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Stop worrying about Maple Leafs’ salary cap situation

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Stop it.

You’re probably doing it right now.

You’re probably looking at the news that the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar center Auston Matthews to a five-year, $58.17 million contract extension on Tuesday and starting to panic.

You’re thinking about the contract extension they just gave William Nylander earlier this season, following the massive contract they gave to John Tavares in free agency.

You’re thinking about the contract negotiation they now have to go through with Mitch Marner this upcoming summer and wondering which one of them they’re going to trade.

[RELATED: Maple Leafs sign Auston Matthews to five-year, $58.17M contract]

Maybe you’re even naive enough to think one of the other 30 general managers in the NHL, despite a mountain of evidence over several years to the contrary, is going to suddenly grow some guts this summer and try to sign Marner to a restricted free agent offer sheet, while also believing that Marner might want to actually play for the undoubtedly worse team that is offering it, bypassing an opportunity to get still get paid a ton of money and be a part of a Stanley Cup contending team in Toronto.

How can they pay all of these players? How can they keep them all? Who will they have to trade for DEFENSE?! This can’t work, you’re screaming!

Yeah, you might be doing that.

Well, if are you are, stop doing that. Right now. Because not only are the Maple Leafs going to figure out a way to keep all of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Tavares, they are still going to have a chance to win by doing so. I’ve made this argument so many times I know I’m repeating myself, but until the hockey viewing and observing world gets over this fear of paying elite players I am prepared to continue pounding the table over this.

Make no mistake, the Maple Leafs will have to get rid of some people. They will have to make tough decisions and make trades and cut salary somewhere on the roster. But it is not going to be one of those four players. It shouldn’t be anyway. It also doesn’t have to be.

This situation is not unique to the Maple Leafs. They are not the first team in the salary cap era that has had to pay a core of All-Star level players big money at the same time while also trying to figure out a way to still build a competent team around them. They are not the first team that is going to have tough decisions to make. If your natural reaction to seeing the Maple Leafs do this with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and Marner is that it can’t work then you haven’t been paying attention to, quite literally, every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era. All of them have a core of four or five players that takes up close to half (or even more than half) of their allotted salary cap space. It is a necessary part of winning, as long as that money is going to the right players.

These four players are the right players.

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that Marner gets $10 million per year on his next contract, which might be a good ballpark figure. It’s more than Nylander, little less than Matthews, and that is probably fair because that is where he fits on the Maple Leafs’ talent hierarchy. That would mean the Maple Leafs would open next season with $39.4 million committed to the quartet of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares. If the projected 2019-20 salary cap ceiling of $83 million becomes a reality, that is around 47 percent of the Maple Leafs’ allotted space.

Just for fun, here’s a little comparison of the past three Stanley Cup winners, who also had some pretty high-profile players on their rosters.

You are not winning the Stanley Cup without players of that caliber. Players of that caliber cost a lot of money. Every year between 2010 and 2015 we used to hear about how the Penguins’ model with a couple of big-money players at the top wasn’t working and they might have to trade one to get more depth. Alex Ovechkin‘s contract was just too much for the Capitals to win with because you can’t have one player taking up such a big portion of your salary cap space.

Rubbish.

Does this mean the Maple Leafs are going to be able to keep everybody they want? No. They will have to make some difficult decisions in the coming years. They might have to dump Patrick Marleau‘s contract this offseason. They might have to trade a young player like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnnson. Or maybe even a Zach Hyman or a Connor Brown. And that’s okay. Those players are replaceable. Maybe not easily replaceable, but still replaceable. You can find another Kasperi Kapanen.

You’re not going to find another Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.

Just look at the Capitals in the summer before their 2017-18 Stanley Cup season. The salary cap worked against them and they had to make some tough cuts. They couldn’t re-sign Justin Williams and they had to trade Marcus Johansson for pennies on the dollar. But they still had their core, made enough shrewd signings and trades, and had enough young talent coming through the system that they could still piece a competent team around their core and win the Stanley Cup.

Just like the Penguins did the two years before.

The Maple Leafs will be pressed against the salary cap for the foreseeable future, and some second-and third-tier cuts will be happening. But they also have a smart front office that no doubt knows what it’s going to take to make it work, and a front office that knows the type of talent you need to compete. They have it, they kept it. And before you start talking about their defense and how they could, in theory, trade Nylander or Marner for help on the blue line just remember they have a No. 1 defenseman in Morgan Rielly locked up on a long-term, bargain contract for the next few years and just acquired another top-pairing defender in Jake Muzzin without having to trade a core player of their own.

