TORONTO — Kyle Dubas views the risk of an offer sheet with about as much concern as you or I might devote to the possibility of getting caught in a downpour while wearing a rain jacket.
Sure, it might happen. But is it really that big of a deal?
“Our salary cap situation is set up that we could defend any of those threats with no worry at all,” Dubas said Monday. “I know that they’ve become a huge topic of late, but I spend zero per cent of my time having any worry about that.
“If a team wants to go down that path with us, that’s the way it goes.”
Now it behooves the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager to project confidence on this particular issue, especially with colleagues watching closely and seemingly little progress having been made on contract extensions for Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner so far.
However, he raises an important point here — one often overlooked when the topic is broached by fans or members of the media.
The Leafs currently have just $56 million in cap commitments made for next season. With an anticipated salary cap ceiling of $83 million for 2019-20, and a collective bargaining agreement that permits teams to exceed the ceiling by 10 per cent each summer, Toronto projects to have about $35 million in available space on July 1.
In other words: More than enough to match league maximum deals for both Matthews and Marner, should rival teams choose to extend offer sheets in that amount.
Of course, Dubas doesn’t intend to let either situation get anywhere near that point after just negotiating with his other marquee young forward, William Nylander, right up until the final minutes of the signing deadline on Dec. 1.
Not only has the GM identified extending Matthews and Marner as a top priority, but he also views it as a necessary step before addressing other issues such as the future of defenceman Jake Gardiner, a pending unrestricted free agent.
“It will be our intention to try to get those [done] as soon as possible,” said Dubas. “We want to avoid the situation we were just in [with Nylander]. We’re completely in control of that this time, in that there’s no excuse that I can’t say ‘well I wasn’t doing this job a year ago.’ So we have to continue to work away with them.
“It will be our intention well before July 1 that we have an agreement and both players are here long term. One way or another we’ll get to that point. So it’s all good.”
The spectre of a rarely used offer sheet has drawn considerable discussion around the league thanks to a tidal wave of young talent that’s taken over the sport while still playing on entry-level contracts.
Increasingly, those players are looking to get paid on their second deal. An offer sheet could be a means used to achieve that aim, especially since we’re talking about RFAs who don’t hold arbitration rights.
In addition to Matthews and Marner, the list of players in that group includes league scoring leader Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, plus Tampa’s Brayden Point and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, each among the top-20 point producers. You also have Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver’s Brock Boeser and Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, among others.
“When I look around the league right now, for whatever reason it seems like the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team that’s going to be the target of an offer sheet,” said Dubas. “It seems interesting to me, but there’s about a third of the teams in the league that have a very highly talented restricted free agent. And some of them have more than one, as we do.”
The Leafs will still have to contend with cap challenges in the months ahead.
Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson are each taking big strides this season and among the RFAs that need to be signed in the summer. Then there’s Gardiner, the organization’s longest-tenured player at 520-plus games and a left-shot defenceman that Dubas and head coach Mike Babcock would prefer to keep around. The only problem is Toronto won’t be able to offer him nearly as much as other teams can on the open market.
“We would like him to be here, but it’s not as simple as it sounds,” said Dubas. “You only have a certain amount that you can divvy up and it’s trying to make that all work and keep our team on the right path moving forward.”
The cap system forces managers to prioritize their players and their decisions.
None are more important to Dubas than Matthews and Marner, the 21-year-old forwards who have played a sizable role in helping the Leafs turn a corner over the last two-plus years.
Now, neither negotiation is shaping up as an easy one. Especially within the constraints of the cap.
But it’s difficult to construct a hypothetical scenario where another team would be willing to give either player a contract the Leafs couldn’t (or wouldn’t) match. And that doesn’t even account for the four first-round picks they’d have to be willing to part with in order to make it happen.
Arguably the biggest reason why we haven’t seen an offer sheet since the Calgary Flames signed Ryan O’Reilly in February 2013 — only to be matched by Colorado — is because it hasn’t proven to be an effective way to acquire players.
“If you think of it probabilistically, rather than far-reaching scenarios where that may happen …,” started Dubas, “I think an offer sheet is completely permissible within the rules of the league, even though they haven’t been used frequently. I understand why it’s a topic, because there’s a lot of restricted free agents coming up this year that are highly talented.
“I think we’re certainly not alone in that.”
Truth be told, he’s got more cover than some other GMs do with similar players, should the storm arrive.