So another Toronto Maple Leafs season came and went and, despite all the promise of a strong regular season, everything blew up in the playoffs.
There was a lot of initial knee-jerk reactions when the Leafs were eliminated, including the "trade Mitch Marner" club or, perhaps, trade William Nylander when his value is at its highest point.
More likely is the Leafs seek to rebuild their bottom six, find a complementary goalie and largely run it back with the same core. The fact is there's still a two-year window at least where the core is under contract and management isn't forced into any of those kinds of decisions, so giving up on it seems premature.
However, the Leafs are still being pinched by the cap and have a number of decisions to make as they come up with ways to return more prepared for the playoffs. Frederik Andersen's future is one call, though it seems he's likely to leave via free agency. Some of that $5 million cap space will be saved, but some will still have to be used on a 1B to support Jack Campbell, who's never had a No. 1 job in the NHL for an 82-game season.
The biggest decision as it pertains to free agency, though, is what to do about Zach Hyman. It makes all the sense in the world to retain him. He's the sort of tough-in-the-corners contributor the Leafs could use more of, actually. And while he found a home with Marner and Auston Matthews, the fact is Hyman has been a great fit on any line. He's the player you put with players who you want to get going again.
But that sandpaper element and how productive he's been will also make the pending UFA attractive to other teams. The Maple Leafs have a projected $12.5 million in cap space for next season and will lose someone else to Seattle in the expansion draft. On top of Hyman and Andersen, Toronto has nine other UFAs, so while that may seem like a lot of cap space it'll dry up in a hurry as the Leafs build out the bottom of the lineup again.
Consider, too, that after next season Campbell's contract will be up and Rasmus Sandin will be on to his second deal. How much more money and term can Toronto afford to invest in its top-six forwards?
Hyman may have been Toronto's best value deal on the books with his $2.25 million cap hit, but that's about to shoot up. There aren't a lot of great, direct comparables to what Hyman is, so it's not easy to really gauge what his value is on the open market. Toss in the ongoing flat-cap situation around the league, that most teams were bumping up against the limit in 2021, and it complicates matters further.
Basically, if Hyman goes for max payout and the market allows for it, Toronto is likely going to have to move on without him. But there is always the possibility, however long a shot it might be, he reduces his rate to stay home.
"I love playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs," the hometown winger told Tim and Friends this season. "It was a dream of mine since I was a kid. ... I love it here and hope to stay here for a long time. Contract situation, that stuff will figure itself out over time. Not too worried about it."
The idea of playing on without him might worry some Leafs fans, though.
So what is Hyman worth in free agency? We took a look at some other contracts to get an idea...
Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay Lightning: $4.45 million cap hit
Killorn signed his seven-year deal ahead of the 2016-17 season, right after a 14-goal, 40-point season. He's been in that scoring range since signing the contract, before breaking through with a 26-goal output in 68 games last season. In 2021, he was back to his more regular scoring pace.
In the past few years he has earned a bigger role on Tampa's PK, but he grew into that after the contract was signed.
Killorn was 26 when he signed this deal and, of course, it was agreed to when the salary cap was less than the $81.5 million it is today. Killorn's deal counted for 6.10 per cent of the cap when it was signed, according to Cap Friendly. If Hyman were to take that same percentage against today's cap, his hit would amount to $5 million.
Tom Wilson, Washington Capitals: $5.16 million cap hit
No one is confusing Hyman with Wilson, but in terms of points per game the two players are nearly identical over the past three seasons. Both can, and do, play in the top six. But Hyman was actually more involved on both special-team units in Toronto.
Wilson's contract, signed as an RFA in 2018, came in at a whopping 6.5 per cent of the cap a the time -- roughly $5.3 million in today's cap world. Wilson's deal was a bit of an outlier for his production and age, so this would seem to be the highest limit Hyman might be able to get to. But if you consider how uncertain things were for mid-tier players on last off-season's market and that conditions haven't changed much, it seems better to compare Hyman's potential earning to Wilson's actual cap hit rather than his cap-hit percentage.
Goal and point per 60 minute rates over past three seasons, all situations, per Natural Stat Trick.
Joonas Donskoi, Colorado Avalanche: $3.9 million cap hit
If Wilson's AAV is around the high end of where we should consider Hyman could go, then Donskoi would be the low end of that. If Hyman comes in here, he's probably re-signing with the Maple Leafs.
Signed ahead of the 2019-20 season, Donskoi has yet to reach 20 goals or 40 points in a season -- something Hyman has done twice each -- though he was on track to do both if this season had been 82 games long.
