With Marner’s return on horizon, Leafs facing salary cap crunch

Mitch Marner talks to the media about getting back on the ice for Maple Leafs practice and what Sheldon Keefe has brought to the team.

PHILADELPHIA — Capmageddon is nigh.

The Toronto Maple Leafs placed forward Nick Shore on waivers Tuesday, signalling that Mitch Marner is likely ready to come off long-term injured reserve in time for Wednesday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.

Once that happens, the Leafs will be as close to a fully healthy lineup as they’ve been all season and the squeeze of their long-anticipated salary cap crunch will take full effect.

Shore’s roster spot will be sacrificed — either through a waiver claim or assignment to the American Hockey League — and three other players will need to go with him in order to create the space needed to activate Marner’s $10.893-million cap hit off LTIR.

The most likely candidates are defenceman Martin Marincin and forwards Nic Petan and Pierre Engvall since each of them is currently waiver exempt. Other possibilities include depth forwards Dmytro Timashov, Jason Spezza and Frederik Gauthier — although they should see it as a good sign that they didn’t join Shore on the waiver wire Tuesday.

(One of those players will still likely be the odd-man out when Trevor Moore is recovered from his shoulder injury).

Marner’s return from a high-ankle sprain is actually ahead of schedule. The Leafs initially provided a four-week recovery period when he went down awkwardly in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 9, but he will only have missed the LTIR-minimum 24 days if he returns against the Avalanche on Wednesday.

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Marner rejoined the Leafs for practice Monday and head coach Sheldon Keefe liked what he saw from the dynamic winger: "Based on his performance today, it doesn’t look like it’s too far away."

Toronto was actually days away from having to make its roster purge last month when Marner went down with his injury. That bought some players extra time and fortunes changed when Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench on Nov. 20.

Shore had dressed for 18 straight games under Babcock and was scratched immediately when Keefe took over. He’s only played once since. Spezza, meanwhile, had fallen out of favour with the previous coach, but has played four of the five games under Keefe.

With 10 points in 17 games, the veteran forward is having a decent season given his ice time and how much he’s been shuffled in and out of the lineup. He’s taken the uncertainty in stride, too.

"I think I’m just fortunate to be here playing still," Spezza said earlier this season. "I’m really lucky to still be playing hockey at this point, it’s a different challenge. Like nobody’s better than the game, so this is what the game’s handed me right now and I want to keep playing.

"So I’m going to work and do whatever I can. That’s my approach. The game’s pretty special and I’m pretty lucky to be playing it and if this is the lot I’ve been dealt, and the hand, then I’m going to try to do well with it."

With a fully healthy lineup, the Leafs will only have the cap space to carry 21 players — one more than is needed for each game. That will leave them in danger of having to dress an undermanned lineup if illness or smaller injuries arrive.


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