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

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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.

PHT Morning Skate: Zetterberg on his injury; importance of Subban

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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.

• Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg talks about the injury that ended his playing career. [Detroit News]

• How smaller goalie equipment will impact scoring in the NHL. [Sportsnet]

• Gone are the days when top pairing defensemen are carrying heavy minutes. [TSN]

• Why P.K. Subban may be the NHL’s most important player. [Tampa Bay Times]

• IIHF president Rene Fasel plans to retire when his term is up in 2020. [TASS]

• Willie O’Ree, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame later this month, gets the honor of having a street hockey rink named after him in Boston. [NHL.com]

• Examining the tough start for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blue line. [The Leafs Nation]

William Nylander remains unsigned. So how might the Philadelphia Flyers fit in as a possible trade destination? [NBC Philadelphia]

• It’s been quite a road to 1,000 games for Buffalo Sabres forward Jason Pominville. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• A good read on the way New Jersey Devils head coach John Hynes balances coaching and using analytics. [NJ.com]

• If Bruce Cassidy broke up his top line, how would the Boston Bruins look? [Bruins Daily]

• The Vancouver Canucks are off to a good start, but there’s reason to be cautious and optimistic. [Pass it to Bulis]

• Why Tyler Myers should be on Jim Benning’s shopping list this summer for the Canucks. [Daily Hive]

• A look at Filip Chytil‘s start to the season with the New York Rangers. [Blue Seat Blogs]

• Finally, Patrik Laine talks about his hat trick on home soil Thursday vs. the Panthers:

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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.

WATCH LIVE: Jets battle Panthers in Finland on NBCSN

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday afternoon’s matchup between the Winnipeg Jets and the Florida Panthers at 2 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The Jets are looking to rebound after blowing a 2-0 lead in the third period last Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Losers of two out of their past three, the Jets are looking to climb the Central Division standings with a win in the first of a back-to-back in Finland as part of the NHL’s Global Series.

Meanwhile, the Panthers need to start winning. With just two wins in their first nine games of the season, the Panthers sit dead last in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.

James Reimer gets the nod in net for the Panthers. Reimer has struggled in the absence of Roberto Luongo, posting just a single win in five game starts. His .878 save percentage leaves a lot to be desired and he’s in tough against the high-powered Jets offense.

Reimer will face off against Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck. Hellebuyck’s season hasn’t started in the same vein as it did when he won 44 games last year. He’s 4-4-1 with a pedestrian .907 save percentage in nine starts.

[WATCH LIVE – 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Winnipeg Jets at Florida Panthers
Where: Hartwall Arena (Helsinki, Finland)
When: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Jets-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

JETS
Nikolaj EhlersMark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler
Kyle ConnorBryan LittleMathieu Perreault
Brandon TanevAdam LowryPatrik Laine
Brendan LemieuxAndrew CoppJack Roslovic

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Ben ChiarotDustin Byfuglien
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

PANTHERS
Evgenii DadonovAleksander BarkovNick Bjugstad
Jonathan HuberdeauVincent TrocheckMike Hoffman
Frank VatranoJared McCannDenis Malgin
Troy BrouwerJuho LammikkoColton Sceviour

Keith YandleAlexander Petrovic
Mike MathesonAaron Ekblad
MacKenzie WeegarBogdan Kiselevich

Starting goalie: James Reimer

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

WATCH LIVE: Leafs visit Jets on Wednesday Night Hockey

NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

It’s the battle of the top two picks from the 2016 NHL Draft as Patrik Laine faces off against Auston Matthews. The two young NHL stars have already established themselves as impact players in the league and will be on display in of their two annual regular season matchups.

The Maple Leafs’ offense was sensational through the first 7 games of the season (4.71 goals per game), but has since hit a speed bump. They were shut out 3-0 against Pittsburgh and then fell 4-1 to St. Louis.

“We know we’re going to have to be at our best to beat a team like this,” said Jets forward Mark Scheifele.

Winnipeg’s matchup with Toronto will mark the end of their season-long six-game homestand. The Jets are 5-0-1 at home this season. Last year they were the best home team in the league at 32-7-2.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

WHAT: Toronto Maple Leafs at Winnipeg Jets
WHERE: Bell MTS Place
WHEN: Wednesday, October 24th, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVESTREAM: You can watch the Maple Leafs-Jets 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 GauthierJosh Leivo

Morgan RiellyRon Hainsey
Jake GardinerNikita Zaitsev
Martin MarincinIgor Ozhiganov

Starting goalie: Frederik Andersen

JETS
Patrik Laine – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Kyle ConnorBryan LittleNikolaj Ehlers
Andrew CoppAdam LowryBrandon Tanev
Brendan LemieuxJack RoslovicMathieu Perreault

Josh MorrisseyJacob Trouba
Ben ChiarotDustin Byfuglien
Dmitry KulikovTyler Myers

Starting goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

MORE: The Laine vs. Matthews debate

Myers’ frustration boils over after penalty-filled period vs. Predators

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Tyler Myers simply had enough.

And as the Jets took their eighth straight minor penalty of the second period on Thursday night against the Nashville Predators, Myers let his frustrations be known as he mockingly clapped at the referee while fellow defenseman Jacob Trouba was getting hauled off for slashing.

The parade to the penalty box didn’t sit well with anyone on the Jets, even if several of the calls were self-inflicted wounds.

Winnipeg clearly felt slighted, regardless. Four-letter pleasantries were flying everywhere on the broadcast.

Dustin Byfuglien didn’t take too kindly to the penalty box cam, hitting it with his stick while it was focused on him.

Myers’ transgression landed him a 10-minute misconduct.

The Predators couldn’t convert. Not on a single one of their power play attempts (which totalled nine by the time the game was through). The Jets, who struggled last week in Dallas after taking too many penalties in a 5-1 loss, killed off each and every penalty they took, deserved or not.

That’s quite the feat from both teams.

The Predators went on to win the game 3-0, exacting a little revenge after the Jets ended their season last year in Game 7 of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Some of the mayhem seen in the second period was almost expected. The hate that began during that seven-game series and finally resurfaced in the second period with the Jets down 1-0.

A high cross-check and a late hit finally made it all boil over.

Blake Wheeler fought Mattias Ekholm. Nikolaj Ehlers dropped the gloves with Colton Sissons.

In a game where the team making the least number of mistakes would likely triumph, it was the Jets who caved first and they paid for it.

Luckily, there’s more to come this season. One of the league’s fiercest rivalries happens to be between two of its best teams. Winnipeg and Nashville will meet three more times before the season ends, and both teams are expected to end the season near the top of the Central Division.

There will be some time to cool off before they meet again in January, but it’s unlikely their hate for one another will subside much at all by then anyway.

In the meantime, the Jets need to figure out their discipline issues.

Three of their four games have featured many visits to the box. Winnipeg has been shorthanded 20 times in four games thus far. They’ve killed off 85 percent of those, sure, but if you’re taking five penalties on average per game, that nice penalty-killing rate won’t be so nice after a while.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck