Toronto Maple Leafs replacement players are plentiful. Whether it’s Kasperi Kapanen replacing William Nylander on Auston Matthews‘ wing. Or Andreas Johnsson getting time with the top six, replacing departed James van Riemsdyk. The Maple Leafs have a system in place that is full of replacement players. And they’re going to need them.
Toronto Maple Leafs Replacement Players Are Coming
The whole reason Kyle Dubas thinks he can sign Mitch Marner and Matthews to big deals while keeping Nylander and adding John Tavares is that he intends to save money elsewhere on the roster. Consider the New York Islanders’ bottom six. Cal Clutterbuck makes $3.5 million per season. Leo Komarov makes $3 million per season. Matt Martin makes $2.5 million per season. The list goes on. Martin signed that deal with Toronto, but his trade to New York and the Maple Leafs not re-signing Komarov are signs of Dubas’ master plan.
The Islanders invested in bottom six players this season. They can afford it because they have top players on entry-level contracts and don’t need to worry about paying Tavares on a big contract. The Maple Leafs did not invest in their bottom six, they’re more interested in their top six, or top nine you may say. To do that, they took some chances. Kapanen and Johnsson are two of those chances. Although those two are the high reward low-risk type. Dubas also took chances on Par Lindholm, Tyler Ennis, Frederik Gauthier, Igor Ozhiganov, Travis Dermott, and Garret Sparks. All of who make less than one million dollars against the salary cap.
Some of these players will need to be signed for more than one million dollars next season. Or Dubas will not re-sign them and instead replace them with another crop of sub-millionaires. There’s always an Ennis out there looking for a job. And there is a pending harvest playing for the Calder Cup Champion Toronto Marlies.
Who Will Play In The NHL This Season
Promoting players mid-season is usually dependant on things like injuries, trades, or players not playing well. Most of the current Maple Leafs are playing well. And they have a couple of defencemen already spending significant time in the press box in Martin Marincin and Justin Holl. Both are making less than one million by the way. But there could be a forward or two that sees ice time.
Trevor Moore, a 23-year-old undrafted left winger, is the prime candidate at forward. He has 16 goals and 23 points in 26 games this season for the Marlies. He also spent time playing defence in a recent game against the Binghamton Devils. If he can play the defence position, he’s probably able to satisfy Mike Babcock’s defensive responsibility requirements for forwards.
Carl Grundstrom and Jeremy Bracco are two more forwards that could make the jump to the NHL at some point, but they’re more likely to stick with the Marlies this season. They could find themselves battling with next year’s version of Ennis in training camp for spots on the fourth line next season though.
The Maple Leafs may not be interested in many trades this season. At least not the kind that sees players move out. They’re near the top of the standings and looking to win a Stanley Cup. Teams in that position don’t trade players away unless they’re upgrading a position. But one move they could consider as a sell high type of move is trading Ennis. Ennis is signed for the league minimum and has seven goals in 32 games. If the Maple Leafs feel they won’t lose anything by trading Ennis because they have a replacement player waiting in the wings, like Moore, they could trade Ennis to a team looking to add depth for the playoffs.
This off-season is going to be much more interesting on the roster side. Matthews and Marner are going to eat up a lot of cap space. As a result, the Maple Leafs are going to be hard-pressed to re-sign Jake Gardiner, Kapanen, and Johnsson. Gardiner will be the toughest. He’s a UFA and he’ll have a lot of teams interested in him. Unless the Maple Leafs are able to move Patrick Marleau‘s contract, Gardiner will be playing elsewhere next season.
Kapanen and Johnsson may sign bridge deals. Kapanen has 12 goals and Johnsson seven. If Kapanen finishes the season with 20-25 goals and 55 points, what’s to stop him from using Nylander as a comparison during contract negotiations? The Maple Leafs cannot afford Kapanen at $5 million AAV. Johnsson is in a similar situation, although to a lesser degree. Even without re-signing Gardiner, the Maple Leafs will be hardpressed to re-sign both of Kapanen and Johnsson. Unless they move out some of the bigger contracts and use players making less than one million as replacements.
Marleau is making $6.25 million AAV. Moving his contract would solve a lot of the Maple Leafs cap problems. But Marleau has a no-movement clause. He would have to agree to a trade. And it’s not likely he’ll find himself on long-term injured reserve. Marleau is an iron man playing in 741 consecutive games. But Marleau would be a great trade piece this offseason. The Maple Leafs will pay him $3 million on July 1st, leaving a salary of $1.25 million for the rest of the season. A cap hit of $6.25 million with an actual salary of $1.25 million would interest a lot of teams. Especially if that player is of Marleau’s calibre on and off the ice. But again, that darn no-movement clause.
On The Way Out?
If the Maple Leafs can’t move Marleau, they may end up trading Kapanen, unless Kapanen is willing to sign a short, cheap deal. Kapanen could bring a good return as well, which makes him an interesting trade chip. But he’s not as easy to replace.
The other elephant on the roster is Nikita Zaitsev. Zaitsev is making $4.5 million per season. But he’s not playing like a $4.5 million defenseman. He would be easily replaced, but the problem with trading Zaitsev is his contract has another five years on it after this year. While a team looking to reach the cap floor may be interested in the dollar value, the term makes finding a fit harder.
One way or another, the Maple Leafs will try to move Zaitsev this off-season. Even if it means packaging him with a better player for a small return. They have a few defencemen that could fill his spot. Dermott is developing into a top-four defenceman. And Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren could both be ready to replace Zaitsev and pending UFA Ron Hainsey next season.
The Maple Leafs may also need to sacrifice Connor Brown‘s $2.1 million dollar contract as well. The savings on replacing Brown would only be a million dollars. But for the Maple Leafs next season, unless they can pull off some David Clarkson type of magic, every million counts. The good news is the Maple Leafs are adept at finding good players making less than one million to fill their roster.