TORONTO -- Depending on your point of view, the Toronto Maple Leafs are either mathematical wizards or playing with fire.
When Kyle Dubas squeaked his final salary-cap-compliant roster across the goal line before Monday’s 5 p.m. ET deadline, surely assistant GM and resident capologist Brandon Pridham was credited with a primary assist for navigating such a tricky puzzle.
Fair or not, the cap wields significant influence on who gets to stay and who must go.
“It’s a factor, no doubt,” head coach Sheldon Keefe says. “I’ve been in some meetings I’ve left pretty confused about a lot of the factors that are at play outside of the actual evaluation of the players.”
After a series of signings and cuts, injury evaluations and waiver placements, the Maple Leafs came within the cost of a fancy coffee of maximizing their long-term injured reserve pool — the second-tightest witnessed in the league’s cap era.
Forced by the pandemic-flattened ceiling, teams are getting increasingly clever and crafty when it comes to using the maximum $2.15 million in LTIR relief and milking as much talent for as little financial pain as possible.
According to our pals at PuckPedia.com, the Tampa Bay Lightning did the best job last season of maximizing their LTIR potential, coming within $712 of the limit. On Monday, the Maple Leafs ($4), Vegas Golden Knights ($17), Lightning ($33), Edmonton Oilers ($165) and Vancouver Canucks ($0!) all beat that mark.
Without getting too entangled in the calculus here, here's what fans should know about the Maple Leafs’ 2022-23 opening roster, which uses all 50 permissible contracts and carries a scant 20 of 23 players on the big-league roster.
• Healthy scratches are a luxury the Leafs cannot afford.
So tight is Toronto to the ceiling that if John Tavares is unable to lace ’em up Wednesday in Montreal, the Leafs must dress 19 and play their opener a man short.
While Tavares was originally said to be sidelined a minimum of three weeks with an oblique injury, the captain practised in full contact, led Monday’s stretch, and hasn’t ruled out an early return to action after roughly two weeks.
“Chances only grow with every day,” Tavares tells reporters. “I want to be part of it more than anybody.”
Kicking off with a back-to-back and four games in six nights, both Tavares and Toronto must be cautious here. The centre will skate again Tuesday, then Keefe will make the call on the flight to Quebec.
Regardless, the coach will be handcuffed in his ability to mix his lineup from day to day carrying so few bodies.
• Denis Malgin deserved to make the team — and did.
Nick Robertson deserved to make the team — and did not.
Both the Swiss returnee and the blue-chip prospect did everything in their power during a competitive camp to warrant a job in the show.
Malgin put up eight points in six pre-season games. Robertson hung eight in five. Only one NHLer, Minnesota’s Marco Rossi, was more productive in exhibition play (nine points).
Yet with money tight, Dubas could only afford to keep one undersized, skilled winger.
Rather than risk losing Malgin on waivers, the GM (temporarily) demoted the 21-year-old Robertson, who does not require waivers to join the farm and feast on lesser competition.
“It’s an unfortunate situation for a player that’s worked really hard,” Keefe laments. “We have all the confidence that he’ll be back here when needed.”
If Tavares needs more time to heal, Robertson’s time could arrive as early as Thursday on emergency recall.
As for Malgin 2.0, Tavares notes the winger’s growing comfort and confidence, plus his nose for the net.
Malgin has his own theory as to why he made the cut: “Played good hockey, right?”
Hard to argue.
• Zach Aston-Reese will look like a steal. The bottom-six checker and defensive specialist arrived in Canada on a nudge-wink tryout, finally signing off on a team-friendly one-year, $840,630 contract on Thanksgiving weekend — essentially the most salary available while keeping the Leafs compliant.
The former Penguin and Duck gained Keefe’s trust almost instantly and brings speed and edge to Toronto’s young, cheap fourth line.
He wouldn’t be the first role player to flip a strong showing for a major-market contender into a better payday down the road.
• The Leafs knew the crunch was coming as soon as they committed to Calle Jäarnkrok.
Signing the utility forward to a four-year, $8.4-million commitment over the summer gave Järnkrok more term security than any Leafs skater not named Morgan Rielly. It also guaranteed a pinching of the depth.
As a result, all Marlies hopefuls (Robertson, Pontus Holmberg, Alex Steeves, et al.) were returned to the farm. New recruits (Adam Gaudette and Victor Mete) and trusty vets (Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford) alike were placed on waivers — and cleared.
If Toronto could carry more bodies, Keefe says several of these players would be in the NHL today.
“The system is what it is, and our situation is what it is,” he says.
• Timothy Liljegren ($1.4 million cap hit) and Jordie Benn ($750,000) begin the season on LTIR, meaning they are still weeks away from return.
Depth defenceman Carl Dahlström is on season-opening injured reserve.
So, what happens with Liljegren (hernia) — and his cap hit — are ready for recall?
Well, something must give.
At that point, Toronto may have another body/salary it can shift to LTIR. Or it could risk placing a decent skater on waivers. Or make a trade.
• Where does Simmonds go from here?
The past three weeks have not been easy on the proud, 1,000-game power forward, but he has conducted himself like a true professional throughout.
Simmonds, 34, has never played an AHL game in his pro career. Does he report to the Marlies, ride the bus and wait for an injury or a match in need of his truculence?
Or is he granted a trade to a roster where he can be of immediate NHL impact?
There is will in the engine and gas in the tank. Speculation has a return to Philadelphia as one potential option worth exploring, and Nick Kypreos reports that the Ottawa Senators have at least some level of interest. Spicy.
That Simmonds has already cleared waivers makes him more movable via trade, and according to Elliotte Friedman, Dubas has emailed the rest of league making him available.
Keep an eye on this situation as the Leafs and Simmonds work toward a resolution.
Projected opening night lineup
Bunting – Matthews – Marner
Malgin – Tavares* – Nylander
Engvall – Kerfoot – Järnkrok
Aston-Reese – Kämpf – Aubé-Kubel
Reilly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Giordano – Sandin