They have the core that can compete for a Stanley Cup. It is definitely not cheap, and it is not going to be easy, but neither is actually winning the Stanley Cup. This is simply the price you have to pay.

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.

AHL’s Bakersfield Condors can’t stop winning, boast 15-game streak

Bakersfield Condors
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The parent club has won once in 11 games. The minor league affiliate is the hottest team in the American Hockey League.

If you’re an Edmonton Oilers fan, well, maybe there’s some hope down in the AHL that can lead to a turnaround in the future. The Bakersfield Condors are red-hot right now having won 15 straight games, with their last defeat coming on Jan. 11.

They won No. 15 on Saturday night, thanks to an overtime goal from Cooper Marody. Here are the highlights and the call from the great Ryan Holt:

The streak has put the Condors in first place in the AHL’s Pacific Division and second in the Western Conference.

Now for the fun facts:

• The Condors are the seventh AHL team to win 15 consecutive games.

• The 15-game winning streak is the fourth-longest in AHL history.

• They kicked off 2019 with an 0-4-1 record and were in fifth place in their division — 11 points out of first place —  before the streak started.

• Bakersfield has outscored opponents 69-31 over their last 15 games and have only trailed for 49 minutes total.

• Per Holt, if the Condors win No. 16 next Saturday against Tucson they will match the 1984-85 Baltimore Skipjacks’ 16-game winning streak. That Skipjacks roster featured Steve Carlson (a.k.a. Steve Hanson), Bruce Boudreau, Marty McSorley, Bob Errey, Phil Bourque, and Andy Brickley. “Nobody on the roster was even alive then.”

• Only two teams in AHL history have had winning streaks greater than 16 games: The 2004-05 Philadelphia Phantoms won 17, and the record-holders, 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals, went on an insane run winning 28 straight. Both teams won the Calder Cup in their respective seasons. (That Norfolk roster featured the likes of Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, and were coached by some guy named Jon Cooper. Wonder whatever happened to those three?)

If the Condors keep the wins coming they could match the Admirals’ record on March 30 against the San Jose Barracuda and break it against the Manitoba Moose on April 2.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Dominant Lightning still have chip on their shoulder

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning have put together an incredible season thus far. How great have they been? Well, just take a look at the league standings. Through 59 games, the Bolts have accumulated 92 points. That puts them 15 points ahead of the Calgary Flames, who are the second-best team in the NHL right now.

If you were expecting the Lightning to slow down with such a big lead, you were mistaken. Tampa Bay still hasn’t dropped a game in regulation this month, as they’re in the middle of a 7-0-2 stretch in the month February. And it’s not like they’re beating up on bad teams, either.

They’ve taken down the Islanders, who are the best team in the Metropolitan Division, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Calgary Flames, Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens over the last three weeks.

How do they stay motivated with a such a big lead in the standings? Clearly, they’re being fuelled by their lack of Stanley Cup Championships.

“We have a chip on our shoulder,” Steven Stamkos said, per USA Today. “I’m sure there are a lot of teams that would be happy to go to a Stanley Cup Final and three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. That’s tough to do. But with the expectations being so high for our group, we came into this year thinking this was our year, our turn.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Here’s how good they’ve been in 2018-19:

• They have a plus-73 goal differential. The Maple Leafs are second in that category and they’re at plus-42.

Nikita Kucherov has 94 points in 59 games. He’s six away from setting a new career high. Oh, and Patrick Kane is second in scoring this season (87 points in 58 games).

• The Lightning have three players in the top nine when it comes to scoring. Kucherov, Brayden Point (75 points in 58 games) and Steven Stamkos (71 points in 59 games). Only Colorado has more than one.

• Tampa has the best power play in the NHL. They have a success rate of 29.7 percent. The Bruins are 3.2 percent away from the Lightning in this category.

• Their penalty kill is ranked second in the league at 84.6 percent. Only Arizona (85.2 percent) is ahead of them.

