Maple Leafs Mailbag: What are Toronto's best and worst contracts?

Shawn McKenzie and Sportsnet's NHL Analyst Justin Bourne discuss where Zach Bogosian will play with the Toronto Maple Leafs and how he helps the team's defence.

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As always, Leafs Nation — a colony whose hockey fervor knows no off-season — delivers with a series of questions about the current and future roster of an organization that has shaken things up considerably since the final buzzer.

The best and worst contracts on the team? The positional battle for third-line centre? The deserving NHLer who might not make the Leafs’ opening night roster?

Let’s dig into the mailbag…

William Nylander’s deal is way up there among the better ones. (Morgan Rielly at $5 million and Ilya Mikheyev at $1.645 million aren’t shabby either.)

At a shade under $7 million per season, Nylander has bounced back to prove worth every penny of his cap hit and should cruise around the 30-goal, 60-mark through his 20s while gaining the blue line like few others. (Bonus: the frontloaded structure of Nylander’s contract would make him a coveted trade chip — but only in case of emergency.)

For me, however, nothing beats the underpaid Zach Hyman at $2.25 million. He hits, he forechecks, he makes good players better, he bleeds blue and he’s a quiet leader in the room. Hyman keeps getting better with age and will carry back-to-back 21-goal efforts into his contract year.

“We don't really have any contracts that we look at and say, ‘We need to get rid of this player. This player isn't delivering on it at all,’ ” general manager Kyle Dubas said this off-season. “Some may disagree — and that's fine, and that's fair — but we're pretty content with our group.”

To a large extent, we agree with the executive.

Unlike many of his peers, Dubas doesn’t see anchors on his CapFriendly page and cringe. There are no Milan Lucics, James Neals or Loui Erikssons in Toronto.

Perhaps a 33-year-old John Tavares won’t be providing $11 million worth of value in 2024-25, but a healthy captain is 80 steady points in the bank, plus a trusted asset in the defensive zone.

Mitchell Marner’s contract might not look too favourable when you stack it next to, say, Brayden Point’s deal, but he’s only 23 and the Leafs have him locked in for his best years. Expect an improved Marner in 2021.

Right now, we’ll say Alexander Kerfoot’s contract is looking a little less favourable, with the caveat that he could rebound and establish himself as an important member of the third line.

It’s seldom a bad idea to pay a star, but in light of bottom-six forwards taking a financial hit this fall, a guy making $3.5 million needs to make more of an impact.

Nick Robertson earned his shot in the bubble and even scored his first NHL goal. Before Dubas went out and raided the UFA bargain bin for veterans on one-way deals, the GM proclaimed Robertson will have every opportunity to make the opening night roster for 2020-21.

Now, we see the 19-year-old as a longshot due to cap math.

There will be a measure of fear of losing NHL-calibre talent on the waiver wire, so young prospects like Robertson, who is exempt from waivers, could face an uphill climb this season.

Who else will arrive at Leafs camp with NHL dreams but also waiver-exempt status?

Joey Anderson, Egor Koshkov, Rasmus Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Timothy Liljegren, Alexander Barabanov, Filip Hallander and Pierre Engvall.

With all those AHL options, it’ll be difficult to place a Jason Spezza, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey or Joe Thornton and their cap-friendly contract on waivers unless they’re vastly underperforming.

For sure.

When Spezza arrived last season, at a spritely 36, there was an understanding amongst staff that the eldest player in the room would only be playing half of back-to-backs. (However, when injury struck and he was asked to pull double duty, Spezza leapt at the chance.)

With an abundance of back-to-back and three-in-four-days sets expected in a truncated schedule, we’d expect some measure of load management across the NHL board.

In Spezza and Thornton’s case, especially, this makes sense. They were acquired to provide a wise conscience in the most critical moments. Which means you want them fresh and healthy for the post-season.

Dubas believes that as much as one would like to see it, success is not linear.

Yet after four consecutive first-round post-season exits — albeit only two under his watch and only one with his head coach of choice — it’s high time this core takes a tangible step. That means a more dominant and consistent regular season which would yield a favourable Round 1 matchup. That means the Maple Leafs discovering what Round 2 feels like for the first time in 17 years.

If it doesn’t happen, well, I believe the triumvirate of Brendan Shanahan, Dubas and Keefe should and will be granted at least one more shot in 2022.

But it could spell the end of the Core Four.

Dubas has resisted breaking up Tavares, Auston Matthews, Marner and Nylander to this point, and the moves of the 2020 off-season don’t project a sense of hot-seat panic.

Another swift exit, however, and the franchise spending a league-high 65.3 per cent of its cap space on forwards must be compelled to shift more of its budget to the back end.

Great question, and one destined to be a storyline to follow when training camp opens.

Thornton is a pure NHL centreman who's never played less than third-line minutes. Frankly, however, his numbers — like many Sharks’ — were poor in 2019-20.

His goals (seven) and points (31) totals were the lowest since his 1997-98 rookie campaign, when he played just 55 games. His minus-19 rating was the worst of his life, and — most alarming for this debate — Thornton’s face-off percentage (49.4) slipped below 50 for the first time.

How much of that decline do you chalk up to lack of inspiration punching the clock outside of the playoff race? How much do you attribute to Father Time’s knack for wearing us all down?

Speed helps the position. And at 26, Kerfoot, 15 years Thornton’s junior, has more of it.

It’s no secret Kerfoot struggled in his transition to the middle of the ice (and the hockey universe) last season, and Sheldon Keefe never settled on a 3C he could trust to excel.

Kerfoot is still developing as a face-off man — he has a 46.9 per cent success rate with the Leafs — and was more dangerous offensively (back-to-back 42-point seasons) patrolling the wing in Colorado.

My guess: The future Hall of Famer gets first crack at the 3C spot, but Keefe won’t hesitate to deviate if things aren’t clicking.

As I see it, yes.

You never want to say never, so let’s go with highly unlikely.

Dubas has made great efforts this autumn to assemble a deep, competitive roster and a rather full training camp before inviting any tryouts.

Also: If a PTO candidate were to win a job outright, whose cap space does he take?

Upon landing Thornton, Dubas said he’ll remain “open to anything,” but he doesn’t foresee adding any of the remaining free agents still on the market. Some intriguing names — Sami Vatanen, Travis Hamonic, Andy Greene, Andreas Athanasiou, Carl Soderberg — are out there.

But the UFAs are looking at Toronto’s tight cap picture and projected lineup and don’t see much opportunity for themselves. Ice time will be easier to earn elsewhere.

If I’m a GM, I want my developing players soaking up as much game action as possible. It’s why Leafs hopefuls like Egor Koshkov, Mikko Lehtonen and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (to name a few) are busy hopping the boards now in the KHL. And it’s why I’d rather have defencemen like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren starring for the Marlies than practising with the big boys, waiting on injuries to happen.

If the NHL stays true to its aim and drops the puck close to Jan. 1, the AHLers will still have to bide their time until at least Feb. 5 — the farm league’s targeted start date, according to AHL president Scott Howson. Perhaps there may be some value in taxiing for the first couple weeks of the NHL campaign until AHL camps kick into full swing.

In light of the pandemic, Howson maintains "everything's on the table" when it comes to the AHL’s regular-season format and travel schedule.

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