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Lightning ride Vasilevskiy’s spectacular return to beat Maple Leafs

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The Tampa Bay Lightning remained one of the best teams in the NHL even with Andrei Vasilevskiy missing 15 games, taking a seven-game winning streak into Thursday’s best-versus-best clash against Toronto. All due respect to Louis Domingue, but the Lightning wouldn’t have won their eighth game in a row without a vastly impressive Vasilevskiy.

Honestly, you could make a sane argument that no other goalie in the world could author such a masterpiece, but that’s a debate for your local, hockey-friendly bar.

Speaking of debates, NHL fans were treated to what could potentially be an epic, too-good-for-the-second-round series, with the Lightning beating the Maple Leafs 4-1.

Prediction: a lot of people will look at that 4-1 score and believe that the Lightning absolutely dominated the Maple Leafs. That wasn’t the case, at all, as Vasilevskiy showed the opposite of rustiness in stopping 48 shots.

Vasilevskiy set a new Lightning franchise record for saves in a home game, and tied the overall mark. To review: Vasilevskiy set a new career-high for saves against one of the most explosive offenses in the NHL, and he did it in his first game back since Nov. 10. Tremendous.

Many of those saves were jaw-droppers, rather than run-of-the-mill, with this making a late push for Save of the Year contention:

You can’t really put the Leafs’ lone goal on Vasilevskiy, either, as Kasperi Kapanen stole an ill-advised pass, getting a ton of time and room to score:

After an evenly-matched, exciting 1-1 first period, the Lightning pulled away by scoring three times during the middle frame. All of those tallies were painful for Toronto. Tampa Bay made it 2-1 when Nikita Kucherov scored a barely-goal that Frederik Andersen seemingly gloved, and then the game really got away from the Maple Leafs when the Lightning scored two more times in the final minute of the second period.

Overall, the Maple Leafs generated a gaudy 49-21 shots on goal advantage. While you could accuse the Bolts of sitting on their lead late (they were outshot 16-2 in the third, and endured at least a 13-minute SOG drought), Toronto generated an edge during each period. It didn’t matter, because Vasilevskiy was a human highlight reel in net.

It’s foolish to read too much into a single night during an 82-game season, but perhaps a night like this might give the Maple Leafs that extra push to add that missing piece or two? If nothing else, the Lightning only strengthened their stranglehold on the Atlantic Division crown, not to mention the top spot in the East, and the Presidents’ Trophy.

Sure, the score was lopsided, yet this game made a best-of-seven series that much more tantalizing to imagine, even if getting there would be easier said than done. You know, kind of like getting pucks past Vasi.

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.

PHT Power Rankings: Blackhawks hit bottom

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If you turn on any random Chicago Blackhawks game on any random night against any random opponent it is a good bet they are already going to be losing by two or three goals 10 minutes into the first period. It has been a constant trend for about two months now.

Sometimes they are able to push back a little and tie the game only to lose in backbreaking fashion, just as they have done in their most recent losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Montreal Canadiens.

Sometimes they never push back and just get completely run out of the building.

Either way the result is the same — a loss. Those losses keep piling up at an alarming rate and are sending the Blackhawks toward what is looking to be their worst season in years.

Thanks to the seven-game losing streak they are carrying into the week the Blackhawks officially have the worst record (based on points percentage) in the entire league and are just 3-11-2 since firing Joel Quenneville.

In other words, things are bad. Really bad.

The problems are obvious. The good players that were part of the core that won three Stanley Cups in six years are older, more expensive and not as good as they once were (if they are even still on the team). Those larger contracts, combined with the salary cap, once again ripped apart the depth that always made the Blackhawks such a strong team.

The latter point is where a lot of the problems really start to show up. The Blackhawks went through salary cap purges before but were always able to find ways to restock the cupboards, often times to the point of them still being able to compete for, and even win, championships.

They have not done that over the past few years.

Just consider this question: Who is the last truly impactful and useful the Blackhawks have added to their organization through free agency or a trade? Have there been any over the past three or four years? The re-acquisition of Brandon Saad is probably the answer you could come up with because he is a fine, decent player. But when you had to give up an even better player (Artemi Panarin) to get him back that does not really help things.

Big contracts, an aging core, and no fresh talent entering the organization is a bad combination, and for this week it has the Blackhawks at the bottom of the PHT Power Rankings. They may be there for a while, too.

On to the rest of the rankings!

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Quite simply the best hockey team in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are early season MVP candidates, Steven Stamkos is a point-per-game player right behind them, and they are 11-3-0 since their Vezina Trophy finalist goalie has been injured. That includes the six-game winning streak they carry into the week. They also are coming off of a dominant 7-1 win against a really good Colorado Avalanche team.

