Maple Leafs set up for big changes soon — if they want them

Maple Leafs set up for big changes soon -- if they want them
Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

As a team that’s perpetually butting its head against the salary cap ceiling, you’d think that the Maple Leafs look doomed to that fate forever.

Often, that’s the outlook of many teams who spend big and take large risks to contend. If the current plan fails and the GM gets booted, the next person usually isn’t just looking to improve the team. They usually have to clean up big messes. (See: Mike Grier being left to clean up the Sharks.)

Yet, the scary thing about the Maple Leafs could also feel liberating.

If things don’t work out in this era of the Maple Leafs, they’re structured for big changes. It’s a thought that’s hovered here and there. Credit to Cap Friendly for tweeting it out in a way that really hammers home the point in a visual manner:

Saying goodbye to Matthews/Marner would mostly be bad, but Maple Leafs can change gears if they want to

Over the years, rival fans have tormented Maple Leafs fans about Auston Matthews leaving town, possibly for the Arizona Coyotes. Sometimes Maple Leafs fans themselves have wallowed in that grim scenario, or other similar ones.

Matthews, 24, didn’t just sign a contract that carried a hefty (but actually still very team-friendly) $11.64M cap hit in 2019. It also only kept him under contract for mid-range term. In a league where star players almost always sign for seven or eight years, Matthews merely inked a five-year contract.

Similarly, Mitch Marner and (excessive trade rumor magnet) William Nylander signed six-year contracts with the Maple Leafs.

Really, the standout long-term contracts were handed out to John Tavares when he was a hot-ticket free agent, and Morgan Rielly to keep him off that market.

Yet, even with Tavares’ often-criticized contract, you can already see some light at the end of the tunnel. His $11M salary cap hit expires after the 2024-25 season.

[A deep dive on the Matt Murray gamble]

Overall, it’s still fair to picture this working against the Maple Leafs.

After vastly improving on defense (to the point that he justifies Selke Trophy mentions), Auston Matthews surged to his first Hart Trophy in 2022-23. He’s one of those players who are in rarified air where they could essentially “name their price” on their next contract. The Athletic’s model placed Matthews’ “market value” at $22.3 million. The Maple Leafs — or some other team — would be lucky if Matthews’ next contract isn’t a lot more expensive than his current one.

As much as people love to pick on Mitch Marner and William Nylander, they also deliver far more than people give them credit for. Marner’s absolutely an elite playmaker who’s unusually dangerous as a penalty kill counterpuncher. By that same Athletic model, he wasn’t worth his much-maligned near-$11M price tag; he was worth more: $17.5M. While it’s not as dramatic, William Nylander’s easily worth a cap hit in the $7M ballpark (in my opinion, and based on that model).

So it’s not as though this situation couldn’t be difficult for Toronto. That said, it’s fascinating that if the Maple Leafs decide this mix isn’t working, they can shift gears more easily than any perennial contender in recent memory.

Would a full-blown rebuild be wise? Probably not, but that route could even end up open.

Kyle Dubas‘ window is even smaller

That’s especially relevant because of just how big of a gamble Kyle Dubas took this offseason.

For all the defenses about the term not being that bad, Matt Murray still having two years on a scary cap hit (even post-retention) of $4.6875M makes things worse. Perhaps you can trade out of those problems. Maybe Murray’s significant injury history nudges him to LTIR. Maybe a cheap buyout after 2022-23 makes this truly a one-year bet.

Still, one year might be all Dubas has. Maybe Dubas isn’t actually risking his job on Matt Murray, but it sure feels that way, and is presented that way.

Maybe not the room to make scorched earth decisions that hurt Dubas in the future, or a potential replacement?

Again, that’s where this situation could get really interesting.

Look throughout both long-term and recent NHL history with GMs on the hot seat. In many cases, those GMs make desperate moves that set the next GM up with serious messes.

Maybe a tight salary cap situation actually keeps Dubas from throwing Hail Mary interceptions that would put a potential replacement in bad field position. Either way, this team isn’t saddled with a ton of bad contracts that stretch far into the future.

Potential near-future decisions for whoever runs the Maple Leafs

So, that opens up room to operate for whoever’s calling the shots. You can look at decisions in the frame of when contracts expire/when players are eligible for extensions.

