The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Salary Cap Conundrum
The Toronto Maple Leafs will be facing some tough salary cap issues this offseason.

The Toronto Maple Leafs months-long contract standoff with William Nylander finally ended on Dec. 1 when the winger agreed to a six-year, $45-million deal.

Of course, there was much relief among the denizens of Leafs Nation. Had the Leafs failed to re-sign Nylander by the 5 pm ET deadline, he would’ve been ineligible for the remainder of this NHL season.

With Nylander finally locked up long-term, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and his staff shift their focus toward their crop of pending free agents. And that’s where things could get difficult.

As per Cap Friendly, the Leafs have over $56.2 million invested in 12 players. Their restricted free agents include forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson. Defensemen Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey and forward Tyler Ennis are their notable unrestricted free agents.

Last week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman projected the salary cap for next season could rise to around $83 million. Should it reach that level, the Leafs will have around $26.8 million of cap space to work with.

In most cases, that would be more than enough for the Leafs to re-sign or replace those key free agents. However, Matthews and Marner have emerged as two of the Leafs’ top-three forwards, part of the growing wave of the next generation of young NHL stars. Re-signing this duo could get expensive.

Speculation around the league suggests it could cost $22 million to re-sign Matthews and Marner. That would push the Leafs’ cap payroll to over $78 million tied up in just 14 players, leaving little for their remaining free agents.

Prior to the Nylander signing, the Toronto Sun‘s Steve Simmons sounded the alarm over the Leafs’ potential cap crunch. Pointing out Gardiner could get at least $6 million per season on the open market next July, Simmons noted the Leafs can’t afford to retain the blueliner if they intend to keep Nylander.

Following the Nylander signing, Simmons offered some blunt advice for Gardiner. “Start planning your free agency. Your team can’t afford you anymore.”

Some pundits, such as The Athletic‘s James Mirtle, proposed a couple of options for the Leafs. One was allowing Gardiner to depart via free agency and using their remaining cap space to re-sign Kapanen and Johnsson to affordable bridge contracts.

Another was re-signing Gardiner and then making a cost-cutting trade or two to free up cap room for other signings. Mirtle suggested forward Connor Brown or defenseman Nikita Zaitsev as trade candidates.

Brown, 24, is signed through 2019-20 with an annual cap hit of $2.1 million. The 27-year-old Zaitsev’s annual average value is $4.5 million running through 2023-24.

Moving Brown probably wouldn’t be difficult. Zaitsev’s contract and inconsistent play, however, could prove a tougher sell.

Some might suggest peddling veteran winger Patrick Marleau, who has a year remaining on his contract worth $6.25 million. However, he also has a full no-movement clause and could be unwilling to waive it.

There’s even a school of thought the Leafs might consider trading Nylander next summer. However, Dubas apparently promised the younger winger he won’t be traded as long as he’s running the team. Unless the Leafs fire their young GM by next July, Nylander’s not going anywhere.

Even if Leafs management somehow figures out how to free up enough cap room to re-sign all their key free agents, they won’t have enough to make any significant roster additions.

The Leafs still lack a skilled top-four defenseman with a right-handed shot. Until goaltender Garret Sparks shows more consistency as understudy to starter Frederik Andersen, a more experienced NHL backup could be in order.

Dubas could do an “outside-the-box” deal and trade Matthews or Marner for a skilled top-pairing right-shot rearguard in his playing prime. Given how valuable those two are to the Leafs’ success thus far, that scenario seems remote.

Another problem, of course, is the threat of an offer sheet to Matthews. Over the weekend, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston said there’s a widespread feeling the young center could become a rare offer-sheet target.

While that’s possible, it takes two to tango. If Matthews isn’t interested in an offer sheet, the Leafs have nothing to worry about.

Assuming Matthews could be tempted, the Leafs already have sufficient salary-cap space to match any offer up to the league maximum. Under an $83-million cap, that would be $16.6 million per season.

That’s also presuming the Leafs won’t have Matthews under contract before July 1. If they get their other players re-signed and negotiations drag with Matthews, a rival club with sufficient cap space could seize the opportunity.

Of course, this is all mere conjecture. No one knows what plans Dubas has in store for re-signing those players within his cap constraints.

Re-signing Nylander was Dubas’ biggest challenge in his first season as Leafs GM. He’s about to face a much tougher test.