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.

Predators should not trade Tolvanen, Fiala at deadline

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Note: The situation would change considerably if the Predators managed to keep a trade target like Artemi Panarin or Mark Stone. This post revolves around the dangers of paying a big price just to rent someone like them.

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Looking to the past has its obvious flaws (are any two situations truly alike?), yet the Nashville Predators should consider history before trading Eeli Tolvanen and/or Kevin Fiala. The result would preferably be to … uh, not trade either of them.

One can look to other recent trades as warnings, including the Edmonton Oilers selling low on Jordan Eberle, but the Predators’ longer history probably resonates best with GM David Poile and the fanbase.

Remember the Forsbergs

We probably don’t need to linger on that one, as I already feel the piercing glare of Capitals fans for beating that dead horse.

  • In February 2007, the Predators sent a first and third-round pick (plus Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent) to the Flyers for Peter Forsberg.

Forsberg actually put up some impressive numbers during his short stay with Nashville (15 points in 17 regular-season games, four in five playoff contests), but the Predators were bounced 4-1 by the Sharks in the first round of that postseason.

Potential fallout of trading Fiala

This was mentioned in a post about not trading Jonathan Huberdeau, but it might be a point that I bleat out until the trade deadline: GMs should institute their own rule about never trading away a talented player whose shooting percentage is below 10 percent during that season. (If it’s the summer, use the most recent season as your barometer.)

If the Predators need a more splash-of-cold-water example than Eberle, try Jeff Skinner. I pre-scolded the Hurricanes about trading Skinner when his value was artificially low in May (24 goals in 82 games on an 8.7 shooting percentage in 2017-18), they did it anyway before the season for a weak return, and now Skinner’s playing so well (34 goals in 56 games, 18.5 shooting percentage) that there are credible talks that he might earn $9 million per season on his next deal.

Fiala is just 22, and as the speedy 11th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft, there’s plenty of pedigree there to expect bigger things. Guess what: Fiala’s shooting percentage is at just 7.3 percent this season, and his career average is a flat 10.

People are frustrated with the Predators second line, and so you hear people losing patience with Fiala. But those lost-patience deals are often the ones where teams lose big in trades. That might have happened with the Hurricanes and Skinner, and it likely happened when the Oilers traded Eberle after a tough playoff run.

Here’s the thing: a smart team might actually leverage this for future gains, and the Predators have shown some history of being wise in exactly that way.

When you look at the best contracts on the Predators’ salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll see some situations where context and luck helped Nashville get good deals, like with the trend-setting bargain for Juuse Saros and the flat-out lucky steal with Viktor Arvidsson, who somehow has 26 goals in just 36 games this season.

But then you’ll see examples of the Predators showing foresight and signing players before they blossomed.

Consider the deals the Predators landed for the likes of Forsberg, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm, and you’ll see a team that’s leveraged RFA advantages to lock up guys for term, in many cases before they’ve been identified as difference-makers. (In Ellis’ case, consider that his expiring $2.5M cap hit lasted for five seasons.)

Fiala’s struggles could serve as Nashville’s gain. If they could lock him up for a value contract, Fiala could deliver top-six forward production at an affordable price, which could be crucial when players like Josi need new deals (in Josi’s case, after 2019-20).

When you don’t know what you have

Not that long ago, people were wondering how the Predators stole Eeli Tolvanen with the 30th pick in 2017. It might feel like he’s taking forever to develop, yet it’s easy to forget that he’s just 19 years old.

The Filip Forsberg trade is the big, waving, red flag regarding Tolvanen.

While it’s true that landing Artemi Panarin would be worlds ahead of what the Capitals received in even their more optimistic projections with Erat in 2013, the point is that Washington clearly didn’t know what it had in Forsberg. If the Predators are being truly honest, they’d admit that they do not know what kind of player Tolvanen is yet.

On the lowish end, Tolvanen could be a depth player/specialist on a cheap entry-level contract. If he reached his ceiling, the Predators’ would get a cost-controlled player whose earnings would still be pretty limited. How many contenders wouldn’t love to have a potentially cheap difference-maker through 2020-21?

Sure, it stinks that Tolvanen’s only scored one goal and one assist in seven NHL games, but he also only averaged 12:46 time on ice. It would be better if he was tearing up the AHL right now, yet considering that he could have left for the KHL because of a special out-clause – but instead stayed – the Predators should reward him. And, by rewarding him, there’s a strong chance they’d reward themselves.

More palatable options

The Predators have other chess pieces to move around that trade deadline board.

If they feel like they must move a valuable future asset for Panarin, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Wayne Simmonds, or any number of other intriguing targets, then Dante Fabbro might be an easier loss to stomach.

(I’d personally still be reluctant, but sometimes you have to spend money to make money, or some other colloquialism.)

Fabbro’s a touch older than Tolvanen, and the Predators haven’t signed him to a rookie contract yet, at least slightly opening the door for another Jimmy Vesey situation. Fabbro could be valuable if the Predators decide they can’t afford Josi along with P.K. Subban, Ellis, and Ekholm, so it would be best to keep him, but that’s something to consider.

Nashville has its first-rounders intact, and while they shipped their second away at a hefty price for Brian Boyle, there are other picks to work with, such as two fourth-rounders in 2019. The Predators are unlikely to be bad enough to have good first-round picks anytime soon, so paying the price for first-rounders is a smarter risk.

Put it this way: even if they were to get Tolvanen 2.0 and Fiala II with subsequent picks, those prospects would still be behind those players in their development cycles. There’s something to be said for the time Tolvanen and Fiala have put in – stitled, stacco growth rhythms or not – particularly for a contending team.

It’s not always about if, but when

None of this is to say that the Predators can’t ever trade Kevin Fiala or Eeli Tolvanen, just that now might be the worst time to do it. Fiala’s a pending RFA, but a struggling one, so there’s a chance at getting a cheap deal for him. Tolvanen’s already cheap because of his rookie contract, and Nashville doesn’t truly know his ceiling or his realistic floor as an NHL player.

The Predators are in a spot where a calculated gamble is actually quite reasonable. They see a possible second-round rematch with the Winnipeg Jets looming, and on paper, they might need a serious boost to clear that hurdle.

But when you look at Poile’s trades, his best ones come when he’s timed things well (see: Erat/Forsberg, Subban/Shea Weber), yet like any GM, more desperate moves have been pretty dicey. Paying a first-round pick for Ryan Hartman or a second-rounder for Boyle won’t decimate Nashville’s future on an individual level, but those decisions begin to add up.

The risks that come with selling low on Fiala and Tolvanen likely wouldn’t exceed the rewards, especially since those players would likely need to be packaged with other high-value assets like a first-round pick. The Predators are better off leaving those two out of deals, even if it means settling for a medium fish rather than the biggest catch.

On the bright side, if the Predators throw caution to the wind and go big anyway, it should make things more exciting during the trade deadline, not to mention the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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.

How should Golden Knights approach deadline?

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A year ago, the Vegas Golden Knights were taking the NHL by storm and shocking the hockey world. Not only did they make the playoffs, they also finished at the top of the Pacific Division by picking up 109 points in 82 contests. General manager George McPhee was incredibly aggressive at the trade deadline. His main acquisition didn’t pan out, but the team still found a way to get to the Stanley Cup Final.

At this time last year, it became clear that Vegas was pushing hard to land Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators. Right up until the deadline, they felt like they had a chance to get him. Unfortunately for McPhee, that didn’t work out. So instead, he decided to give up a first-rounder in 2018, a second-rounder in 2019 and a third-rounder in 2021 for Tomas Tatar.

Tatar, who is a capable top-six winger, just never fit in with the Golden Knights. It was the first time he had been traded in his career and he just couldn’t find a way to fit in to their magical run. The 28-year-old even served as a healthy scratch on more than once.

So, they decided to ship him to Montreal as part of a trade for Max Pacioretty. In that deal, they also gave up another second-round draft pick and prized prospect Nick Suzuki.

Should McPhee be as aggressive this year as he was in 2018?

The odds of Vegas going on another magical run are slim. Yes, they’re currently sitting in third place in the Pacific, but the magic that was around the team last year doesn’t appear to be there. As we mentioned, they already made a splash in training camp by landing Pacioretty from the Canadiens. Do they really have to make another one?

Thanks to the expansion draft, the Golden Knights were able to acquire multiple first-round picks and some young players. But Tatar and Pacioretty cost them several assets.

McPhee has some quality youth in the pipeline, but it’s important to keep in mind that he was forced to build the pipeline from scratch just two years ago. It might not seem obvious right now, but that pipeline still needs building. The Golden Knights have all of their own picks in the first five rounds and they also have two more in the third round and two more in the fifth round. So in all, they have nine picks in the first five rounds. They also have three more second-round picks in 2020.