2. Winnipeg Jets — The Jets are 10-4-1 in their past 15 games and are averaging more than four goals per game during that stretch. There may not be a better collection of top-line forward talent anywhere in the league.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs — Not too worried about the fact they haven’t won since William Nylander returned. The biggest concern here, just like last season, is that Frederik Andersen gets worn down from the workload he is being asked to carry. His play will determine how far they go in the playoffs.

4. Nashville Predators — They have cooled off a bit in recent weeks but that has coincided with the team being crushed by injuries. When healthy this is still one of the league’s best teams.

5. Washington Capitals — The champs are starting to get on a roll and Alex Ovechkin is still scoring goals at an unprecedented pace given his age.

The Surprises

6. Colorado Avalanche — Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon are both on pace for more than 120 points this season. Doubtful they will maintain those numbers over 82 games, but the fact they have done it over even 30 games is incredible.

7. Calgary Flames — Have to be honest, did not see the Flames being the team to crawl to the top of the Pacific Division at any point this season. How long will they remain there?

[Related: Are the Flames ready to contend?]

8. Buffalo Sabres — When every game you play is decided by a single goal sometimes you are going to get the breaks, and sometimes you are not. Thirteen of the Sabres’ past 15 games have been one-goal games, a stretch that has seen them win 10 games in a row and then also lose five games in a row.  They are not as good as they looked during the winning streak and they are not as bad as they have looked during the losing streak. Things balance out.

Strong Playoff Teams

9. Boston Bruins — They are still going to have to find some secondary scoring if they are going to be a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup.

10. Columbus Blue Jackets — Sergei Bobrovsky picked a terrible time to have his worst season as a starter. How good would the Blue Jackets be this season if he was playing at his normal level?

The Middle Ground

11. Vegas Golden Knights –– They might still be the best team in the Pacific Division and when all is said and done will probably end up winning it.

12. Dallas Stars — The rapid emergence of rookie defenseman Miro Heiskanen has helped make up for the absence of John Klingberg.

13. Anaheim Ducks — John Gibson should be a finalist for MVP at this point, while Daniel Sprong has made a nice little impact in his first few games with the team. Nice move in the shootout on Sunday night to help pick up the win.

14. Edmonton Oilers — If this team makes the playoffs Connor McDavid should be a unanimous MVP winner. He is doing even more than he did a year ago.

Related: Seven stunning numbers from the first two months of the NHL season]

15. San Jose Sharks — They have won three out of their past four and they don’t have a tough schedule coming up this week. Is this where it starts to turn around?

16. Montreal Canadiens — The P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade gets ripped (and deservedly so) which makes it kind of easy to forget that Weber is still pretty good. He is just older, has a worse contract, and might be starting to break down a bit physically. Still, he can play a little. He has five points in his first six games since returning to the lineup this season.

17. Pittsburgh Penguins — Every time it looks like they are going to get everything together and go on a roll they put together a terrible showing. Still, they have picked up 13 out of a possible 20 points over their past 10 games.

18. Minnesota Wild — They have some concerns right now, with the biggest potentially being whatever is wrong with starting goalie Devan Dubnyk.

19. New York Islanders — Still not sure they have enough offense to emerge from the pack and make the playoffs this season.

20. Carolina Hurricanes — The Hurricanes can not catch a break in goal. Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to solidify the position for a little bit, played extremely well, and then ended up injured. Now it is back to the Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek duo that was not working earlier this season

21. Arizona Coyotes — It is really tough to see the Coyotes hanging around in the Western Conference playoff race given the injury situation with Antti Raanta.

22. Detroit Red Wings — Dylan Larkin is on track for the best season of his career and several of their potential trade chips (Gustav Nyquist, Jimmy Howard) are having productive seasons. So they have that going for them.

23. New York Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist is still getting it done, he just doesn’t have enough around him for it to really matter.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Now that they have a new general manager in place it will be interesting to see where this team goes from here and where “bias for action” takes them.

[Related: Chuck Fletcher’s plate will be full as new Flyers’ GM]

25. Ottawa Senators — Losing Matt Duchene and Bobby Ryan to injury for the foreseeable future is really going to hurt what has been a surprisingly good offense this season.

26. Florida Panthers — With better goaltending this season they may not be needing another second half surge just to get back into playoff contention.

Lose For Hughes

27. Los Angeles Kings — The worst goal scoring team in the league by a huge margin and the third-fewest shots on goal per game. They are redefining what bad offensive hockey is in this era.

28. Vancouver Canucks — Since starting the season 10-6-2 the Canucks have managed to go only 3-10-1 over their past 14 games. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser are still studs, though.

