There has been some talk in recent weeks of the Toronto Maple Leafs fast-forwarding the rebuild based on them being in competition for a playoff spot ahead of schedule and because rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and others are not making big money on their entry-level deals.
The Leafs are in good position with their salary cap for next season, with the contracts of Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Stephane Robidas Roman Polak, Matt Hunwick and Ben Smith expiring.
Per Cap Friendly, Toronto is projected to have $19.2 Million in available cap space this summer. That figure does not include money to be awarded to rookies for performance bonuses and the Leafs opening up more cap space ($10.55 Million) by placing injured forwards Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul on LTIR.
Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and Nikita Zaitsev are restricted free agents this summer and will be in line a significant pay increases.
Brown is not eligible for salary arbitration, which makes a bridge deal likely, while Hyman and Zaitsev are coming off shorter term ELC’s due to playing in the NCAA and KHL.
With only one full year in the NHL, the Leafs are in a favorable negotiating position to get a two-or-three year deal on Hyman, buying into years where he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Zaitsev has some leverage as a defenseman who has fit in well in Toronto’s top four and is an area where the Leafs need to upgrade. The 25-year-old has adjusted well to North America and reportedly loves playing under Mike Babcock, but does have interest from KHL teams. It likely will take a contract in the area of Jake Gardiner’s four-year, $16.1 Million deal to get the Russian blueliner locked up.
Nylander is on pace for a 55-60 point campaign after scoring 13 points in 22 games last season. There was speculation that allowing the 20-year-old to burn the first year of his ELC was to provide a better negotiating position for his next deal, with only two full NHL years instead of three.
Concerns about Nylander’s consistency and effort could make Leafs management leery to give him a long-term deal. Some observers believe that the 20-year-old will be what Toronto will have to offer to other NHL clubs for a top young blueliner.
Marner and Matthews have been superb in their rookie campaigns and look to be on the path to being franchise cornerstones, but the speculation that they will be making a salary consistent to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews coming out of entry level is not going to happen.
Patrick Kane – five-year deal - $6.3 Million
James van Riemsdyk – six-year deal - $4.25 Million
Steven Stamkos – five-year deal - $7.5 Million
Drew Doughty – eight-year deal - $7 Million
John Tavares – six-year deal - $5.5 Million
Victor Hedman – five-year deal - $4 Million
Matt Duchene – five-year deal - $6 Million
Taylor Hall – six year deal - $6 Million
Tyler Seguin – six year deal - $5.75 Million
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – seven-year deal - $6 Million
Gabriel Landeskog – seven-year deal - $5.57 Million
Nathan MacKinnon – seven-year deal - $6.3 Million
Aleksander Barkov – six-year deal - $5.9 Million
Aaron Ekblad – eight-year deal - $7.5 Million
If you take a look at the second contracts signed by top picks over the last decade, the only deals that have been max eight-year terms went to defensemen Drew Doughty and Aaron Ekblad. With the exception of Steven Stamkos, every deal was between five-to-seven years and range from $4.25 Million to $6.3 Million.
That means that the Leafs will try to sign Matthews and Marner in that five-to-seven year range, buying anywhere from one-to-three years of free agency and for a salary in the $6 to $7 Million range if you factor in an increasing salary cap and inflation.
A decision that may will likely have to be made down the road is if someone like Nylander (who is slotted behind Matthews and Marner) demands to be paid on their level.
That may force the Leafs to manage their assets and move a forward like Nylander for other areas of need, while prospects Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Jeremy Bracco or Yegor Korshkov step in on their entry-level deals.
The Leafs play the first of back-to-back games and the final game of their six-game road trip against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Goalie Frederik Andersen will make his fourth straight start against the Isles, who are 5-2-1 under interim coach Doug Weight. Backup Curtis McElhinney is expected to get the start on Tuesday, when the Leafs play the Dallas Stars at Air Canada Center.
The only lineup change expected is veteran Matt Hunwick replacing Martin Marincin, who took three minor penalties in the 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins.