There have been two major questions hovering over the Toronto Maple Leafs since the start of the season — and if you’re reading this, you probably already know what they are:
1. Can management keep this young core intact and under the salary cap?
2. We know they’re good in the regular season, but is this club built for playoff success?
Though no longer tasked with solving these issues, former Maple Leafs assistant general manager Mark Hunter (who was recently named GM of Canada’s national junior team) was asked about both during an appearance on Prime Time Sports Tuesday evening.
“It’s a tough job,” Hunter said of the Maple Leafs’ impending cap crunch. “It’s a big process, a big job to figure out because you’ve got good players — which is a good problem. There’s going to be a lot of work and it’s going to be interesting to see how it all unfolds because it’s a tough one, it really is.”
Hunter had a very similar view of the Leafs’ salary situation when he was asked about his former team back in November during the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference. While a lot has changed since then — William Nylander’s holdout concluded with a six-year, $45-million deal and Auston Matthews inked an extension that will see him count for $11.634 per year through 2023-24 — the big questions about how Leafs brass can afford to keep the team together remain front of mind in Toronto.
It’s clear a few changes will need to be made in order to accommodate Mitch Marner’s upcoming raise, which has been increasingly popular fodder with every point registered (all 85 of ’em through 72 games so far). You don’t have to be a Leafs fan to be heavily invested in his upcoming earnings.
A little bit of simple math for a complicated situation, to put this conundrum into context: As it stands, John Tavares, Nylander and Matthews will add up to just under $30 million in cap space, and it’s hard to see Marner not adding another $10 million to that. Suddenly, the club has almost half its cap space taken up by four (yes, very good) players.
“You can’t look too far ahead, because they have their team to get going here and they’ve got the playoffs coming up,” warned Hunter, who said he still keeps tabs on the Leafs from London, where he co-owns the OHL’s Knights with brother Dale Hunter. “You’ve got to concentrate on what’s in front of you but we all know a manager has to worry about the future and it’s going to be something that Kyle [Dubas] and [Brendan Shanahan], it’s going to be lots of work for them.”
Adding to the intrigue are players like Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, two of several pending RFAs who have surely earned themselves nice raises. Defenceman and UFA-to-be Jake Gardiner seems a sure bet to walk out the door unless he’s ready to take a significant pay cut to re-sign, while veterans like Ron Hainsey (a UFA in July) and Patrick Marleau (one year left at $6.25 million) are valuable in the locker room but costly against the cap.
“It’s a stickler. I mean, it’s going to need really good stick-handling,” said Hunter. “They do have a good team, a good young team together, and I know we all want to keep that group together which… it’s going to be some real tough decisions they’re going to have to make, to make decisions on who they want to keep, who they don’t want to keep, because we all know it’s going to be hard to keep everybody.”
As for the Leafs’ more urgent concern — the upcoming post-season, complete with heftier expectations on the heels of back-to-back first-round exits — Hunter believes the club’s current inconsistent play down the stretch is simply part of what it means to be a young and relatively inexperienced team.
“Everybody gets worried on the Leafs right now but you’ve got to remember they’re a young group and younger groups will have a bump in the road and they’re having a little bit of a bump in the road right now,” Hunter said. “But [Mike Babcock] is an excellent coach, I think very highly of Mike. You know, everybody starts to surround him and criticize him, I think he’s — there’s no one better in the league, to me, and I really have a lot of respect for what he can do and he will figure this out and the young players will come around.”
“They’ll have a playoff push,” Hunter added. “I don’t know if they can win a Stanley Cup, but they need a push and I think they can have that push.”