TORONTO — OK … but how does it affect the Leafs?
In Toronto, hockey fans ask this question earnestly whenever a player on one of the 31 less-important teams requests a trade, or Buzz Filbert goes on waivers, or the Blue Jays chase a high-profile free agent.
Outside of Toronto, they may utter the same thing, albeit dripping with sarcasm, as they click away from Leafsnet.
But we’ll apply that question — How does it affect the Leafs? — to the NHL’s forthcoming 2024-25 salary-cap ceiling, which commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed should escalate to $87.7 million. Because, hey, no team is spending more money on players than the Maple Leafs ($95.5 million, when you add their raft of bodies on LTIR) and a large portion of Toronto’s fan base, for better or worse, is obsessed with matters of finance.
It’s expected news, but big news that the cap is projected to spike by $4.2 million — the agreed maximum of five per cent and the largest jump in six seasons — from the $83.5-million limit of today.
How much will the league’s newfound liquidity impact the franchise with the deepest coffers and spend-happiest habits?
Well, when you consider that the Leafs already top the league in dollars shelled out to forwards ($57.4 million) and that No. 1 centre Auston Matthews is due a $1.61-million raise to an NHL-high $13.25 million, a portion of GM Brad Treliving’s newfound wiggle room has already been gobbled up.
For 2024-25, the Leafs have already committed $41.9 million to forwards, $10.6 million to defencemen and only $766,667 to goaltending, according to CapFriendly.com.
With a total of $53.29 million spoken for next season, that leaves “only” $34.4 million to take care of nine(!) roster slots: a goaltender to partner with the bargain that is Joseph Woll; three defencemen, two top-six wingers, two third-liners and one fourth-liner.
Note: That budget is to dress the 20-player minimum. Any extra skaters would eat cap space beyond that.
The current edition of the Maple Leafs is deriving nice value from its collection of impending restricted free agents: Timothy Liljegren (arbitration rights), Simon Benoit (arb rights), Noah Gregor (arb rights), Nick Robertson (no arb rights). But every one of those role players is building a case for a pay bump.
Thus, Treliving and number-cruncher extraordinaire Brandon Pridham must make decisions on whom among that group to pay and whom to replace with more affordable labour via trade, free agency or callup.
Will forward prospects Fraser Minten and/or Easton Cowan, both invited to Team Canada world junior camp this week, be ready to make the jump to pro? We’re not convinced, but their entry-level money would certainly ease headaches.
What about an Alex Steeves, Pontus Holmberg or Roni Hirvonen? Or blueliners Topi Niemela and Mikko Kokkonen? What a boon it would be if some high-end Marlies could establish themselves as bottom-line Leafs. As of now, though, that idea feels more like hope than certainty.
Scheduled to come off the books is an intriguing group of pending unrestricted free agents, each of whom presents a unique case.
Let’s say Nylander’s salary goes from $6.9 million to $10 million. That leaves just $24.4 million to take care of eight others (an average of $3.05 million per player). Hence, the stalemate.
A thought on Toronto’s other active pending UFAs:
• Rebounding strong from a slow start, Tyler Bertuzzi ($5.5 million cap hit) is growing into an excellent second-line complement. He’ll definitely want term and will likely need to find that elsewhere.
• Scrappy playmaker Max Domi ($3 million) has been fair value and has found his stride centring the third line. But like Bertuzzi, if he wants a raise or a long-term commitment, he’s likely to explore the market.
• T.J. Brodie ($5 million) has been a quiet workhorse, taking on top lines and killing penalties. That said, Treliving did not engage in extension talks with Brodie in the off-season and has already let him walk once (when both were in Calgary). We predict turnover here, which means spending on at least one top-four D-man.
• That Treliving took Ilya Samsonov ($3.55 million) to arbitration over the summer and that the Leafs have been so quick to trust Woll as their No. 1 tells you everything you need to know about Samsonov’s future here. We’re unconvinced Dennis Hildeby or Keith Petruzzelli is ready for prime time and expect Treliving to sign Woll’s next tandem mate for short term and short money.
• Fan favourite Mark Giordano ($800,000) set a goal of playing till age 40 and crushed it. Can he stretch it to 41?
• If 27-year-old William Lagesson ($775,000) wants to keep playing in Toronto for league minimum, he can be my seventh D-man all day.
OK, so there’s plenty to worry about with so little funds to take care of so many free-agent slots.
Now, for the good news.
John Tavares’ $11 million comes off the books in 2025-26. The way the captain is performing, Treliving should absolutely entertain re-signing him but at a reduced rate. Further, the cap could/should raise another five per cent, bringing it to $92 million.
In other words, if Treliving is prudent, there may only be one season of financial pain here.
Less discussed but equally important is the fact that all members of the Leafs’ crowded LTIR crew — Jake Muzzin, Matt Murray and John Klingberg — are UFAs this summer.
When teams are in LTIR, they cannot accrue valuable cap space during the season, which can then be flexed come trade deadline.
If Toronto can squeeze its loonies and finally stop leaning on the LTIR crutch in 2024-25, the team may be able to flex its financial muscle mid-season and weather the crunch.