  • There are still some immediate questions to answer. Rasmus Sandin may require salary cap gymnastics, or even a pragmatic trade.
  • Quite a few depth players approach contract years. Michael Bunting, 26, appears headed for a big raise. Ilya Samsonov, 25, could raise his stock as a pending RFA. The Maple Leafs may appreciate certain deals coming off the books, such as Alexander Kerfoot. (The 27-year-old is a nice player, but maybe extravagant at $3.5M, at least when every dollar counts.)
  • Plenty of significant deals expire after 2023-24, so the 2023 offseason could provide crucial clarity. The Maple Leafs may decide to extend both Matthews and Nylander. Three aging defensemen see contracts expire after 2023-24: Mark Giordano, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie. Naturally, Toronto could move on from Muzzin and/or Brodie to make other future moves, as both cost $5M+. Muzzin’s health issues may also eventually become LTIR material. Either way, it’s possible there could be an eventual changing of the guard on defense.

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

  • Two Lightning-rod contracts (both essentially around $11M AAVs) expire after 2024-25: John Tavares and Mitch Marner. If the Maple Leafs keep but don’t extend Matthews and Nylander before their deals expire, Toronto could grapple with a potential Marner extension during the same 2024 offseason where they may also go through some UFA drama with Matthews and/or Nylander. For all we know, there could also be rumblings about Tavares sticking around on a “hometown discount.”

Interestingly, there’s one other wrinkle to either Dubas or a replacement GM having future flexibility to tweak or maintain the Maple Leafs.

Few of these big names have no-trade or no-movement clauses. (At least the forwards; Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, and Justin Holl all have at least no-trade clauses.)

None of Matthews, Marner, or Nylander have no-trade clauses. Tavares is the big exception, as he has a flat-out no-movement clause. So Dubas — or a Dubas replacement — could carry more power in trading out core pieces if the Maple Leafs decide that the group is rotten.

A pivot would probably make more sense than a total change, but flexibility is nice

To reiterate: Matthews, Marner, and Nylander needing new deals soon likely leans closer to “bad” than “good.” (Instead of complaining about those cap hits, fans should probably cross their fingers that future deals look similar.)

Still, many are understandably running low on patience. While you’re not going to land players like Matthews and Marner often — even top prospects the last few years haven’t looked close — the frustration of falling a Game 7 or three short of playoff series wins can gnaw at your patience.

The Maple Leafs don’t have everything locked in place, which could end up a negative. But at least they’re not stuck if they want to shift gears.

Scroll Down For:

    Panthers offer Sarah Nurse deal to lead girls hockey program

    Getty Images
    0 Comments

    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are trying to sign a high-scoring forward who has an Olympic gold medal and two world championships, with hopes of getting the deal done in the coming days.

    If it happens, she won’t be playing for the Panthers.

    Sarah Nurse, the Canadian forward who had a highlight-reel goal against the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin during the NHL’s All-Star Skills Competition, has the chance to run the Panthers’ new program designed to get more girls playing hockey.

    Florida president Matthew Caldwell offered the job to Nurse publicly – very publicly, at a lectern, with a microphone, before a crowd of onlookers. And he was serious.

    “I’m going to embarrass you, but we’re going to offer you a job today,” Caldwell told Nurse, who was seated in the crowd. “We want you to be the face of our girls program at the War Memorial. So, are you in? On the spot? We don’t deal with agents, OK. I’m a tough negotiator.”

    The idea to hire Nurse was first floated to Caldwell by Melissa Fitzgerald. She’s the general manager for the War Memorial, which is the two-rink facility being refurbished by the team and will become its practice headquarters.

    “We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks,” Caldwell told The Associated Press. “Our youth hockey team kind of brought it up as a joke to me, but I said, `Let’s think big. We’re building this huge facility. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”‘

    The only part Caldwell was less than serious about with Nurse was how the Panthers don’t deal with agents. He spoke with Nurse’s representative, Thomas Houlton, after the event.

    Houlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and Caldwell spoke for about 15 minutes after the event, which was attended by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Panthers stars Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, and dozens of kids who got to play ball hockey afterward.

    Nurse played for Canada’s world-champion teams in 2021 and 2022, along with Canada’s Olympic gold winners at the Beijing Games last year.

    She was one of five women’s players from USA Hockey and Team Canada – the two most dominant women’s national teams in the world – who were part of the skills events. She wore custom skates highlighting Black History month and the Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit focused on getting more Black girls and women into the sport.

    She used a move made famous by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg when he helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics against Shesterkin, a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie.

    U.S. star Hilary Knight didn’t think Nurse’s goal should have surprised anyone, saying, “she’s a top scorer.”

    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

    ovechkin all star
    Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    “I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

    “It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

    Chase Agnello-Dean/Getty Images
    0 Comments

    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

    mark stone surgery
    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
    2 Comments

    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.