TORONTO — Back when the bills were coming due on the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ collection of skilled young forwards it was popular to question whether they’d be able to navigate the constraints of the NHL’s salary cap system and put a top tier supporting cast around Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.
Consider this Kyle Dubas’ unspoken follow up to “we can and we will.”
The Leafs are returning to health with the Stanley Cup Playoffs just around the corner, and they showed a lineup during Tuesday’s practice that should be pretty close to the real thing when they enter a best-of-seven with either Montreal or Winnipeg.
It featured regular-season mainstays Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall on the outside looking in. It didn’t factor in the eventual availability of Rasmus Sandin (salary cap scratch) or Zach Bogosian (shoulder injury).
And it still looked imposing.
“I think we’re the most well-rounded team that I’ve seen here,” said Jake Muzzin, a straight-talker not prone to overstatement or exaggeration. “As far as depth and grind and skill and defence and goaltenders. It’s definitely a good feeling and it’s a solid team.
“We’re going to need everyone to buy in here to make it a long stretch.”
That group of 20 alone accounts for a total cap hit of $85.15-million in a league currently operating under an $81.5-million cap ceiling. And that’s not factoring in the cost of the available options behind them, which includes but isn’t limited to: Galchenyuk, Engvall, Adam Brooks, Nick Robertson, Stefan Noesen, Denis Malgin, Nic Petan, Sandin, Bogosian, Timothy Liljegren, David Rittich and Michael Hutchinson.
The Leafs have stretched themselves in every direction to make it all work — expending significant draft capital to acquire the contracts of Nick Foligno and Riley Nash with maximum retention at the trade deadline, and not being able to play everyone in these final two regular-season games while remaining cap compliant.
They will have Andersen back in goal for Wednesday’s visit to Ottawa, which has to be considered a bonus after placing him on long-term injured reserve last month in order to create the space needed to add Foligno, Nash, Ben Hutton and Rittich before the deadline.
It would not have been possible without subsequent injuries to Bogosian and Hyman, but those may well end up being blessings in disguise with Andersen having not played an NHL game since March 19 because of knee issues. Consider it one more step towards getting him up to speed following 95 minutes of action in the American Hockey League last week.
“Fred’s played a lot of games in the NHL, he’s got a lot of experience, so you’re not going to read too much into any one particular game, just like you’re not going to read too much into his AHL conditioning stint,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “This is all about just him getting comfortable and feeling good when he leaves the net at the end of the day from a health perspective and then from our perspective just giving him those game reps and having him out there this close to playoffs is a positive thing.”
We’ve arguably never seen a roster construction challenge like the one presented by this flat-cap, pandemic-shortened season.
It should not be overlooked that the Leafs are North Division champions, still have an outside shot at the Presidents’ Trophy in the final days of the regular season and will almost certainly dress a lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs that they didn’t use once before it.
They’re not alone, either, with Tampa likely to activate NIkita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos for the post-season and Montreal due to welcome back Brendan Gallagher off LTIR and Vegas currently not able to ice a full lineup because of injury and cap issues that will only be cleared up when the cap goes away after the regular season.
Against that backdrop, the Leafs showed themselves more than capable of competing with other savvy front offices. They enticed above-replacement-level veterans in Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza to play for league-minimum contracts, added Galchenyuk for basically nothing and found a way to load up at the deadline while threading the needle through a delicate cap situation.
Their ultimate success or failure hinges on the same young stars it did in years gone by, but they’ve insulated Matthews, Marner and Nylander in a manner not previously seen. Having all of those players on the ice together with the playoffs top of mind Tuesday afternoon only underscored the work that’s been done.
“Yeah it looks good,” said Muzzin. “We’re going to need everyone going into this and it’s nice to see those guys back.”
Sixteen wins short of a Stanley Cup, it’s all hands on deck.