Can Maple Leafs make salary cap work after signing Nylander?

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After plenty of drama unfolded – particularly among nervous fans – the Toronto Maple Leafs hashed out a six-year deal worth just under $7 million per year for William Nylander.

Fans, coach Mike Babcock, GM Kyle Dubas, Nylander, and hockey media at large let out an exhale. But, for some, the immediate question returned: how are the Maple Leafs going to make this fit under the salary cap for 2019-20 and beyond?

After all, the futures of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (and even Jake Gardiner?) held up Nylander’s negotiations, to some extent, in the first place.

During the NHL’s recent Board of Governors meetings, word surfaced that the cap ceiling will be approximately $83 million in 2019-20. That number can change, yet it’s a helpful window for the Maple Leafs to consider. It’s also helpful that it’s a nice bump up from this season’s high mark of $79.5M.

Let’s be honest, though: this would probably be challenging even if the cap was at, say, $90 million.

So, what are the Leafs to do? Let’s try to break things down in different subcategories, with some guidance from the always-helpful site Cap Friendly.

I’ll throw in some of my opinions about who’s especially important to Toronto’s viability, who (to me) is an obvious player to trade, and the guys who stand in the murky middle.

This is a pretty deep dive, so buckle up.

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Anticipated salary cap: Approximately $83 million in 2019-20, up from $79.5M this season.

Committed to cap as of today, via Cap Friendly$56.3M on 12 players. So, Marner + Matthews ($20M) would likely bump it up to at least $76.3M for 14 players.

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The Core (already signed)

John Tavares, 28, $11 million, 2024-25
William Nylander, 22, $6.962M, 2023-24
Frederik Andersen, 29, $5M, 2020-21
Morgan Rielly, 24, $5M, 2021-22
Nazem Kadri, 28, $4.5M, 2021-22

Notes: Kadri is one of those players some might categorize differently.

To me, though, he’s an absolutely crucial bargain. It’s not just that Kadri can be a second-line center at a very reasonable price; it’s that Kadri is a credible second-line center at just $4.5M. In my book, that makes him a core piece.

Andersen and Rielly stand as absolutely crucial bargains, even more than Kadri. You can quibble about Rielly as a Norris candidate, but for $5M, a player with his skills is a dynamite deal. He’s that much more important on a defensive group that stands as Toronto’s glaring weakness. Andersen cleans up a lot of those messes at a very reasonable price.

Support bargains

Zach Hyman, 26, $2.25M, 2020-21
Connor Brown, 24, $2.1M, 2019-20
Travis Dermott, 21, $863K expires after next season

Notes: Dermott being a good defenseman at an entry-level price is downright critical to the Maple Leafs’ hopes of surviving the pending cap crunch. His cheap deal almost makes him feel like a core piece by context.

These other two forwards are really nice to have, too, particularly Hyman. He’s not lighting the world on fire, yet Hyman’s shown that he can be a very useful top-nine forward. Brown has a 20-goal season to his name (in 2016-17).

That said, it’s not outrageous to wonder if the Maple Leafs might need to part with Brown, in particular, if the squeeze gets boa-like.

Problem/disposable contracts

Patrick Marleau, 39, $6.25M for next season
Nikita Zaitsev, 27, $4.5M, 2023-24
Nathan Horton‘s contract: $5.3M that’s been LTIR bound, expires after 2019-20

Notes: This is where things get awkward, but where work can get done.

It’s obvious that there’s a lot of organizational love for Marleau, particularly from Babcock, as James Mirtle noted for The Athletic about a week ago (sub required).

“He makes you a flat out better human being just by walking by you,” Babcock said.

That piece goes in-depth on how much Babcock and others rave about Marleau’s “intangibles,” but when basically every $100K counts, can you really justify $6.25M for being “good in the room?” Mirtle also breaks down how Marleau’s play is (understandably) decaying, and as we’ve seen with sports, Father Time can slam the door shut on your production with startling speed and cruelty.

That money could easily slot in as Gardiner’s next cap hit, and while Gardiner draws critics, the Maple Leafs need defensemen like him. And those defensemen aren’t exactly growing on trees. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could a) get a veteran presence at the veteran minimum or b) hire a retired player to serve as a mentor, one who doesn’t count against the cap?

