Looking ahead to the Maple Leafs 2019-2020 roster By Luke Garrison (Monday October 15th, 2018)
PICTURED—LEAFS' GM KYLE DUBAS CAN'T CONTAIN HIS EXCITEMENT UPON WINNING THE CALDER CUP // Original Photo—CBC.ca.
TORONTO—It’s been an exciting start to the season for Leafs Nation; however, the buds are also looking eerily similar to their 2012-13 roster.
The parallels between the two teams stem from the style of play the modern Leafs have shown thus far—a high scoring offence, a suspect defence, and clutch goaltending. Considering the core of old featured the likes of Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf, and James Reimer, the two squads shouldn’t look similar at all.
To make things worse, all of this is happening as William Nylander continues to wait on the sidelines for the money he supposedly deserves. With each passing day, more and more fans are beginning to talk about a future without him. Will he be traded for that much needed top-pairing defenceman? Perhaps an offer sheet is in the cards?
Realistically, he’ll sign for somewhere around the $6.5-7 million AAV range. Nylander’s contract situation isn’t abnormal seeing as he’s represented by an agent named Lewis Gross. Gross also represents Johnny Gaudreau and did this exact same song and dance with the Calgary Flames during October 2016.
Gross demanded around $8 million per season whereas the Flames wanted to pay somewhere between $6.375 and $6.75 million. In the end, Johnny Hockey signed a 6-year deal with an AAV of $6.75 million on October 10th.
Keep in mind that Gaudreau had finished sixth in league scoring during the previous season with 30 goals and 78 points. His $6.75 million AAV was tied for the 44th highest cap hit in the NHL at the time. Nylander’s back-to-back 61-point seasons are impressive; however, they’re not $8 million impressive. This is just the nature of the aggressive negotiation game Gross plays (a very Scott Boras-esque approach).
Although the fans trust Kyle Dubas and friends, there’s been a futuristic sense of panic amongst Leafs Nation lately. Will Tavares’ $11 million cap hit come back to bite management? How will they retain all of these great players under the salary cap?
Let’s take a look at the Leafs’ potential 2019-20 roster. Keep in mind that this is purely my hypothetical opinion. All estimated salaries are based off of comparable players/contract situations and will be explained as best as possible. The projected cap ceiling is an estimate based on year-to-year cap growth from the last few seasons.
Also, remember that I can’t tell the future.
Well, fancy that. In this hypothetical future, the Leafs have managed to remain under the cap despite paying a king’s ransom to their ‘Big 4’.
I use the expression king’s ransom because although they’re all arguably worth their assigned price tags, all of those contracts are also worst case scenarios. After all, why would you want to pay Marner like Stamkos or Malkin when you could give him Pastrnak money?Nevertheless, due to Mike Babcock’s inexplicable love for all things Zach Hyman, the top-six forward core will most definitely remain more-or-less the same.
In this scenario, Matthews signs a monster deal complete with a $12 million AAV as he leaps Tavares to become the player with the second highest cap hit in the NHL (behind Connor McDavid, of course).
It’s hard to say what Matthews will actually get. Will he take a team discount like Crosby/Malkin did? Their cap hits are $8.7 and $9.5 million respectively (probably not). Maybe he’ll make exactly what Tavares is making? Or maybe he’ll settle for something in the Jack Eichel pay range ($10 million).
No matter what Matthews end up making, it will be more than worth it. How he performs in the postseason could go a long way in making his case for McDavid money. His current hot start to the season certainly isn’t hurting his cause either. If he continues at this torrid pace, he could end up being the top paid player in the league.
Tavares is someone that doesn’t require much discussion seeing as the rest of the world has been doing copious amounts of that since, well, before July 1st and beyond. All you need to know is that he has incredible chemistry with Marner and said connection has lead to six goals and four assists through JT’s first six games. It would appear as though he’s worth the money. He’s had a couple of brutal giveaways so far, but it happens to the best of them. It just serves as a reminder to how lucky the Leafs are to have a perennial Selke candidate such as Kadri playing on the “shutdown” line.
Marner is perhaps the most interesting case out of the core forwards in terms of salary. What causes so much intrigue is the fact that his ceiling somehow continues to grow. Given his age and skill, the sky is truly the limit for him at this point. The $9.5 million salary allotted to him was given under the assumption that he will become a point-per-game player this year. Given his aforementioned chemistry with Tavares and that stacked power play he’s apart of, it’s truly terrifying to estimate the kind of damage he will do.
If he only manages to put up between 60-70 points again, it could potentially hurt his negotiations despite the fact that management knows he’s a world-class player. Regardless of what happens, the Leafs are ideally looking to lock-up Marner for somewhere on the lower end of the $8.5-9 million pay range.
