The Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenceman Morgan Rielly to an 8-year, $60 million contract last week. Did the clock start ticking on how long the Maple Leafs might be able to keep their core four forwards?
GM Kyle Dubas talked about keeping that core together after the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares as a free agent. “We can, and we will,” was his infamous statement at the time.
A lot has been made about the Maple Leafs committing more than $40 million per season to Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. In a cap system, committing too much money to the top players means less money for the rest.
This made Rielly’s extension something of a surprise. The contract was quite likely below what Morgan Rielly could receive on the open market. So maybe that is part of the surprise. Another reason is that it could become increasingly difficult for the Maple Leafs to keep their core four forwards intact beyond this season.
“In the short-term we’ve been telling our clubs to kind of plan on $1 million increases in the cap,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast in September.
That does not give the Maple Leafs a ton of wiggle room. The Maple Leafs are jammed up against this season’s $81.5 million salary cap. According to PuckPedia, the Maple Leafs have committed nearly $75.3 million in salaries for 15 players next season. Going to $82.5 million will be better than remaining flat but it is still going to present some fiscal challenges for the Maple Leafs.
What are some of the other possible areas to address before the Maple Leafs consider breaking up The Core Four?
Morgan Rielly was one of four Maple Leafs regulars headed for unrestricted free agency next summer. Goaltender Jack Campbell, winger Ilya Mikheyev, and veteran forward Jason Spezza are the others.
Campbell is finally getting an opportunity to be a starting goaltender in the league. If he stays healthy and performs to the level that he has so far he will be due for a big raise. In seven appearances this season, Campbell has a .918 save percentage.
Any new contract for Campbell could start with something like the three-year, $15 million extension signed by Los Angeles Kings goaltender Cal Petersen. Since Campbell’s current deal comes with a $1.65 million cap hit, that means a significant raise and, without other changes, it is not easy to find room for that raise.
If Campbell plays well and earns a new contract, then it would make sense for Mrazek to be on the trade block, potentially to a team where he could earn a starting job. He does have a 10-team no-trade list but if the Maple Leafs were to retain Campbell, Mrazek would presumably be open to getting moved to a team that would give him a chance to start. Alternatively, if a deal can’t be worked out with Campbell, Mrazek could be in line to be next season’s starter.
The Middle Class
Mikheyev is currently out with a broken thumb. If he plays well upon his return, he could be in line for a notable raise on his $1.645 million cap hit.
Spezza, having earned more than $90 million in his NHL career, keeps signing league minimum deals to play for his hometown team. He ends up producing outstanding value in his depth role. It should not be taken for granted by the Maple Leafs.
Aside from Morgan Rielly and the big four forwards, there are six players on the Toronto Maple Leafs that are set to make more than $2 million against the salary cap next season. That list includes defencemen Jake Muzzin ($5.625 million), T.J. Brodie ($5.0 million), and Justin Holl ($2.0 million), goaltender Petr Mrazek ($3.825 million), and forwards Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million) and Nick Ritchie ($2.5 million).
Any of those players could be considered as trade chips. If the Maple Leafs were to move Muzzin or Brodie that would leave a top-four hole on the blueline. Maybe Rasmus Sandin could move up but the risk involved starts to increase when taking out a top defenceman.
Holl has recently been a healthy scratch so removing him from the lineup might not be as big an issue. However, the organization obviously thinks highly of Holl. They chose to protect him in the expansion draft, ahead of Jared McCann or Alexander Kerfoot.
Some of the savings could come up front. Alexander Kerfoot ($3.5 million) and Nick Ritchie ($2.5 million) would be entering the last year of their current contracts. If Toronto moved out Kerfoot and/or Ritchie, that would present an opportunity for at least one inexpensive forward to step into the lineup.
The Restricted Free Agents
There will be more Maple Leafs players looking for new contracts before next season.
Defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren are going to be restricted free agents. While they do not have long track records, they will be looking at raises from their entry-level deals. How they perform this season could impact what moves the team is willing to make before next season.
Forwards Ondrej Kase and Pierre Engvall are also restricted free agents that will need new contracts.
The Maple Leafs would surely use every bit of leverage that they can on their restricted free agents. Costs are going to be tight. If the Leafs can’t get these players signed that would leave more holes that need to be filled.
Moving any of those players could provide cost savings. It will also leave a corresponding hole that needs to be addressed. Not every hole can be filled by an entry-level contract or $1 million free agent. There are only so many Michael Buntings to go around.
The Maple Leafs will gain $1.2 million in cap space next season when their salary retention for Phil Kessel comes off the books.
Threading The Needle
In the end, the Maple Leafs probably have a path to move forward with their core four forwards even after taking the Morgan Rielly contract into account. It won’t be easy, and a lot probably depends on how this season plays out.
If the Maple Leafs achieve some postseason success, it might be easier to do more trimming around the edges.
However, if the Maple Leafs fail to advance in the playoffs again, the core will likely get broken up. In that case, these could be decisions made by a new general manager.
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