If I were in Dubas’ shoes, I’d be looking for creative avenues to take care of this issue right now, but the most likely scenario would be for Toronto to part ways with Marleau during the summer — if at all. Marleau possesses a no-movement clause throughout his deal, so that could end up being a very messy situation. I’m not certain the Maple Leafs can actually pull off trading Marleau, but his deal is a real problem, unless there’s a pending “shady run to the LTIR” in his future. Right, Joffrey Lupul?

(The third year of Marleau’s deal boggled my mind when it was signed, and continues to drive me a little nuts.)

Speaking of messy situations, Horton’s $5.3M has gone to LTIR during his entire “run” with Toronto, as he slotted in to replace a similar nightmare with David Clarkson.

The Maple Leafs could easily LTIR Horton again next summer, although there would be some advantages to getting that off the books earlier, so let’s at least keep his contract in mind. Maybe a rebuilding team could take Horton off of their hands as part of a complex, creative deal? Perhaps it could instead be as simple as the equivalent to the Coyotes taking Marian Hossa‘s contract from the Blackhawks?

The final problem contract of note is that of Zaitsev.

It’s understandable that Toronto gave him that $4.5M cap hit after he scored 36 points and at least survived possession-wise as a rookie in 2016-17, yet it’s been a galling fall from grace for Zaitsev. It’s tough to ponder the possibility that Zaitsev’s presence could push someone far better out, whether that someone is Gardiner or perhaps a solid mid-level free agent defenseman (or a nifty trade target like, say, similarly priced Justin Faulk).

The term of Zaitsev’s contract makes it scarier, and also could make it tougher to move than Marleau, who would only burden a taker’s team through next season.

That said, at 27, there’s a chance Zaitsev could be rehabilitated. Perhaps the Maple Leafs could sell that story (along with offering up some picks as bribery) to a team that might be willing to give him a change of scenery for a price?

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Whoppers

Auston Matthews, 21
Mitch Marner, 21
Jake Gardiner, 28

Notes: All three of these players’ situations justify their own posts.

Matthews and Marner, obviously, are rising stars. The toughest questions there revolve around how much they’ll cost, and if the Leafs can get them both to sign long-term rather than accepting “bridge” deals.

Placing myself back in Dubas’ (shinier, nicer, more expensive) shoes, I’d do whatever I could to extend both Matthews and Marner now rather than later.

At best, both forwards’ perceived values will remain the same, but there’s a strong chance that each guy could only earn more dollars with a big run this season. That only inflates if the Maple Leafs make a (very plausible) deep run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Also, every day that passes brings opportunities for other contracts to serve as dangerous comparables. What if Patrik Laine breaks the bank, like, tomorrow? Mikko Rantanen might want to settle his extension now, and that deal won’t be cheap.

Right now, Connor McDavid‘s $12.5M serves as something of a logical barrier for Matthews. Let’s not forget that McDavid left some money on the table, and maybe the next wave of prominent free agents won’t be so generous.

The Maple Leafs would also gain some cost certainty if they locked up Matthews and Marner now.

Oh yeah, Toronto would also avoid the threat of an offer sheet. That’s not totally irrelevant, especially since the Islanders would probably lick their chops at the prospect of getting some Tavares-revenge.

Gardiner is a tough call, and he might be the one who needs to go down to the wire. How much is he worth? How large is the fall from Gardiner to replacement-level players? Consider two possibilities in the system:

A couple defensive prospects of interest

Rasmus Sandin, 18
Timothy Liljegren, 19

Notes: Here are two defensemen who could at least conceivably step into a spot or two in 2019-20, although it’s fair to wonder if they’d truly be ready.

Both Swedes are first-rounders, with Sandin going 29th overall in 2018, while Liljegren was selected 17th in 2017. Sandin’s getting his first bit of seasoning in the AHL; Liljegren is in his second campaign with the Toronto Marlies.

As of this writing, the Maple Leafs are especially needy when it comes to right-handed defensemen (both Gardiner and Rielly are lefties), so that factor and Liljegren’s additional year of seasoning lights more of a path for the slightly older prospect.

