The Toronto Maple Leafs were happy re-signing William Nylander to a six-year deal worth $41.4 million with an annual cap hit of $6.9 million. That they finalized the deal with only minutes to spare before the December 1st Group 2 RFA signing deadline is telling.
Both sides clearly wanted to get a deal done, but they were both looking at the bigger picture too. Nylander was thinking about his long-term future, both from a playing perspective and a financial one. And the Maple Leafs have a challenge ahead of them fitting all their star players in under the salary cap. As they say, that’s a good problem to have.
Re-signing William Nylander Adds Challenge For Toronto Maple Leafs
Nylander was reportedly asking for Leon Draisaitl money. Around $8.5 million a season based on comparing the two player’s points per game. But most agree Draisaitl is not quite worth $8.5 million. A $6.9 million cap hit per year works well for the Maple Leafs and Nylander. It leaves them both with options. For the Maple Leafs, it’s a tradeable contract if Nylander for some reason doesn’t perform on the ice. That’s an unlikely scenario, but one they have to consider. It also leaves Nylander as a UFA at 28 years old. He’ll be able to re-sign or sign elsewhere, for something bigger.
We Can and We Will
Kyle Dubas’ infamous “We can and we will” comment is holding up so far. But more and bigger challenges are coming. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will both need contracts this coming summer. Matthews is probably the easier of the two. He’ll re-sign for something close to what he wants. Something near what Tavares is currently making.
Re-signing Marner may be the tougher challenge. He has 38 points in 27 games played and is third in league scoring. And he looks great on the ice every night. It’s not a stretch to think he could score 100 points this season. If he does, he’s not going to settle for Nylander money. He’ll want something closer to $10 million a season. And having three players making over $10 million a season will have consequences. But those are consequences Dubas is willing to accept. Partially thanks to being able to sign Nylander for $6.9 million a season instead of $8 million or more. Of course, one trade-off is he’ll have to deal with Nylander as a 28-year-old UFA.
Something Has Got To Give
The most obvious fallout from the Nylander singing and Marner’s breakout season will be the Maple Leafs’ most important 2019 UFA, Jake Gardiner. Gardiner’s cap hit this season is $4.05. He’s probably going to want a substantial raise, but even if he doesn’t — even if he were to re-sign for $5 million — the Maple Leafs probably can’t afford him.
Salary Cap Hell
Below is a chart I made showing how the Maple Leafs could afford John Tavares back in May. I updated it a bit for the purposes of this article. Assuming it holds roughly true dollar wise, the Maple Leafs forward group may cost them $62 million next season. Marner may come in cheaper than $10 million. Especially after it became apparent the Maple Leafs are going to stick to their guns when it comes to fitting everyone in under the cap. But the Maple Leafs may also feel they should lock him up with an eight-year contract and that will cost them.
Add another $7 million in goaltenders and that leaves $10.5 million for the defence, plus whatever the cap raises by. If it raises by $5 million, the Maple Leafs will have about $15.5 to play with. If all three of Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, and Travis Dermott play for under a million each, the Maple Leafs will have about $3 million to spare for their sixth defenceman.
Gardiner isn’t going to sign for that, and in reality, the Maple Leafs are probably going to have to pay someone more than $.9 million a season, at least as a seventh defenceman. And they’ll need some cap space for breathing room. Liljegren and Sandin may be on their way to NHL stardom, but even if they are, it’s hard to assume they’ll be capable as early as next season. Even if Marner signs for $8 million, it’s hard to see the Maple Leafs finding the money for Gardiner.
|Marleau ($6.25)||Matthews ($11.5)||Nylander ($6.9)|
|Hyman ($2.25)||Tavares ($11)||Marner ($10)|
|Brown ($2.1)||Kadri ($4.5)||Kapanen ($3)|
|Johnsson ($1)||Lindholm ($1.5)||Leivo ($1)|
|Rielly ($5)||Zaitsev ($4.5)|
|Dermott ($.9)||Liljegren ($.9)|
|Sandin ($.9)||???? ($3)|
Improving The Defence
Losing Gardiner is a step back for this defence, which is widely considered the team’s weak point. Although a quick look into this year’s stats shows that the Maple Leafs are third in goals against per game at 2.59. They’re also 27th in shots allowed per game. Part of the reason Toronto’s goals against is down is due to stellar goaltending. Frederik Andersen has a save percentage of .931 this season. The Maple Leafs should still be looking at improving their defence, not replacing players with untested rookies. But they may not have a choice.
There are a couple options available to the Maple Leafs, although none of them are easy. The first is to trade Nikita Zaitsev. Zaitsev has an annual cap hit of $4.5 million and a Corsi For of 45.8 this season. His relative Corsi For is -4.9. Finding a taker for him could free up enough cap space to re-sign Gardiner. But they would still have a fairly sizeable hole on the right side, as they do today. It won’t be easy to find a taker for Zaitsev either.
Patrick Marleau has a no-trade clause. And he’s an iron man, so the chances of him being put on long-term injured reserve for next season are remote. But if the Maple Leafs can find a way to move his contract, they could use that money to re-sign Gardiner. Marleau could be open to moving back to the San Jose Sharks for a swan song of sorts. More likely, Marleau stays on with the Maple Leafs next season, hoping to win a Stanley Cup with them.
After Zaitsev and Marleau, there aren’t any sizable contracts the Maple Leafs could move that would help improve the team. Unless they’re still thinking of trading Nylander for an upgrade on defence, but that’s even less likely than moving Zaitsev or Marleau.
Next Season And Beyond
The most likely scenario for next season is that the Maple Leafs let Gardiner walk in free agency and stock the blue line with young and cheap players. It could work for them. It’s working well for them this season and replacing Ron Hainsey with Liljegren doesn’t sound terrible. But it’s the playoffs that really matter. If they don’t do well this season, there will be even more questions. Those questions will be more difficult to answer. For now, the questions surrounding this team are still the good kind of questions.
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