PICTURED—MITCH MARNER // Original Photo—Sportsnet.ca
In the case of Nylander (as explained in the intro), $7.25 million would be a bit of an overpayment however not an impossible one. As mentioned before, all of these salaries are absolutely worst case scenarios and succeeding $7.25 million AAV to a winger who’s yet to score more than 22 goals over a single season is a nightmare.
Willy’s rookie and sophomore seasons looked very alike and while there’s room to progress at his age, it’s very possible that he’s also hit his offensive ceiling. After all, playing with Matthews will do that to you. Not to mention 61 points is also a great ceiling.
There isn’t much to say in the way of Zach Hyman or Patrick Marleau. Hyman’s AAV will continue to be a good value so long as he can consistently post 30-40 points while bringing a plethora of useful intangibles (such as forechecking, penalty killing, etc.). Marleau, on the other hand, will finish up his last season with the Leafs. It would be rather surprising to see him come back for another year unless Dubas signs him to cheap money for one season.
The Chicago Blackhawks were in a similar scenario when they signed Brad Richards in 2014 (1-year, $2 million). Marleau still has a lot of game left for a 39-year-old; however; losing that $6.25 million cap hit will go a long way towards shoring up some money for that coveted top-four blue liner.
Another player to quickly mention would be Tyler Ennis although there isn’t much to comment on there either. He’s been an unsatisfactory addition to the top-six despite showing flashes of offence. That failure to impress has been evident as Babcock has shifted him around the lineup hoping for something to catch. It would be extremely surprising to see him back.
Now onto the bottom-six highlighted by Nazem Kadri. Coming off back-to-back 32-goal seasons where he registered at least 55 points in each, his $4.5 million AAV continues to be one of the best values in the league. Nothing says “I have centre depth” than a player like Nazem on your third line.
Wingers Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen have similarly curious cases. It’s interesting to see they’re in comparable scenarios considering Kapanen was taken 22nd (2014) and Johnsson was taken 202nd (2013). Just goes to show that your draft position doesn’t define your future.
Johnsson is a year ahead of Kapanen and, as such, is playing this season under a qualifying offer. Unfortunately Johnsson has significantly less NHL experience; therefore, he doesn’t have the type of NHL sample with which to base a contract off of like Connor Brown. Should Johnsson choose to file for arbitration, he would most likely not receive the money he seeks (at this point).
His consecutive games as a healthy scratch remind us he’s not a fixture in the lineup yet in any capacity. Until he can regularly play and produce at an adequate rate in the NHL, that $1.25 million AAV projected arbitration price tag I gave him is generous. He may take a one-year deal at a similar price to what he’s making now (around $800,000-$850,000) in order to prove himself which wouldn’t be a bad move.
He could also do what Washington Capitals’ forward Chandler Stephenson did and bargain on himself for a lower price under more term in order to create a longer personal showcase (Chandler signed for two years at $650,000 AAV). He has all the raw tools to be a top-nine player, it’s just a matter of whether or not he puts it together in time seeing as the Leafs are flush with wing prospects.
Kapanen, on the other hand, is in the last year of his entry-level contract. At age 22, he’s also still very raw but the talent is there—especially the speed. This is a huge season for him as Babcock’s confidence in his play has landed him both on Auston Matthews’ line (for the time being) and on the penalty kill.
How long he can remain in the top-six is important as Nylander’s eventual return (whenever that is) will undoubtedly push him down into a bottom-six role. If he scores between 35-45 points this season (which could still be a bit of a reach), he could make things awkward around negotiation time. Still, he’s not eligible for arbitration for two more years and doesn’t have much leverage. Kappy will end up following in Johnsson’s footsteps by either accepting his qualifying offer or accepting a short-term deal involving gambling on himself.
Despite the Finn’s hot start, there’s still a slim chance of him signing a deal for much more than entry-level money. My best guess is that one of Kapanen or Johnsson will play well enough this year to earn a $1-1.5 million contract over 1-2 years whereas the other will need a year or two requiring an entry-level money gamble (like the aforementioned Chandler Stephenson). Johnsson is still much more likely to receive the former since he potentially has the power of arbitration on his side. He just has to have an NHL season productive enough to use said power.
PICTURED—ANDREAS JOHNSSON // Original Photo—Puckprose.com
The rest of the forward group and their estimated contracts are pretty self-explanatory. Connor Brown will make $2.1 million once more and will hope to build off of a sophomore season which saw him score 14 goals after a 20-goal rookie season. Obviously his goal drop-off was expected seeing as he began his career with Matthews; however, he hasn’t shown too much chemistry with Kadri in the offensive zone and it will be difficult for him to focus on offence when he’s primarily used in a defensive role.
