Many fans and players begrudge the implementation of a salary cap in their sport. Without a salary cap players get paid more. Fans can buy a favourite player’s jersey and worry less that they will leave when their contract is up. During the quietest time of the offseason, it seems the perfect time to have some fun and look at a potential lineup for the Toronto Maple Leafs if the National Hockey League had no salary cap. Without a salary cap, the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup is not better.
First, a few ground rules. We are only looking at recent history within the last five years. Of course, trades and the signing of your restricted free agents also influence decisions, but only unrestricted free agency was considered. We’re assuming that not every available high-profile unrestricted free agent during that time would sign with the Leafs, despite their unlimited wealth. Transactions involving the Leafs were looked at and how they might affect future decisions and their current roster.
What The Toronto Maple Leafs Would Look Like Without Salary Cap
In 2018, the Leafs landed John Tavares with a seven-year, $77 million contract. Winger James van Riemsdyk left for the Philadelphia Flyers for $35 million over five years. Tyler Bozak left the Leafs for the St. Louis Blues signing for three years and $15 million. William Nylander was a restricted free agent and signed his new deal with the team. Without a salary cap, it is likely that the Leafs wouldn’t let both van Riemsdyk and Bozak leave.
In 2019, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, and Tyler Ennis left the Leafs as free agents. However, keeping any of them was not critical to the team. Mitch Marner signed with the team as a restricted free agent and the Leafs added some toughness in Wayne Simmonds. Then, in 2020, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci left the Leafs while T.J. Brodie signed as a free agent for five years and $20 million. Those moves would happen regardless of whether a salary cap exists or not.
Throughout those years, however, the Leafs lost a handful of possible signings due to cap restraints, especially in the 2020 offseason. Names like Taylor Hall and Alex Pietrangelo signed big contracts with teams that had space.
Free Agent Deals From The Past Two Years Would Alter Lineup
Free agent moves of the Leafs from the past two years would look quite different without a salary cap. In 2021, Zach Hyman left for the Edmonton Oilers signing for seven years and $38.5 million. Without a salary cap, the team can easily justify keeping the local product and fan favourite. Also, they could have added an eighth year to his contract. Taking a gamble on an ageing and unproductive future player is not punitive to a wealthy organization when there is no cap. Had that happened, Michael Bunting is not signed. A younger player with a team-friendly deal is now off the roster. The production of the two from last year is very comparable.
Without a cap, it’s not crazy to see the team resigning Nic Foligno in 2021. He loved being a Leaf and general manager Kyle Dubas could easily be convinced to give him another year or two to prove his worth, especially after acquiring him for a first-round draft pick. Alex Galchenyuk and Zach Bogosian left that summer for the Arizona Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning. Bogosian didn’t want to be away from his family so he wasn’t coming back. The Leafs weren’t interested in resigning Galchenyuk. David Kampf was signed to a two-year deal for $3 million. A big free agent fish was defenceman Doug Hamilton who signed with the New Jersey Devils for seven years and $63 million.
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In 2022, notable defections from the Leafs included goaltender Jack Campbell and winger Ilya Mikheyev. Ilya Lyubushkin left for the Buffalo Sabres. With money no object in a salary-capless world, all three could have remained Leafs. Defencemen Victor Mete and Jordie Benn would then be off the current roster.
Leafs Lineup Without Salary Cap Is Not Better
With the salary cap in place, Bunting is now on the top line instead of Hyman. Carle Jarnkrok, Nicholas Aude-Kubel, and Adam Gaudette are at forward instead of Mikheyev and Foligno. Mete and Benn have replaced Lyubushkin on defence. Matt Murray is in goal instead of Campbell.
Bunting doesn’t kill penalties, but otherwise replaces Hyman and is younger. The trio of current forwards provide more depth and can replace Mikheyev’s production. Mikheyev was also injured often. Foligno’s play and availability regressed greatly last season. All three of the above defencemen would be down the depth chart so call that trade-off a wash.
Goaltending is the ultimate x-factor when comparing the non-capped and capped lineup. Murray has a better pedigree but has lost that form in recent years. Campbell does not have a long, proven resume. Both have an injury history. It’s hard to convincingly say that one will be better than the other. Time will tell.
Dream Team Without Cap Would Best All
A fan’s dream is to imagine their team landing top free agents and money be damned. Without a salary cap, perhaps the Leafs land their long sought-after right-handed defenceman. Pietrangelo or Hamilton come on down. Maybe Hall signs to play among the top six forwards. Forget about Campbell or Murray in the net. Jacob Markstrom now dawns the blue and white. A “Fantasy Team” on ice. Now that would be fun.