leafs will probably have freed up almost $1 million more in space with Monday’s deals once extensions for Ceci and Kerfoot are worked out this summer.
This is the kind of business the front office will have to get used to now that it’s entered a window to compete for a championship. The Leafs didn’t make a first-round pick last weekend and have already parted with their top selection in 2020.
It’s generally how contenders are forced to operate and the defence corps will continue to be an area of emphasis in Toronto with only Rielly, Sandin and Liljegren signed through 2021-22.
Dubas has spoken about accounting for the team’s reduced draft position by making gains at the margins, be that with European free agents, lower-round picks or the kind of cap maneuvering we’ve just witnessed.
They didn’t have an easy situation to navigate here.
It was made even more complex by a 10-team no-trade clause in Kadri’s contract that derailed a potential three-team deal involving him over the weekend, according to sources. The Leafs had to circle back with the Avalanche and piece together the Barrie/Kerfoot trade afterwards since Colorado wasn’t included on his no-fly list.
They did extremely well under the circumstances.
Now the only pressing piece of business left in Toronto is getting Marner signed — still a challenge for management, no doubt, but one that’s been eased somewhat by 10 days of shrewd decision-making.