When you have that many picks, you can afford to let one or two go, but holding on to their early picks should be a priority. Trading away a first, second and third in a package should be out of the question. Making a depth move makes a lot more sense.

As we saw last week, the market dictates that a player like Brian Boyle is worth a late second-rounder. Boyle is a useful player, but he’s not an impact player. He’s a solid addition for a team hoping to go on a run.

With his team struggling (they’ve lost three games in a row and they have just three victories in their last 10 games), McPhee should look at adding depth to his roster by sending a middle-round pick to a team selling off veteran rentals. He can’t sit there and do nothing, but he shouldn’t feel the need to trade away more key assets. Eventually, they’ll pay the price if they keep doing that.

So trading for guys like Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Artemi Panarin and Wayne Simmonds should be out of the question. It would be nice to get one of those high-end rentals, but it’s probably not wise in the long run.

MORE: Gallant blasts Golden Knights for ‘soft’ play

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Koivu ‘totally confident’ in return from ACL surgery

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Leaning on his crutches, just six days after reconstructive surgery on his right knee, Mikko Koivu was asked if he had concern about his ability to return to the Minnesota Wild next season at age 36.

Just as if he were corralling a puck with a quick flick of his stick on a faceoff, Koivu didn’t flinch.

“Yes, I’m totally confident. I think those are just numbers,” Koivu said. “I think it’s about your effort, the way you take care of yourself on and off the ice, and at the end, it’s going to be a battle. But if you’re strong enough, you’re going to be able to do it.”

Koivu’s determination and strength has never been in doubt, but the torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus cartilage he suffered in a game at Buffalo on Feb. 5 has raised a question about the Wild captain’s future considering this major late-career injury. Koivu will enter the final year of his contract this summer, with a $5.5 million charge against the salary cap.

Factoring in the typical ACL recovery timetable, the chance is slim that Koivu will be ready to join his teammates for on-ice drills at the start of training camp.

“I think it’s too early to talk about it too much, but that’s definitely my goal,” Koivu said Thursday after the Wild’s practice, his first public comments since the collision with Sabres forward Tage Thompson .

Receiving medical clearance for the 2019-20 season opener will be an additionally hefty challenge, but Koivu, who was drafted sixth overall in 2001 by the Wild out of Finland and has topped the franchise leaderboards in several statistical categories over his 14-year career, cast his familiar steely gaze toward the daunting rehabilitation that’s ahead.

“It’s a fact that this knee will be stronger than I’ve ever experienced,” Koivu said. “The rest of it is up to me.”

The Wild are just 1-4-2 this month and 1-3 without Koivu, currently clinging to the eighth and final postseason spot in the Western Conference . They host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night, the only team they’ve beaten in February.

“We’re going to make the playoffs. That’s about as elaborate as I’m going to get,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You want me to predict how many wins we’re going to have? Not going to happen. But we’re going to make the playoffs.”

Joel Eriksson Ek has been a productive fill-in over the last four games, but Koivu’s absence requires more than simply replacing a second-line center.

“In the locker room, outside the locker room. The little things of playing against every team’s top center, every faceoff that’s important, every time you need something,” Boudreau said.

___

More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Why Bruins should target Stone; Should Flyers trade for Talbot?

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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.

• Why the Boston Bruins should do everything they can to acquire Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators. (WEEI)

• Should the Philadelphia Flyers really go after Oilers goalie Cam Talbot? (Broad Street Hockey)

• After struggling for a while, the Washington Capitals’ third line is finally back on track. (Washington Post)

• When healthy, Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Ryan Murray has been a difference maker for the his team. (Columbus Dispatch)

• The acquisition of Nino Niederreiter has changed the way the Carolina Hurricanes will approach the trade deadline. (Canes Country)

• The New York Rangers may move several pieces at the trade deadline, but they’re doing everything they can to put those players at ease. (New York Post)

• Is Mark Giordano a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate for the Calgary Flames? (The Hockey News)

• TSN’s Frank Seravalli breaks down the Flames’ trade options for a goalie. (TSN.ca)

• Anaheim Calling looks at potential head coaching options for the Anaheim Ducks. (Anaheim Calling)

• The secondary-market ticket prices for Golden Knights games are down 27 percent. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Awwwwwwwwwwwww:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.