All impressive totals, right? So let’s take a look at the advanced numbers, too (all stats via Natural Stat Trick):

• The Lightning are eighth in CF% at 51.95 percent. San Jose, Carolina, Vegas, Montreal, Nashville, Boston and Calgary are all ahead of them.

• When it comes to scoring chances, they have a 53.16 percent share of those opportunities this season. Only Vegas, Carolina, San Jose and Minnesota have a bigger share of the scoring chances.

• When it comes to high-danger scoring, as you’d imagine, the Lightning find themselves with the sixth-highest percentage in that category.

The Lightning have been dominant all year and now they just have to hope that they can stay healthy before the start of the playoffs.

MORE: What should Lightning add at trade deadline?

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Martin Jones might be key to long playoff run for Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Monday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Sharks have been one of the elite teams in the NHL this season. They’re in a tight battle with the Calgary Flames for the Pacific Division. As of right now, only the Tampa Bay Lightning have more points than San Jose’s 77. What makes this run even more impressive for the Sharks, is that they’ve done all this with subpar goaltending for most of the season.

Starting netminder Martin Jones owns a 28-11-4 record, which is far from terrible, but his individual stats leave a lot to be desired. He owns a 2.88 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage in 2018-19. Those numbers include his recent surge, which tells you just how bad they were a little while ago.

In fairness to Jones, he’s been a lot better of late. The 29-year-old has rattled off six victories in his last seven games and he’s allowed two goals against in five of those contests. Since Christmas, he’s posted 14-3-0 record. So that’s encouraging. The Sharks just need to make sure he keeps rolling as the regular season comes to a close.

Backup goalie Aaron Dell hasn’t been much better (he hasn’t been better than Jones at all). In a smaller sample size, Dell has posted similar numbers to Jones. He has a 3.04 goals-against-average and a .892 save percentage.

What makes this issue a little more complex, is that general manager Doug Wilson can’t just go out and get himself another goalie. Wasting an asset or two on acquiring a goalie from another team when you’re paying Jones $5.75 million on a long-term contract isn’t good business. And it’s probably not the message you want to send Jones, who has five years remaining on his current deal.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Sure, Wilson could add Sergei Bobrovsky, Jimmy Howard or someone else, but there’s no guarantee that any of those goalies on the trade market will help get them further than Jones can. At this point, it seems like they’ve hitched their wagon to Jones, so he’s one of the players that will dictate how far they can go in the playoffs.

The Sharks have enough talent up front and on defense that they can overcome some average goaltending, but Jones can’t post a goals-against-average of three and a save percentage under .900 when the playoffs role around. There’s only so many more cracks this group of players will get at the Stanley Cup.

Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns are in their 30’s, while there’s no guarantee that Erik Karlsson will sign an extension to stay in San Jose.

If Jones can continue giving the Sharks some quality goaltending like he has been over the last few weeks, they have to be considered one of the favorites to win it all. If he reverts back to being average, they may only last a round or two.

All eyes will be on San Jose’s crease this spring.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Ducks retire Niedermayer’s no. 27; Is Simmonds heading to Tampa?

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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.

• The Hockey News provides us with top 10 lists of active players in different categories that mean the most. (The Hockey News)

• The Anaheim Ducks retired Scott Niedermayer’s no. 27 last night. (NHL.com)

• The Columbus Blue Jackets are starting to suffer trade deadline fatigue. Their fans are counting down the days until Feb. 25. (The Cannon)

• Campbell Weaver has been added to the Bruins analytics department. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

• After the Lightning and Canadiens faced off on Saturday night, the Montreal Gazette made the comparison between the Bolts and 1976-77 Habs. (Montreal Gazette)

• Capitals head coach Todd Reirden found an interesting way to connect with some his foreign players. (Washington Post)

• Is Wayne Simmonds heading to Tampa? The Tampa Times answers five questions on that subject. (Tampa Times)

• The Maple Leafs are going to need their veterans to perform better than they are right now. (Toronto Star)

• The fact that the Islanders are going to be playing their first-round playoff series at Nassau Coliseum is nothing but good news. (Newsday)

• Should the Florida Panthers trade Mike Hoffman? (The Rat Trick)

• The Avs have plenty of cap space, so they should use it to buy bad contracts from other teams. (Mile High Hockey)

Mark Stone should be the Golden Knights’ top target at the trade deadline, according to Steve Carp. (Sinbin.Vegas)

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.