What Will The Higher Cap Mean For The Toronto Maple Leafs?


Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

At the NHL Board of Governors meeting on Monday it was revealed that the salary cap is expected to go up to $71-million.

That’s almost a $7-million increase from the current cap of $64.3-million.

But what does that mean for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Well for starters the good news is that along with that extra money the Leafs will also be done paying both Darcy Tucker and Colby Armstrong a million per season not to play for them.

$500,000 in retained salary between Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens also comes off the books.

The bad news though is that part of the money is already eaten up by Phil Kessels extension. A further issue is the fact that the Leafs only have 12 players signed for next season.

Currently the Maple Leafs have eight forwards, three defencemen and one goalie signed for the 2014-15 season.

The Netminders

Building from the back end out, James Reimer is a restricted free agent and due a raise, though it’s debatable how much. He was paid $1.8-million last season and will be looking for at least equal, if not more, than Jonathan Bernier’s $2.9-million. It’s worth noting Bernier will be a RFA himself next season.

Knowing that Bernier’s contract will be up in a year Reimer will be looking for a $3-3.5 million contract. Let’s say for arguments sake that he signs for $3-million. The Leafs now have about $6-million committed to above average goaltending. That doesn’t seem out of place with other clubs.

The Defensive Front

On defence, Gunnarson, Rielly and Liles are already signed. Phaneuf, Fraser and Ranger are unrestricted while Gardiner and Franson are RFA’s.

Signing Gardiner will be simple. He’s got four years left before he’s unrestricted so while he’ll see a raise, it won’t be anything gigantic. The bigger raise will go to Franson who is in the last year of being restricted. If the Leafs want to keep him, they’ll have to lock him up to a 3-5 year deal for probably around $3-3.5-million. He earned $2-million this season.

That brings us to the captain, Dion Phaneuf. A lot of talk has gone out for Phaneuf at $8-million a season for seven years. I think the Leafs can probably land him for $7.5-million over that term, but no lower. While Phaneuf has his detractors, he plays 25 minutes a game and those are minutes the Leafs can’t replace so they have to sign him.

That locks up the Leafs defensive core, a core which is giving up 40-50 shots nightly. This isn’t an improvement other than the removal of AHL quality defencemen in Ranger and Fraser. This core costs you $20-million with either a cheap signing or an AHL call up eating the seventh spots for a million or less. Spending that much money on a below average to poor defence isn’t the best idea but the Leafs would have little to choose from on the free agent front to make them better.

The Offense and Face Punchers

The Maple Leafs forward core actually looks fairly good. Kessel, Kadri, Bozak, Van Riemsdyk, Lupul and Clarkson are all signed, with all but Kadri signed long term. The only other forwards the Leafs have signed are Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren.

So GM Dave Nonis has the chance to completely rebuild his third and fourth lines. That’s provided of course than McLaren and/or Orr are healthy scratches or sent down. Both make under a million and would clear waivers.

With limited depth down the middle Nonis probably has to re-sign Dave Bolland, provided of course that Bolland makes a full recovery. Bolland is a $3.375-million cap hit and could probably be signed for similar money.

Jay McClement can likewise be signed for a similar $1.5-million cap hit to what he made this year or replaced by a similar player for similar money.

Trevor Smith is a UFA and Peter Holland is a RFA and one, if not both, will be back. Holland will likely cost the Leafs their second round pick and is a RFA so he’s not going anywhere. Smith could leave, but you could sign him as depth for under a million a year and play him in the Marlies, which was the original plan.

Wingers Nikolai Kulemin and Mason Raymond probably won’t be back for the Leafs and could even be shipped out by the trade deadline. Raymond is having a career year on a $1-million contract and could command $3-3.5 million elsewhere. Kulemin made $2.8-million this season and did score 30 goals once upon a time, so another team may take a chance on him.

Assuming they re-sign RFA Carter Ashton and play him on the fourth line with McClement and Orr (leaving McLaren as the odd man out) that leaves two wing spots available with roughly $11-million in cap space to sign them. While that sounds like a lot, Nonis is going to want some financial flexibility which can help trades happen or if they want to bury a contract in the minors, like they’ve done with John Michael-Liles.

Free Agents

So you’re looking at a $3-4 million winger for the left and right wing. Those are the David Moss, Todd Bertuzzi or Brenden Morrow’s of the world, either older veterans teams don’t want or younger players they can’t afford.

So despite all that money we had in the beginning, all we’ve seen is a minor upgrade on defence which clearly still needs help and a debatable upgrade of the bottom six forwards. While you could re-sign Kulemin and Raymond you’d have the exact same Leaf team, not one that’s any better.

While I love the idea of spending a lot of money on a top six winger this year and moving Clarkson down to the third line, the only great under 30 UFA’s are Alex Steen, Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek. The Islanders and Sabres are likely to re-sign Vanek and Moulson which leaves only Steen, who already played here.

The other option of course is to upgrade at centre. You can then either not re-sign Bolland or move him to the wing. Big names like Joe Thornton and smaller names like David Legwand are available but at 34 Thornton’s on the down side of his career and I’m not convinced Legwand is an upgrade.

So who’s the top scoring centre under 30?

Mikhail Grabovski with 26 points in 31 games.

The Leafs will have money to spend and deals can be made, but it’s going to be tight. Dave Nonis has hamstrung himself with big contracts for underachievers like Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson. He’s stuck with those contracts, for better or worse.

Despite those bad contracts, Nonis has a chance this coming summer to really make his mark on this team. Whether that’s going to be a single big free agent splash, the signing of more underpriced talent like Mason Raymond or a much needed defensive upgrade remains to be seen.