Salary cap issues remain for Maple Leafs after Matthews contract

Feb 8 2019, 4:55 pm

The biggest fish in Toronto was fried this week when the Maple Leafs signed Auston Matthews to a five-year contract extension worth $11.634 million per season.

Now what?

The Matthews deal itself is an outlier for a number of reasons. From a pure cap hit standpoint, it’ll be the second highest in the league next season, which is about what you’d expect from a player who’s poised to be one of the league’s best for years to come.

It’s perhaps the start of a new trend away from the standard eight-year deals superstars have taken in recent years. If so, we could see a new NHL where players negotiate their salaries more frequently. 

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After John Tavares came in at $11 million per year over the course of seven seasons, it shifted the balance of what the Leafs’ capabilities were moving forward. It likely had an impact on the infamous William Nylander negotiations, and it seems to be a fair evaluation that if it didn’t prevent it completely, it certainly complicated the eight-year deal many were expecting Matthews to sign.

And now, all eyes are on the Leafs’ abilities to navigate everything else. The toughest job left is the Mitch Marner situation.

Here’s a snapshot of the Leafs’ payroll going forward, courtesy of CapFriendly.com:

The 21-year old winger is currently just four points away from his career high of 69, with about two months left in the regular season. A hundred points seemed like a crazy expectation to start the year, but he’s currently on pace for 101 with 29 games remaining.

While comments from his agent stating Marner is seeking one of the league’s highest contracts and the constant threat of an offer sheet (where the Leafs would either have the chance to match or be compensated with draft picks), head coach Mike Babcock doesn’t seem too fazed that his management group won’t be able to get the job done.

It isn’t the only financial hurdle the Leafs have to look at moving forward and they’ll likely be spending right to the salary cap limit in the years to come, but it’s only cap trouble if your players are bad.

If the salary cap ends up at around $83 million next year as projected, they’ll have about $16 million left to sign Marner, as well as restricted free agent forwards Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, and likely two other forwards and a defenceman, unless the Leafs decide to promote internally from their prospect pool.

Playing a bit of armchair GMing, let’s throw Marner at $10 million per season over 8 years, and Kapanen and Johnsson at cap hits of $3 million and $2 million each over the next two seasons.

Locking up either Kapanen or Johnsson long-term would likely inflate their cap hit, as it usually does, and both players likely want to show the Leafs their increased production this season (both have already hit career highs of 31 and 27 points to date) can continue for a stretch in the future.

If those numbers come to fruition, it seems like a forgone conclusion that unrestricted free agent defencemen Ron Hainsey (aging and underperforming) and Jake Gardiner (too expensive to keep) will be gone next season.

It wouldn’t be surprising for the Leafs to make another big trade either before the trade deadline or in the summer, but it doesn’t seem like they’re ready to do anything brash that doesn’t also benefit them in the future.

There are a number of lesser players such as Tyler Ennis, Igor Ozhiganov, Par Lindholm and Frederik Gauthier on expiring contracts that all make less than $1 million in salary, and thus aren’t really needle-movers or likely to command big raises in the future.

It’s a league of dynasties, and the Leafs are looking to create theirs. As TSN’s Bob McKenzie said, the most important step is locking down their top-two centres for their next six playoff runs, including this year. 

And while there is a salary cap, few teams can flex the financial muscle of the Leafs. This chart, from TSNs Travis Yost, shows how the Leafs have been paying many of their stars (notably Matthews, Tavares, Patrick Marleau, and Nylander) up front signing bonuses each year.

The Leafs may not have the tax advantage or favourable weather to sign free agents, but they do have a competitive roster that’s been strong enough to attract star players in consecutive off-seasons. And while signing multiple star forwards complicates matters for how much money they’re able to spend on everyone else, the Leafs shouldn’t have any issue finding useful players to fill out the margins of the roster.