How Maple Leafs can use taxi squad to manage salary cap crunch

TORONTO — It should come as no surprise to learn that the Toronto Maple Leafs are poised to spend the next few months playing tango with the NHL’s $81.5-million salary cap ceiling.

That’s become a yearly ritual in these parts.

But the way in which the Leafs intend to operate will be a little different this season, which is why the league’s creation of taxi squads comes along at a nice time for a front office required to closely manage its cap situation on a daily basis.

To recap: Every NHL team will carry a taxi squad of between four and six players throughout the 56-game regular season. This group will practice, travel and participate in activities with the NHL club — primarily to keep recallable players closely at hand inside the team’s bubble should injuries or COVID-19 hit because those arriving from the American Hockey League would be required to quarantine.

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Loans to the taxi squad are subject to waiver requirements. That means veteran depth players like Martin Marincin or Nic Petan would have to clear waivers before being assigned to the taxi squad, while those on entry-level contracts or deemed waiver-exempt could be moved freely back and forth from the active roster.

This unlocks new cap management possibilities for a team like the Leafs, as we’ll detail below.

First it’s important to understand how Toronto hopes to operate differently in 2020-21. It has spent most of the last six seasons using the NHL’s long-term injury provision while paying David Clarkson, Nathan Horton or Clarkson and Horton not to play. That’s allowed the Leafs to exceed the cap ceiling in each of those seasons (except 2018-19), but it’s come with restrictions that the team is now free of because the Clarkson and Horton contracts came off the books in July.

In simple terms, they’ll be in position to accrue cap space as the season goes along. For accounting purposes, the NHL calculates a team’s cap number at the end of each business day and teams spending below the upper limit accumulate additional room to add salary as a result.

That extra room could be used to add players before the April 12 trade deadline, carry a larger active roster, or weather short-term injury issues. In all likelihood, the Leafs will end up using it for some combination of the three.

Where the creation of a taxi squad really helps Toronto and other cap-conscious teams like Montreal, Vegas and Tampa is it makes it easier to carry a reduced roster. The Leafs will only have room for 21 players to start, with a potential opening night roster like this one coming in about $540,000 below the upper limit:

However, they’ll be insulated from concerns about potentially being forced to play games with fewer than 20 players because of last-minute injuries or illnesses since NHL rules allow players to be brought up from the taxi squad up until 5 p.m. ET each day (a goalie can be recalled even later if he’s needed to dress immediately).

Furthermore, the Leafs are in position to accrue additional cap space by making paper transactions on days they don’t play. If they choose to carry five players on the taxi squad, for example, they could loan someone from the active roster every practice day or off day without actually having to send the players anywhere.

Nick Robertson, Alexander Barabanov, Rasmus Sandin and Mikko Lehtonen are natural candidates since they’re each playing on entry-level contracts, while others like Travis
Boyd, Petan or Marincin could be included if they reach the NHL roster after clearing waivers.

The Leafs will be mindful of the fact that every cap dollar counts.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

This promises to be an unusual season with 56 games squeezed into a tight 116-day window and the lingering possibility of COVID causing disruption to a team. But unlike in previous years, the Leafs should have flexibility to maneuver.

It’ll be a welcome sight in a year where things are expected to be fluid.

With training camp opening Sunday, here’s a projected look at how the battle for jobs shapes up around the Leafs. There isn’t much time for evaluation with a maximum of eight days on the ice and no exhibition games scheduled, which is why nothing but a couple bubble spots and the composition of the taxi squad is truly open for competition:

NHL Locks

There isn’t much analysis required here. Assuming good health, these 19 players will start the season on the active roster: Frederik Andersen, T.J. Brodie, Zach Bogosian, Jack Campbell, Travis Dermott, Zach Hyman, Justin Holl, Alexander Kerfoot, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Wayne Simmonds, Jason Spezza, John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Jimmy Vesey.

Active Roster/Taxi Squad Bubble Players

No shortage of options in this grouping. Two of these players — likely a forward and a defenceman — will earn a roster spot come opening night. Nick Robertson and one of Mikko Lehtonen or Rasmus Sandin is most likely. But everyone in this group of 10 is a candidate to play NHL games at some point this season, and each could bounce between the taxi squad and American Hockey League as well, depending on playing opportunities: Alexander Barabanov, Travis Boyd, Aaron Dell, Pierre Engvall, Mikko Lehtonen, Martin Marincin, Nic Petan, Nick Robertson, Calle Rosen, Rasmus Sandin.

AHL Bound

These are either young players best served by AHL games for their continued development or veterans down the depth chart. Some from this group of 11 could end up spending time on the taxi squad, but are most likely tabbed for duties with the Marlies: Kenny Agostino, Joey Anderson, Adam Brooks, Joseph Duszak, Mac Hollowell, Michael Hutchinson, Teemu Kivihalme, Timothy Liljegren, Ian Scott, David Warsofsky, Joseph Woll.