How Maple Leafs’ rookie success could hurt team’s cap situation

Daren Millard and Chris Johnston discuss how Auston Matthews’ success this year can impact the Leafs salary cap next season and how important William Nyalnder is to the Leafs playoff run.

Performance bonuses will push the Toronto Maple Leafs over the salary cap and leave them with an overage penalty next season.

It remains to be seen how significant of a hit they’ll take.

The play of the rookies over the final 14 games will not only go a long way towards determining whether the Leafs qualify for the playoffs this spring, but also how their cap situation looks entering 2017-18.

A goal or two on either side of the ledger could potentially be the difference between having the ability to add an extra player this summer or at next year’s trade deadline.

Leafs management has been anticipating a monster overage since early in the campaign, when it quickly became evident they had a couple players on entry-level contracts capable of producing at a high level. The team could end up paying out as much as $5,582,500 in bonuses this season, which league sources believe would be the second-highest total ever.

The Leafs currently have roughly $250,000 in projected cap space this season, according to capfriendly.com, which means that they’d assume an overage in excess of $5.3-million if all of the available bonuses were to be reached. That $5.3-million would be deducted from what they’re permitted to spend under the salary cap ceiling next season.

Realistically, the number will come in no lower than $2.4-million.

Where it ultimately ends up hinges largely on how many more goals Auston Matthews scores before the end of the regular season.

He is the only player on the roster with a “Schedule B” bonus, which will pay him an extra $2-million if he finishes among the NHL’s top-10 goal-scorers. It could be close.

Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Nikita Zaitsev are still trying to lock down “Schedule A” bonuses while Connor Brown has games played bonuses in his contract, according to information attained through sources.

You don’t hear a lot of talk about bonuses in NHL dressing rooms. They remain the only way for impact players to accelerate earnings over the first three years of their careers because of the restrictive entry-level system, which was created coming out of the 2004-05 lockout.

Morgan Rielly signed his second NHL contract last summer and told Sportsnet recently that he hasn’t heard bonuses discussed openly among his teammates at all this season.

The topic was raised generally by former player Tiger Williams when Nylander came over to get his autograph before the Dec. 31 Centennial Classic alumni game. The EPIX cameras caught the following exchange between Williams and Nylander.

TW: How many goals do you have now?
WN: Eight.
TW: Gotta get your 20, man.
WN: I know.

It’s getting down to crunch time now.

Here’s a detailed look at what bonuses have already been earned by members of the Leafs this season and what’s still at stake down the stretch:

Auston Matthews ($425,000)
$212,500 – 20 goals. Earned Jan. 1 with an overtime goal against Detroit’s Jared Coreau in the Centennial Classic.
$212,500 – NHL All-Star Game. Earned Jan. 10 with selection by league.

Still possible in Schedule ‘A’ (to a max of two):
$212,500 – 35 assists.
$212,500 – 60 points.
$212,500 – .73 points per game.
$212,500 – Top 3 plus/minus on team.
$212,500 – Top 6 ice time among forwards on team.
$212,500 – End-of-season NHL All-Rookie Team.

Still possible in ‘Schedule B’:
$2,000,000 – Top 10 in NHL in goals or Top 10 among NHL forwards in goals per game (minimum 42 games played).

Analysis: Based on what we’ve seen out of Matthews this season, I’d be banking on him maxing out to $2.85-million. Goal-scoring, by its nature, is streaky and he’s still among the top-10 in the league despite going six games without one. Even if Matthews sputters to the finish, he’ll earn four Schedule As. The big ‘B’ is the only thing truly in question.

Mitchell Marner ($212,500)
$212,500 – 35 assists. Earned March 3 with an assist on Nazem Kadri’s second-period goal.

Still possible (to a max of three):
$212,500 – 20 goals.
$212,500 – 60 points.
$212,500 – .73 points per game.
$212,500 – Top 3 plus/minus on team.
$212,500 – Top 6 ice time among forwards on team.
$212,500 – End-of-season NHL All-Rookie Team.

Analysis: Marner is only two points shy of guaranteeing himself .73 points per game and six short of hitting 60 for the season. He’s also fourth among forwards in ice time (16:43). I’d label him a near certainty to max out at $850,000.

Nikita Zaitsev ($212,500)
$212,500 – 25 assists. Earned Feb. 21 with an assist on Leo Komarov’s first-period goal.

Still possible (to a max of three):
$212,500 – 10 goals.
$212,500 – 40 points.
$212,500 – .49 points per game.
$212,500 – Top 3 plus/minus among defencemen on team.
$212,500 – Top 4 ice time among defencemen on team.
$212,500 – Top 2 in blocked shots among defencemen on team.
$212,500 – End-of-season NHL All-Rookie Team.

Analysis: The Russian defenceman isn’t likely to hit the other bonuses tied to offensive benchmarks, but still has an outside chance to max out his Schedule As. He currently leads the team in ice time (22:18) and blocked shots (117), so whether he earns a fourth and final $212,500 bonus payment will probably depend on if he’s voted to the All-Rookie Team.

Connor Brown ($100,000)
$50,000 – 40 games played. Earned Jan. 13 at N.Y. Rangers.
$50,000 – 60 games played. Earned Feb. 23 vs. N.Y. Rangers.

Still possible:
$82,500 – 82 games played.

Analysis: The coaching staff will want him in the lineup every game and I’ll wish him continued good health. Playing an entire season at any stage of your career is an accomplishment, and Brown will be plenty deserving of the final bonus payment if he manages to do it in his first full NHL campaign.

William Nylander
Still possible (to a max of four):
$212,500 – 20 goals.
$212,500 – 35 assists.
$212,500 – 60 points.
$212,500 – .73 points per game.
$212,500 – Top 3 plus/minus among forwards on team.
$212,500 – Top 6 ice time among forwards on team.
$212,500 – End-of-season NHL All-Rookie Team.

Analysis: The Swede has yet to trigger any bonuses so far, but they could come fast and furious soon. He is two goals shy of one and four assists short of another. He is also scoring at exactly .73 points per game and sitting seventh among forwards in ice time (16:09), so those are two other possibilities. Should Nylander reach 60 points – he’s currently on pace for 59 – he’ll max out his Schedule As.

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