Why Maple Leafs’ cap flexibility opens up new, intriguing possibilities

Kyle Dubas talked about the Maple Leafs being afforded more wiggle room with the cap after trading Kasperi Kapanen, saying he doesn’t think the team is done making moves yet.

TORONTO — There was David Clarkson’s onerous contract, then the deal Nathan Horton was too injured to play under, then Clarkson’s contract once again.

At one point the Toronto Maple Leafs were paying Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas even after injuries had forced those players into retirement, and they were stroking cheques to veterans Milan Michalek and Brooks Laich while burying them in the American Hockey League.

They retained salary on Carl Gunnarsson in a trade. They paid Tim Gleason through 2017-18 under the terms of a buyout. They received a cap benefit for one year of Jared Cowen’s buyout and absorbed a cap charge the next.

And finally, through all of the maneuvering during the teardown and rebuild, there is some light at the end of the tunnel: The Leafs are planning for a 2020-21 NHL season where they’ll be in possession of a modest amount of cap space, none of which will have been created using the complicated long-term injury provision.

Just how much remains up in the air with the COVID-delayed trading and free-agent period still ahead, but it was no coincidence that general manager Kyle Dubas used the word “flexibility” eight different times during his media availability after dealing Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh last week.

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That trade came with $3.2-million in freed-up cap room — less what the Leafs end up paying Evan Rodrigues, assuming the restricted free agent is signed — plus the 15th overall pick and prospect Filip Hallander.

“We needed to gain some flexibility, or greater flexibility, than what we have,” Dubas said following the Aug. 25 trade. “We’ve got our own business to take care of with [Travis] Dermott and [Ilya] Mikheyev as restricted free agents and this will give us some space beyond them to sort of address all the other needs that we feel that we have. Without the flexibility or the space to do so freely, we’d be really restricted in what we can do.

“This opens it up a little bit for us.”

The cap space is the toughest aspect of the Kapanen deal to evaluate because it’s only really as valuable as how effectively it’s put to use. And no one, not even Dubas, can say right now what that will end up looking like.

However, what stands out about the Leafs situation today compared to years gone by is that they’ll only be committing the $1.2-million retained in the Phil Kessel trade to empty calories. Everything else spent under the NHL’s $81.5-million ceiling cap ceiling will be on tangible assets that can help the organization.

You can reasonably mock up a projected Leafs roster that enters the season with $1.5-million in space while factoring in modest raises on one-year extensions for Mikheyev and Dermott, while also re-signing veteran centre Jason Spezza to another league-minimum contract. Here’s how that would look:

Consider this the bare minimum they come back with. The Leafs front office is naturally weighing much bigger decisions, which is why Frederik Andersen’s name has floated about in trade rumours — perhaps a suitable replacement could be found who accounts for less than $5 million on the cap? — and they’d obviously like to upgrade the blue line, if possible.

Dubas doesn’t seem to be counting on the free-agent market to get this done, in part because the whole notion of “market value” will be much tougher to peg during an unprecedented off-season.

The thinking seems to be that it might be worth jumping in if there end up being bargains on quality players because few teams are bidding. Otherwise, it might be smarter to save the free cap space for trade acquisitions.

Dubas noted that they’ll eventually need to decide “whether you’re more willing to move assets for players or use cap space or cash, right?”

The beauty from his perspective is that he’ll get to make that choice.

Some other teams won’t likely be so fortunate. The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders, for example, have difficult decisions to make on the other side of their Stanley Cup pursuit — with a lot of money already committed and some important RFA’s to sign (Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak in Tampa, and Mathew Barzal and Ryan Pulock on the Island).

When the Leafs were shopping Kapanen, they also spoke to teams about Andreas Johnsson and Alexander Kerfoot. Without mentioning anyone by name, Dubas said the exercise of talking trades taught him “that our players do have good value around the league and we could accrue solid assets in return for them should we elect to do so.”

They would only need to do that to free up space to make a bigger addition.

In the event the Leafs don’t spend right to the cap on opening night they’ll also be in an unfamiliar position. That would see them start accruing more room to add players in-season with each passing day.

“[That’s] something that we really haven’t been able to do for a while, really aside from the [Jake] Muzzin deal,” said Dubas. “That would be a nice benefit to us, to be able to stay flexible during the season also.”

A brave new world, indeed.

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