Toronto Maple Leafs Facing Salary Cap Trouble


Toronto Maple Leafs Facing Salary Cap Trouble

In news that will affect the Toronto Maple Leafs, ESPN‘s Pierre LeBrun reported that the salary cap is expected to rise to between $72 and $74 million next year, assuming the Canadian dollar doesn’t dip much further. That’s up from the current $69 million cap this year and higher than what was originally expected to be around a $71 million cap for next season.

For a cap team like the Leafs that’s got to be good news right? Well in theory you’d think so, but thanks to a series of terrible contracts, poor trades resulting in buyouts and general cap mismanagement, Toronto may be in trouble icing a team next year that’s as good as the one they currently have.

For starters, the Leafs already have 13 players signed under contract at $52,702,500, as per That leaves roughly $20-million to sign half their roster, if we assume the cap is around $73-million.

Here’s where that becomes a big problem. The following players are free agents: Nazem Kadri (RFA), Richard Panik (RFA), Brandon Kozun (RFA), Carter Ashton (RFA), Mike Santorelli (UFA), Daniel Winnik (UFA), David Booth (UFA), Trevor Smith (UFA), Cody Franson (UFA), Korbinian Holzer (UFA) and Jonathan Bernier (RFA).

Not all of those players can, or even should, return. Some are simply going to be the odd man out. So let’s work down the list from the most needed and see where we end up.

The Must Haves: Bernier, Kadri and Franson

Out of all the free agents those three are the most important. The biggest problem associated with them is that they’re all going to want raises.

Starting with Bernier, he currently makes $2.9-million, or 600k more than his backup. Of the goalies with similar cap’s in recent years who are also starters (Ben Bishop, Brian Elliott, Craig Anderson, Antti Niemi, Ondrej Pavelec, Cory Schneider and Steve Mason) half of them are paid around $4-million or more (Schneider, Mason, Pavelec and Niemi) or have an extension starting next year where they will be (Bishop). The others on that list, Anderson and Elliott, are splitting time and fighting to hold onto their job.

Nov 26, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) makes a save as Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Craig Adams (27) looks for a rebound and Maple leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner (51) defends during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Bernier is an RFA but in reality this coming contract will bridge him to unrestricted free agency, probably when he’s 30 or 31. That’s a four to five year deal and he’ll argue that as a starter he deserves starters money. As a starter who is splitting significant time with his backup, the Leafs could argue he’s more like Anderson or Elliott, but it’s fair to expect Bernier signed to between $4 and $5-million.

So now we have $15-million left.

Kadri is also an RFA, but unlike Bernier could be signed to a short-term deal and still remain an RFA. He currently makes $2.9-million and in the last three seasons has scored 44, 50 and is on pace for 47 points this year. NHLers who play centre and score roughly around 50 points a season include Jeff Carter ($5.2), Tyler Johnson ($3.3), David Legwand ($3), Patrik Elias ($5.5), Mikko Koivu (6.75), Logan Couture ($6), Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85), Nick Bonino ($1.9) and Tyler Bozak ($4.2). That’s a lot of different numbers, so let’s start eliminating comparables.

Dec 4, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri (43) celebrates his shorthanded goal in the second period against the New Jersey Devils at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson and Bonino are only 21 and 22 respectively. They’re on their first post entry-level contract in the NHL and about two years behind Kadri, so don’t serve as great comparables. Legwand, Elias and Koivu are all on the other side of 30, at least seven years older than Kadri (Koivu) and up to 14 years (Elias). Those aren’t great comparables either.

Carter (29), Couture (25), Dubinsky (28) and Bozak (28) thus seem like the best matchups. In the case of Carter, Couture and Dubinsky all three are second line centres, the same as Kadri. Over the past three years (extrapolating what a player is on pace for this year) the points totals go Couture (158), Bozak (153), Kadri (141), Carter (138) and Dubinsky (70 – Dubinsky has missed significant time due to injury and has not played yet this year). Bozak is the most likely of the five to cool off, but clearly Kadri fits right up there with these players. Outside of Bozak, the cheapest player is Jeff Carter at a long-term $5.2-million deal.

So Kadri, even accounting for being an RFA, is going to get paid more next year. They’ll probably settle somewhere in the $3.5-$4-million range. Let’s take the lower figure.

So now we have $11.5-million left.

Franson is a UFA and likely headed out of Leafland. Simply put, he’s going to be way to expensive to keep. He currently makes $3.3-million and will look for a significant raise. To find out how significant, let’s look at UFA defencemen from last year. The most sought after UFA’s were Anton Stralman, Matt Niskanen, Christian Ehrhoff, Willie Mitchell and Brooks Orpik.

Stralman signed for five years at $4.5-million. Niskanen signed for seven years at $5.75-million. Ehrhoff signed for one year at $4-million. Mitchell signed for two years at $4.25-million. Orpik signed for five years at $5.5-million.