29. New Jersey Devils — Taylor Hall has to be having flashbacks to his Oilers days.

30. St. Louis Blues — After getting blown out on Sunday the Blues sounded like a completely broken team. They are still better than their rivals.

31. Chicago Blackhawks — Maybe Jeremy Colliton goes on to be a good NHL head coach, but right now the decision to fire Quenneville just looks comical.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Maple Leafs, Sabres meet in Atlantic Division clash

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Tonight’s matchup features two of the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Maple Leafs are riding a four-game winning streak and are 11-3-0 in their past 14 games, while the Sabres have dropped three straight, including a 2-1 loss last night to Nashville.

After missing 14 games with a shoulder injury, Auston Matthews has three goals and an assist in two games since his return. Matthews has 13 goals in 13 games this season, the best goals per game mark of any player in the league. Toronto native Jeff Skinner has been electric for Buffalo this season, leading the Sabres with 20 goals (t-2nd in NHL). He had just 24 goals all last season with Carolina and played in all 82 games.

This will be the first of four meetings between these clubs this season. They will also meet in Toronto on Feb. 25 and March 3, before ending their regular season series on March 20 in Buffalo. The Leafs and Sabres have alternated wins and losses over the past six meetings.

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

What: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, Dec. 4, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

MAPLE LEAFS
Zach HymanJohn TavaresMitch Marner
Patrick Marleau – Auston Matthews – Kasperi Kapanen
Par LindholmNazem KadriConnor Brown
Tyler EnnisFrederik GauthierAndreas Johnsson

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Travis DermottIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

SABRES
Jeff Skinner – Jack EichelSam Reinhart
Tage ThompsonCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo
Remi ElieEvan RodriguesVladimir Sobotka
Patrik BerglundJohan LarssonZemgus Girgensons

Rasmus DahlinZach Bogosian
Lawrence PilutRasmus Ristolainen
Nathan BeaulieuCasey Nelson

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

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.

***

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.

***

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?

***

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.

Maple Leafs and Nylander: Contract deadline, trade talk, more

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Despite Saturday’s 5 p.m. ET contract deadline being achingly close, it’s still any outsider’s guess what will happen between the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander. For all we know, both the player and team aren’t 100-percent sure, either.

It’s also unclear how the Maple Leafs’ pending salary cap crunch will impact Nylander’s future with the team beyond 2018-19.

Let’s try to wade through the many ins and outs of this situation, with the best information currently available. If your head starts spinning, at least realize that you’re not alone.

Various rumblings about what a contract might look like with Toronto

During an NBCSN appearance on Wednesday, Bob McKenzie provided one of many possible windows for a Nylander contract. As opposed to many other situations where it’s difficult to hash out a deal, McKenzie reports that Nylander would actually not prefer a shorter “bridge” contract. Instead, he’d lean toward six years. McKenzie placed Toronto’s preferred cost at $6.7 million per year, while Nylander might want something closer to $7M.

This jives with figures from Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, who somewhat recently placed a possible compromise at $6.9M per year.

(Such reports bring to mind a somewhat amusing cacophony. On one hand, it feels absurd that a few hundred thousand would make such a difference when you’re talking about multiple millions. On the other hand … most of us would absorb multiple slashes to our softest parts for that difference alone.)

Do note that McKenzie at least floated the possibility of what would be closer to a “bridge” deal, even if it doesn’t sound like this would be Nylander’s first choice:

One factor to keep in mind is that, if the Maple Leafs reach a deal with Nylander before that Saturday dinner deadline, it would be “prorated” since we’re already more than a quarter through the 2018-19 season. Cap Friendly broke down how such variables might play out:

Basically, either a three-year or six-year deal (or other permutations) could be a great fit for the Maple Leafs. The 2018-19 year of a contract would feature a significantly increased cap hit (which works for Toronto, as they’re flush this season before the crunch hits) and then years two and on would be deflated.

What if there’s no deal at all?

Nylander wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL in 2018-19, thus possibly forcing him to play in an overseas league (or, if he doesn’t want to risk injury, not play at all). In that McKenzie video, you’ll note that Nylander wouldn’t gain any additional leverage if he sat out a season, as he’s not yet eligible for salary arbitration.

A couple weeks ago, Pierre LeBrun brought up a different – though difficult to imagine, even now – Feb. 25 deadline in an article for The Athletic (sub required).

In that scenario, the Leafs would trade Nylander’s rights. Such a maneuver would essentially only open up possibilities for teams not making the playoffs, as Nylander would still be unable to play in the NHL in 2018-19.

Seems unlikely, right? It’s worth mentioning, especially as we move to more plausible trade scenarios.

Talking trades

That Feb. 25 deadline is part of a potential trade deadline. Let’s start with the earliest link in that chain: moving Nylander’s rights before Saturday’s 5 p.m. deadline.

