As the Toronto Maple Leafs started off on their Stanley Cup chase Wednesday night, opening with a 3-2 overtime win against Montreal, they’re still without one of their young stars as a salary cap cloud looms on the horizon.
This season isn’t much of a concern for the Leafs, even as William Nylander sits out at home in Sweden waiting on a big payday. Toronto is working with $12.2 million in cap space per CapFriendly, which should give them enough room to both sign Nylander and approach the trade deadline as buyers.
But next season is when the trouble begins. Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will need to be paid and, at market value, could combine to come in around $20 million or more. Jake Gardiner is a UFA who will need to be re-signed or replaced and there are five other RFAs who likely won’t command big dollars, but still need some cap commitment.
Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made headlines when he discussed how the team hopes to approach this crunch, and harkened back to his playing days.
“I can speak from personal experience that when I get together with some of my old teammates from the [Stanley] Cup years in Detroit, we talk about winning together and growing together and that’s what we remember looking back,” Shanahan said. “At the end of the day we all found a way to fit with each other so that we could keep adding to the group.
“And that’s obviously what we are asking some of our young leaders to do.”
When John Tavares signed a seven-year deal that came with an $11 million cap hit as a UFA last summer it’s believed he left money on the table and could have got as much as $2 million more per season. Some other players around the league have taken less in the past as well: Max Pacioretty was on a bargain deal with Montreal and Nikita Kucherov came at a discount for Tampa Bay before both signed long-term extensions that kick in next season, among others. Nashville has made it work more than a few times.
The young Leafs could very well end up taking some kind of discount on their next deals, but when Matthews was asked about Shanahan’s comments, he didn’t immediately buy in to the idea.
“That’s why we have agents, right? They can talk to management, and we’ll just play hockey,” Matthews told reporters after Wednesday’s win.
Matthews especially could be in for a massive pay day on his next deal. Already with a 40-goal season under his belt and sitting with a league-high 62 even strength goals since he first stepped into the league, Matthews could be in line for a career season. The even strength expectations will remain the same, but he could see a sharp increase from the five power-play goals he earned in 2017-18.
Toronto’s power play is loaded with weapons and was already second-best in the league last season when it converted 25 per cent of the time. If, as expected, he scores more on the man advantage, there’s no reason why Matthews couldn’t take a run at the Rocket Richard Trophy. He certainly looked the part on opening night.
If all falls into place for Matthews he could be chasing Connor McDavid-type money, which would be $12.5 million against the cap. McDavid, too, took a little less money when he re-signed in Edmonton.
“You want to have a good team, you want to be competitive, and you want to make sure there’s a little bit of wiggle room,” McDavid said after signing his $100-million contract in 2017.
Another factor is that the cap has gone up from $75 million when McDavid signed to $79.5 million this season — and it could go up again by the time Matthews signs. And if Matthews were to lock in for the same percentage against the cap as McDavid did at the time, his deal would roughly have a $13.2 million AAV at the current cap level.
The first step, though, is to get Nylander under contract and see where that leaves the team. He has until Dec. 1 to sign a new deal, or be ineligible to play this season.