Whereas Hyman averages 2.2 points per 60 minutes of ice time since 2017-18, Donskoi is at 2.11. He's mostly been in a bottom-six role for the Avs, but has been the guy to move up the lineup when injuries hit.
Like Hyman, Donskoi was a UFA when he signed his current contract with Colorado. He's been a better performer under this deal than he was before it, so the Avs have gotten away with a steal here. Hyman is not flying under any team's radar and likely has hit his peak (or close to it) as an offensive player, so we'd expect him to be able to get more than Donskoi. This is the absolute floor and something the Leafs would manage to retain.
Max Domi, Columbus Blue Jackets: $5.3 million
This is a strange one. Domi signed this current two-year deal with Columbus last October after they traded for him, and it walks him to unrestricted free agency. So Domi had less leverage and came out of it with a pretty hefty contract.
His points-per-60 average over the past three years is much higher than Hyman's thanks entirely to a 72-point 2018-19 that appears to be an outlier. He struggled this season and never fit into the centre role Columbus hoped he could.
Who would you rather have: Domi or Hyman? The answer is clearly the latter. This deal falls pretty close to in-line with the Wilson contract as far as AAV goes and since Hyman is the better player with more leverage than Domi had, we again have reason to believe Hyman could command over $5 million, which would be a hard number for the Leafs to keep on.
Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights: $5 million
Yet another example of a player in this $5 million ballpark, and you can see why this is a likely range of where Hyman ends up.
Hyman actually holds a slightly better goals-per-60 rate and slightly worse points-per-60 rate than Smith over the past three years, but in the end the two have produced at near identical rates. Consider, too, that Smith signed this five-year contract with Florida in 2016 and it bought up a couple years of RFA eligibility, but most of it is consuming his early UFA years.
The $5 million total accounted for 6.85 per cent of the cap at the time it was signed and if you translate that to today's cap, it equals a $5.6 million rate for Hyman.
Tyler Toffoli, Montreal Canadiens: $4.25 million
This is the one that makes the Hyman discussion so interesting, because Toffoli signed it as an unrestricted free agent last off-season when we had full view of the effects the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have on the short-term of the salary cap. Toffoli was coming off a great season, too, scoring 24 times in 68 games and lighting it up after getting traded to Vancouver.
There were many signs Toffoli would add a heightened level of scoring to a new team compared to what he'd done with low-event Los Angeles in recent years. Still, because of the cap outlook and how so many teams were bumping up to the limit, his market just wasn't as deep as it would have been in a usual season. The result was a four-year deal with the Habs and a $4.25 million cap hit. How many teams would like to have another crack at that after Toffoli scored 28 times in 52 games with Montreal this season?
Toffoli and Hyman have very similar scoring rates the past three seasons, though we will say Hyman probably doesn't have the same goal-scoring upside. This wasn't the first year Toffoli exploded -- he scored 31 times in 2015-16 for the Kings before they took a downturn into the rebuild abyss.
But if that kind of player was so limited in the market just a year ago, how much higher can Hyman go, really? There will be a little more flexibility around the league this summer as more contracts come off the books and teams have had time to plan out and prepare for cap implications. The addition of the Seattle Kraken could help open the market a little, too. But it won't be considerably different to a year ago.
Will Hyman get more than Toffoli and, if so, by how much?
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens: $6.5 million
Now we're getting into a bigger number and a better player. Gallagher is far more a goal scorer than Hyman, but his assist upside hasn't been the same, so the difference in point rates isn't all that great -- Gallagher ranks 77th and Hyman 126th in the past three years. They're both tough players, good in the corners, and Gallagher's extra value comes with his ability to put the puck in the net. Only 14 players in the entire league have a better goals-per-60 rate over the past three years than Gallagher.
Especially under the flat cap, this would seem to be a number too high to commit to Hyman. Gallagher's contract came with a six-year term and no-movement clause, which maybe helped keep the price down a little. It would take one team to see Hyman as a key to unlocking a top-two line's offensive potential for them to throw this kind of money his way, but then we're entering mistake territory. Hyman is a fantastic player, but he's mostly a complementary one and this sort of money is a bit rich for that role.
Hyman isn't perfectly compared to any of these players, but they come together to form a range of outcomes for him, which seems likely between $4.5 million-$5.6 million. That's before we consider the possibility he takes a hometown discount to stay in Toronto (probably in exchange for lots of term), or that an excited team could come in and offer even more money outside of this range.
Which of those two scenarios is more likely? Probably not the one Leafs fans want to hear.
"Other than the fact this is his hometown I don't think it's reasonable to expect he'll be giving too much of a discount, because this is probably going to be the richest contract he signs in his NHL career," Chris Johnston told the FAN 590 earlier this season.