Multiple reporters (including LeBrun) indicate that the Maple Leafs would prefer to sign Nylander, not trade him. Even so, Toronto GM Kyle Dubas is at least touching bases. TSN’s Frank Seravalli points to a specific team that’s been in contact: the Philadelphia Flyers.

Landing a prime winger like Nylander would certainly make a boatload of sense for the Flyers, particularly if they wanted to make a statement after firing a shocked Ron Hextall from his GM position.

Theoretically, another team would be able to add Nylander with fewer worries about the future. On the other hand, few teams really have the cap space to easily add Nylander’s prorated deal in, as discussed earlier in this post. During the latest edition of TSN’s Insider Trading, McKenzie notes that the trade market has been “shrinking” because of those cap concerns.

So, that would make Nylander tougher to trade … for this season.

What if the Maple Leafs sign Nylander, only to trade him in the future, even if he gets a longer-term deal? Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman grimly stated on “Tim & Sid” that he believes that Nylander won’t be a Maple Leaf after this season, and pegged the 2019 NHL Draft as possibly the latest he’d be traded:

One can debate the likelihood of any trade happening, but there are a few potential windows to consider. A quick “tl;dr” recap, then:

Potential path 1: Before Saturday’s signing deadline.
Potential path 2:Feb. 25 – no signing happens, but a team could trade for his rights for 2019-20 and beyond.
Potential path 3: Nylander signs a contract with Toronto, only to be traded by the 2019 NHL Draft?
Potential path 4: No trade at all?

The elephants in the room

Most likely know this full well, but 2019-20 and beyond looms as a conundrum for the Maple Leafs with good reasons: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner need new contracts.

That Insider Trading segment noted that many big-ticket RFAs are preferring to wait until 2018-19 ends to really negotiate, rather than signing extensions now.

In the case of Marner, a proactive extension might not be especially cheap. Even at a shorter four-ish year commitment, a $10M number is being thrown around. Considering how many points Marner could put up during a full season as John Tavares‘ wingman, it’s no surprise that he could be pricey.

Matthews stands as almost certainly an even more expensive proposition. Could Toronto convince him to match Tavares’ $11M, or somewhere close? Would Connor McDavid‘s slight discount $12.5M serve as a ceiling? How will potential deals for other stars like Patrik Laine affect Matthews’ bargaining?

All of those questions – not to mention what to do with Jake Gardiner, and which steps to take to make the team better – don’t just plague the Maple Leafs for the future. They must consider them now.

Such a cap crunch might force Toronto’s hand with Nylander, even if they truly believe he’s worth paying in the $7M range. That’s especially true if, say, they can’t unload Nikita Zaitsev‘s deal off ($4.5M through 2023-24[!]) to a lower-end team at a price, or do something similar with the last year of Patrick Marleau‘s $6.25M cap hit.

Happy place

Of course, there’s also a possibility that the Maple Leafs have no intention to trade Nylander at all.

Let’s not forget that other teams have handled cap crunches to the point that they’ve at least retained their key guys. The Lightning defied odds in signing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman; in many cases, Tampa Bay landed them below-market-value, sometimes by leveraging RFA years. While it’s true that the Blackhawks couldn’t walk the tightrope forever, they won three Stanley Cups in part because they were able to walk that thin line for a long time. Some of us thought they’d collapse much sooner.

Is it that outrageous to imagine the Maple Leafs making this work?

Granted, the recent history of tough contract holdouts and strained situations have often resulted in eventual trades. P.K. Subban feels like the most prescient example, yet there are others.

The Maple Leafs are run by what seems to be smart people, and Mike Babcock recently stated that he expects Nylander to be a “career Leaf.”

It’s not that difficult to imagine the Maple Leafs bribing someone to take a nonessential contract in exchange for assets or other considerations. They did it with David Clarkson‘s ghastly deal, and it’s perfectly plausible that they can make it happen again.

Let’s not forget that the salary cap has been rising, too. Last season, the ceiling was $75M, while it’s up to $79.5M for 2018-19. A comparable jump for 2019-10 might just give the Maple Leafs enough breathing room to afford Nylander, Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Frederik Andersen, and maybe even a few other players above a replacement level.

***

Complicated stuff, right?

The bottom line is that it’s very difficult to predict how this will play out, especially when you zoom out beyond the already-tricky deadline Nylander and the Maple Leafs face on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET.

For fans of the sport and/or those interested in team-building, it should be almost as fascinating to watch as it is to watch this blazingly talented Maple Leafs team actually play games.

What would you do if you were running the Maple Leafs? What do you expect to find out? We won’t have to wait long for actual answers.

At least, for some answers.

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.