Pending RFAs potentially playing their way out of Toronto

Kasperi Kapanen, 22
Andreas Johnsson, 24
Garret Sparks, 25

Notes: Kapanen and Johnsson emerging serves as a double-edged sword. It’s great to see a prospect stick after struggling to fight through a deep forward corps (Kapanen), and it’s also awesome to find a diamond in the rough (Johnsson). But will they play so well that they become unaffordable?

Similarly, Sparks has served as a suitable backup at a dirt-cheap price.

Assorted expiring contracts

Tyler Ennis, Ron Hainsey, Par Lindholm, Igor Ozhiganov

***

Potential solutions, closing thoughts

Phew, that’s a lot to chew on, right?

To review: the Maple Leafs have some issues to deal with, and a slew of questions to answer. Are they really going to allocate that much cap space to Marleau, and can they afford to just deal with Zaitsev’s expensive struggles? Does Gardiner rank as one of those cap casualties they just need to deal with? Is there any chance that Matthews and/or Marner would sign now, and would that be the wiser course?

The good news is that Dubas & Co. have shown early acumen when it comes to unearthing cheap options to fill in blanks. An analytics-driven mindset might help them spot more diamonds in the rough, or merely identify cheaper options that won’t drag the team down too much when their stars aren’t on the ice.

There’s also another key bullet in the chamber: veterans who might sign for cheap in hopes of chasing a Stanley Cup.

If you’re Anton Stralman, maybe you’d give the Maple Leafs a discount to be part of something special? Perhaps a similar thought would occur to Tyler Myers, who would have just completed a $38.5M contract?

(Less-ideal scenarios would involve signing, say, Dan Girardi or Babcock favorite Roman Polak … so let’s move on.)

This situation can work out in about a million different ways, and the possibilities honestly leave my brain overflowing like the old logo for “Scattergories.”

The thing is, these are good problems to have. The Maple Leafs have Tavares, Nylander, Andersen, and Rielly under contract for some time. They seem resolute in keeping, at minimum, Matthews and Marner. Almost every other NHL team would practice dark arts to land that foundation.

Can Dubas hit all the right notes to keep this roster competitive, even once the bill comes? We’ll need to wait and see, but the Maple Leafs stand as a team to watch, and are likely to stay that way for a long time.

If you want to ponder how you’d handle various situations yourself, you could always fiddle with Cap Friendly’s Armchair GM tool. Warning: your self-confidence may fall as a result, because a lot of this counts as “easier said than done.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins give Marcus Pettersson a 5-year, $20.1 million contract extension

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The Pittsburgh Penguins locked up a key piece of their defense on Tuesday by signing Marcus Pettersson to a five-year contract extension. The deal runs through the end of 2024-25 season and is worth a total of $20.1 million. That comes out to a salary cap hit of just a little more than $4 million per season.

This deal was a long-time coming for the Penguins after they wanted to sign him to a long-term deal this past summer when he was still a restricted free agent. But the team’s salary cap situation at the time prohibited that from happening, resulting in the one-year contract he is playing on this season.

As of Tuesday he has one goal and 15 total points in his first 50 games this season, while also posting strong possession numbers. It is a pretty fair deal for both sides and falls right in line with what a solid, second-pairing defenseman is worth. That is exactly what Pettersson has become for the Penguins.

The Penguins acquired him in the middle of the 2018-19 season in the trade that sent Daniel Sprong to the Anaheim Ducks.

Pettersson and standout rookie John Marino have helped bring mobility and puck-moving ability back to the Penguins’ blue line. That improvement has turned what was a pretty significant weakness a year ago into a real strength.

The Penguins now have a significant part of their defense signed to long-term deals, while Marino still has one more full season remaining on his entry-level contract. That would seem to make it increasingly unlikely that Justin Schultz, a pending unrestricted free agent this summer, will get re-signed.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Logjam at top of Pacific makes for intense playoff push

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Pacific Division is proving to be the wild, wild west of the NHL this season.