Nov 29, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson (4) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Washington Capitals at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs won 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

That’s a lot of money for middle tier talent. In the last three seasons, Franson ranks 18th in the NHL in total points for a defencemen. None of those prized free agents has more than Franson’s 79 points. Matt Niskanen is the closest but had a career year last year of 46 points while playing with Crosby and Malkin. He’s on pace for 32 this year. Ehrhoff is next, being far more consistent than Niskanen, and he’s on pace for 41 points. Franson is on pace for 58.

While it’s not likely Franson is going to score anywhere near there, something around 40 seems a lot more likely, he’s still clearly a premier scoring defencemen and point producing defencemen get paid. While the argument can be made that Franson doesn’t have the defensive ability of some of those on the list, he’s clearly far better than Brooks Orpik or Christian Ehrhoff. He’s without question the most improved Maple Leaf defender this year and may be their most important overall. And he’s unrestricted, which means you either need to sign him by the trade deadline or risk losing him for nothing.

Franson has no reason to not go and get the crazy money being offered to free agent defencemen. The only other UFA defencemen this offseason near his age are Johnny Boychuk, Mike Green, Andrej Sekera and Matt Hunwick. That’s incredibly weak. Of those Franson is better offensively than all of them, while also being better defensively than all but Boychuk.

So Cody Franson is going to leave this offseason, unless the Maple Leafs offer him at least $5.5-million. If they did that they’d have $6-million left to sign at least seven players, so not even a million per guy. You can’t have guys worth that little eat up that much of your roster, unless their rookies, and the Leafs don’t have that depth.

So we still have $11.5-million, but need to replace a top four defencemen.

The Like To Haves: Winnik, Santorelli, Kozun, Panik, Holzer

The good thing about most of these guys is that they’ll be cheap. Let’s go from easiest to hardest.

Korbinian Holzer has been fine in relief of Roman Polak while with the Leafs this year. He’s a stay at home, rugged defencemen who probably takes to many penalties but is fine in the six role or being a healthy scratch. He’s cheap, he costs only $787,500 and could probably be retained for a similar number.

Panik and Kozun are both restricted, which makes them way easier to deal with. Neither has achieved much success at the NHL level (though both seem poised to be decent NHLers). A lot of their cost will be measured in what they do the rest of the year. Panik is on pace for over 20 points despite fourth line minutes while Kozun provided high energy and above average penalty killing in his short stint before injury. Panik costs $735k and may need a raise, while Kozun costs $550k and will likely need a small raise. Combined they’ll cost around $1.5-million.

Daniel Winnik has been the Maple Leafs best penalty killer, he’s on pace for 31 points after scoring 30 last year, and is still in his prime at 29. He costs $1.3-million and could be signed probably for three years at around $2-million.

Nov 29, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Mike Santorelli (25) battles for the puck with Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen (2) at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs won 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Santorelli is on pace for 57 points, and while that’s not likely to hold he’ll probably end up around Mason Raymonds 45 points last year. Raymond signed a three-year deal worth $3.15-million with the Flames in the offseason. If Santorelli stays at around that expect a similar number to sign him. While his penalty killing isn’t as good as Winnik, he is a centre who can play wing, which is highly valuable, as well as being much better offensively.

So assuming you sign all five of them, they eat up another $7.49-million.

So now we have $5.01-million left, but are missing a top four defencemen just to get the Leafs back to as good as they are today.

Options: Percy, Nilsson, Loov, Granberg

The cheapest option is to replace Franson internally. Of the four best options (ignoring Holzer) Percy is the most expensive but costs only $863,333. So in reality any of the four can easily fit under the cap. Percy looked good in his games with the Maple Leafs this year and will probably be the guy who gets the job, unless one of the others takes it from him.

There’s a problem though, Franson is one of the highest scoring defencemen in the league. That’s a lot of points the Leafs are losing. All four of these defencemen are average to weak when it comes to scoring. Loov leads the bunch in the AHL with only seven points in 20 games.

Clearly none of them can just take Franson’s spot, in reality the Leafs would need Gardiner and Rielly to help fill the lost points with increased powerplay time. However all would be cheap alternatives if the Leafs can’t retain Franson.

The other option is that he’s traded for a ~$4-million defencemen at or before the trade deadline. As a big, high scoring and improving defencemen just entering his prime, that isn’t a hard sell.

Worth Remembering: Nylander, Rielly, Holland, Mismanagement

Of course if the Leafs do that they’ll be right up against the cap next year. Something that will help the Leafs maintain cap room is William Nylander, who seems like a lock to be playing in the NHL next year. He’s been a point a game player for MODO in the Swedish Elite League and is their most important player, despite being only 18. He’s a $925k cap hit next year and will buy some breathing room.

Sep 23, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Steve Mason (35) makes a save on Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (62) during the second period at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

That being said key free agents for two years down the road include Morgan Rielly and Peter Holland, both of whom will need raises. There’s also Roman Polak and James Reimer but that’s an article for another day.

So the Leafs need to be careful signing more long-term deals and look at the implications years down the line.

They also need to not draw a line in the sand at the cap. Don’t forget this is a management group that went over the cap last year, giving the Maple Leafs a cap this year $513k less than everybody else.

So knowing what we know about the cap, who would you sign and for how much? Tell us in the comments.