Par Lindholm has seen time at both centre and on the wing. His main draw seems to be his hands and his hockey IQ is decent as well. His approximate contract is based off the assumption that the Leafs will extend him a qualifying offer which he will accept.
Carl Grundstrom rounds out the group and represents the player who will be making $925,000 to play on the fourth line. There’s a good chance it will be Grundstrom himself; however, it could be anyone knowing how much the Leafs have carouseled that spot in the past. Perhaps Dubas will finally create some consistency in that spot. Maybe it could even become occupied by Josh Leivo (who is a player I refuse to comment on because there are just so many unknowns).
As we shift our focus over to the defence, things get a bit more tricky. The first thing you might notice is that this chart does not include Jake Gardiner. And no, he did not lose his spot because Babcock and Dubas remember game seven and are just waiting for the chance to banish him to free agency once his contract expires. The reality is that Gardiner has put up very good offensive numbers and half-decent defensive possession stats despite his reputation for blatant blue line blunders. As such, he’ll be demanding a raise from his current $4,050,000 AAV and the Leafs just can’t afford that.
Although it’s not the greatest thing ever to lose him, it’s also far from the end of the world and would certainly come with its advantages. The one thing making it easier is his play so far this season. It hasn’t been overly mediocre; however, he seems disengaged and really hasn’t made much of an impact at all. Alternatively, his game against the Capitals on Saturday did look encouraging.
But many Leafs look faster and stronger as you can tell they’ve worked hard this past summer whereas Gardiner looks exactly the same as seasons past. You would think he’d have made a point of having a monster offseason after that game seven performance (although Babcock’s over-usage of him definitely contributed to the prime time meltdown).
It’s hard to give a player like him a raise when the cap crunch is real and there are so many internal options on the brink of deserving full-time jobs. Realistically, Dermott and Zaitsev can do Gardiner’s job just fine and one of Liljegren, Borgman, and/or Rosen can step into the bottom pairing at a reasonable price.
PICTURED—TIMOTHY LILJEGREN // Original Photo—Sportsnet.ca
Rielly’s contract continues to be an incredible value which helps to ease the pain of what might be a questionable "wait-and-see" deal currently held by Zaitsev. Either way, both are likely to be a big part of the Leafs’ plans going forward.
Although the defence leaves a lot to be desired considering the average age and lack of experience, there’s also a lot to like and a wealth of potential upside. As mentioned previously, recent cup winners haven’t had overly spectacular/deep defence cores and the greater majority of this backend group helped the Leafs win 49 games last season. They certainly aren’t underrated, yet people are very critical of them despite the historic success the Leafs are enjoying.
A key part of the future falls on the shoulders of Travis Dermott. As the projected number three behind Rielly and Zaitsev, he’s the true x-factor and will be counted upon as a secondary leader and as a steadying presence. His skating, hockey IQ, and poise are encouraging and the buds have big plans for him.
The question marks then shift to the bottom three rearguards. There’s little harm in having a young, inexperienced bottom-pairing defenceman with upside such as an Ozhiganov, a Borgman, or a Liljegren. The biggest concern is who will slip into the top-four. If management doesn’t feel as though they have an adequate internal option going into next season, a trade could very much be in the cards.
One move that immediately comes to mind is dealing Patrick Marleau. The Leafs would likely have to retain salary; however, even taking $4 million of his $6.25 million cap hit off the books would free up roughly $8 million in cap space. Having that kind of money could fetch a defenceman who could slot in behind Rielly and pushing every defenceman one slot down the depth chart would make things very solid back there.
The unlikely play would of course be for management to move someone like William Nylander. It would be a shame if it came to that but there’s no way they haven’t considered it. Whether it would end up being a Marleau or a Nylander, the reassuring fact lies in the amount of young wingers in the organization. Someone like Jeremy Bracco could become a replacement option.
Although there’s room for optimism and many potential options to exploit, managing the cap will be no easy task for the Leafs brass going into next season. Hopefully they will save some money on at least one of the ‘big four’ contracts but even if not, there’s no reason for alarm. The defence is a solvable problem and the cap will only continue to rise every year.
Having Frederik Andersen is another reason to breathe easier as he has looked very sharp despite his less than stellar numbers to begin the season. He’s a notoriously slow starter and will eventually settle into his most optimal rhythm.
Garret Sparks will have a long leash and should eventually be able to figure it out. He’s in a position essentially free from competition given the departures of Calvin Pickard and Curtis McElhinney and the Leafs confidence in him will hopefully help him to have confidence in himself.
In the end, Kyle Dubas will do whatever is necessary in order for the Leafs to ice the most competitive team possible. It’s easy to criticize from the couch but in reality, the Leafs have an army of hockey minds and they would not have signed Tavares without running through thousands of hypothetical future cap crunch scenarios.
It’s certainly an interesting time to keep an eye on the Leafs.