Vancouver beat defending champion St. Louis on Monday night to move to 60 points in 50 games. Edmonton (57 points in 49 games), Calgary (57 points in 50 games), Arizona (57 points in 51 games) and Vegas (57 points in 52 games) all follow right behind.

”It’s pretty surreal,” Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano said. ”I’ve never seen anything like that with this amount of time left in the season. It’s going to be a great finish, we’re right there right in the mix, we’re in a good spot.”

The logjam at the top is creating a 30-plus game sprint to the finish. The stakes will get higher as the NHL’s scheduling goes heavy on inter-divisional games late in the season.

”I don’t know if I was alive when it has been this close in the division,” Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom said. ”It’s great. It’s great for everybody. Obviously you want a 10 or 20 point cushion at this point but that’s not the case and it’s pretty much every team is right there inside a couple of points. It’s going to be fun hockey and pretty much playoff hockey is going to start here after the break.”

The tight race places a premium on regulation wins, allowing a team to grab two points without allowing its rival to get one.

While Vancouver and Edmonton appear to have the edge in games played, there is no margin for error.

”You can go from first to last, from last to first the next night and we’re all going to play each other coming up right at the end of the year,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. ”It’s going to be a fight to the end and we’re expecting these last 30 games to be really intense. But on the bright side if you’re able to get in and you’re able to get through these games, that should prepare you for the playoffs and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

All of the teams can find inspiration from the Blues’ run last season. The Blues were last in the entire league on Jan. 3 only to catch fire and ride that momentum to the Stanley Cup.

Like those Blues, the Golden Knights made a mid-season coaching change replacing Gerard Gallant who led the team to the finals in their first season, with former Sharks coach Peter DeBoer.

Pacioretty said the All-Star break came at a good time for Vegas. He believes it will allow him and his teammates to emotionally reset and come back ready to perform for their new coach.

”That’s kind of like a fresh wound right now and you kind of take responsibility whenever a coach gets fired,” Pacioretty said. ”You look at yourself in the mirror and say what could I have done better?”

Arizona finds itself in a different position after sitting at or near the top of the division for most of the season.

”We were always the hunters,” Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said. ”We were always, ‘Hey, how are we going to get back into this thing?’ Now teams are below us and they’re the hunters on us. The old day of playing the backup goalie against the Coyotes, they’re not doing that anymore. They’re playing their starters. That’s what guys have to understand now. You’re going to get the best.”

The race doesn’t allow Tocchet and the other coaches the luxury of managing workload. Tocchet, who isn’t a big morning skate fan, believes it’s all about consistency.

He doesn’t remember a race this tight in his 18 years as a player or in his five years as a coach.

”You have to embrace the pain and all that stuff because if you look at those standings there’s five teams right in there,” Tocchet said. ”One week you’re either in first place or fifth place. Everything the coach does now is for the players and for their psyche and to make them feel comfortable.”

Raising the stakes even higher is that not all five teams are guaranteed to make the postseason as wild cards. Winnipeg, Chicago and Nashville from the Central Division are in the mix for those two spots as well.

Giordano said it’s all about peaking at the right time.

”We have great players and it’s just about putting it together at the right time,” Giordano said. ”I feel like last year we had a great start and an unbelievable first half and sort of lost that confidence we had down the stretch and it carried over for us in the playoffs. Hopefully this year is the complete opposite.”

PHT Morning Skate: Blues looking for top-6 winger; Pacific Division race

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• General manager Doug Armstrong says the St. Louis Blues could be in the market for a top-six forward. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

• Canucks, Oilers, Flames prime for mad dash in crowded Pacific Division. (TSN)

• Five reasons for fans to be concerned about the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Sportsnet)

• General mangers on the hot seat as the NHL trade deadline approaches. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Has Valeri Nichushkin been Joe Sakic’s best offseason addition for the Colorado Avalanche? (Mile High Hockey)

Matt Dumba‘s good deed went viral, even if he wished it did not. (Pioneer Press)

Matthew Tkachuk‘s chippy controversy is no surprise to Blues players that watched him growing up. (Sporting News)

• Commitment to team defense driving Penguins’ success. (The Point)

• Ex-Penguin Mark Johnson has made his own impact on women’s hockey. (Tribune-Review)

• What the Chicago Blackhawks have done and what they still need to do. (Daily Herald)

• The New York Rangers have officially loaned forward Lias Andersson to HV71 of the Swedish League. (Blueshirt Banter)

• Looking back at the Capitals’ history winning streak a decade later. (NOVA Caps Fans)

Jakub Vrana gives the Washington Capitals something they have not had in more than a decade. (Japers’ Rink)

• Demanding remaining schedule awaits the Nashville Predators. (On The Forecheck)

• NWHL responds to comments about league on Sportsnet. (The Ice Garden)

• The New York Rangers have been the best investment for hockey bettors. (New York Post)

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Big milestone night for Patrick Marleau

Big night for Patrick Marleau the buzzer
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Three Stars

1. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks

All due respect to J.T. Miller‘s two goals, but Demko powered the Canucks to their ninth home win in a row.

The Blues generated a significant 37-26 shots on goal advantage on Tuesday, yet could only beat Demko once. Demko’s save against Jaden Schwartz warrants consideration for highlight of the night.

It’s unclear if the 24-year-old will pan out as the Canucks goalie of the future. Demko’s stats really have been all that impressive over the past couple seasons. Then again, as his creasemate Jacob Markstrom shows, sometimes goalies mature at unpredictable rates.

Either way, Demko looked legit on Tuesday.

2. Marcus Hogberg, Ottawa Senators

Placing Hogberg’s night ranks as challenge.

On one hand, Hogberg’s Senators lost to the Devils in a shootout. Hogberg also allowed three goals (not counting the shootout), which seems like a lot when you try to split hairs regarding best players of the night.

But Hogberg managed 50 saves against New Jersey. NHL PR notes that Hogberg established a Senators record for saves by a rookie goalie in a regular season game. That’s impressive, as was this save of the night contender.

3. Patrick Marleau (San Jose Sharks) enjoys a big night

Marleau deserves his own section, as he qualifies as the third star, provided one of the highlights of the night, and earned his own mini-factoids collection.

Marleau scored two goals on Tuesday. While his first one was the more symmetrical milestone (his 1,100 point with the Sharks), the second one was prettier.

The pass was brilliant (and lucky). The call was great. Marleau burned the Ducks defense for that goal. That also marked his 109th career game-winner.

There was a lot to like, and even without further context, Marleau reaching 10 goals at age 40 was already impressive. Especially since Marleau played his first game of 2019-20 on Oct. 10. Then add context and it’s a very pretty way to join rare company.

Marleau became just the fourth player in NHL history to score 10+ goals for at least 22 consecutive seasons. NHL PR shared the list: Gordie Howe (24), Mark Messier (22), Alex Delvecchio (22), and Marleau (22).

Just a big night overall by Marleau:

One more option for highlight of the night

Remove historical impact and Jamie Benn‘s two goals might stand taller than Marleau’s duo. Check out both of Benn’s impressive goals from the Stars’ OT win against Tampa Bay:

Factoids beyond Marleau having a big night

  • Marleau’s teammate Erik Karlsson generated the 600th point in his 730th regular-season game. NHL PR points out that Karlsson became the 11th defenseman to reach 600 points in 730 games or less.
  • Steven Stamkos reached 20 goals for the 11th season. Sportsnet Stats notes that Vincent Lecavalier owns the Lightning’s most seasons with 20+ at 12. While Stamkos looks poised to set a new franchise record, Nikita Kucherov would need to hustle, as his 22 this season “only” give him six such seasons.
  • The Capitals reached 73 standings points in their 50th game. That’s Washington’s second-best point total through 50 GP, with 2015-16 (78) standing at number one, according to NHL PR.
  • Capitals winger Jakub Vrana scored a goal and an assist to push his point streak to nine games. NHL PR notes that Vrana now holds the league’s third longest active streak.

Scores

WSH 4 – MTL 2
NJD 4 – OTT 3 (SO)
TOR 5 – NSH 2
DAL 3 – TBL 2 (OT)
VAN 3 – STL 1
SJS 4 – ANA 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.