Kyle Dubas

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Maple Leafs ace salary cap tests, but Marner challenge remains

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The Toronto Maple Leafs entered this offseason with possibly the toughest to-do list of any NHL team, and while the biggest challenge still awaits in signing RFA star Mitch Marner, GM Kyle Dubas deserves at least a B+ for his efforts.

You can bump Dubas & Co. up to an A depending upon taste, and certainly if you’re grading on a curve in considering that every other NHL team was well aware of Toronto’s predicament. Some teams managed to exploit those issues for their own gains, while some still managed to sucker themselves. Either way, mostly strong work so far.

Thursday presented the latest round of moves surrounding that pivotal Marner push, as the Maple Leafs signed Alex Kerfoot to a sensible extension and … meh, at least only signed Cody Ceci for one year? (Not trying, at least outwardly, to merely flip Ceci again and seek a cheaper alternative puzzles me, but maybe Toronto has internal data that argues that Ceci is better than people realize?)

While Nazem Kadri was a better luxury, getting Kerfoot at just $3.5M per year, with some term, is pretty nifty by my eyes. Maybe those eyes have been re-adjusted by the Montreal Canadiens giving marginal defenseman Ben Chiarot that same $3.5M AAV, but I’d wager that Kerfoot will at least be as valuable as his cap hit, if not deliver as a nice bargain.

It fits in wonderfully well with two very reasonable re-signings from earlier this summer, as the Maple Leafs took Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson off the docket, getting cost certainty and also avoiding the threat of other teams trying to poach them. For all the talk of Marner possibly signing an offer sheet, the bigger worry might be that an opposing team would instead make it uncomfortable for Toronto to keep mid-level, useful young players. Instead, Dubas got them re-signed, and likely at below market value, even if you take RFA statuses into account.

Good stuff.

Dubas wasn’t flawless in his efforts to get rid of those Marleau and Zaitsev problems, although I imagine that it wasn’t especially easy to find takers to alleviate those concerns.

The Carolina Hurricanes traded for Marleau and eventually bought the veteran out, essentially paying close to $4M to buy Toronto’s first-round pick. If you want an idea of how smart I thought Carolina was, I postulated that rebuilding teams should use that trade as something of a blueprint: basically, take a bribe of picks and prospects to relieve contenders of their Marleau-lite problems.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That’s a fairly hefty price for Toronto to pay, especially since contending teams could conceivably take care of some of the strain of top-heavy contracts by getting quality (or just stopgap) production from players on entry-level contracts.

Luckily for Dubas, the Maple Leafs didn’t need to burn another first-rounder to get rid of Zaitsev’s lengthy, challenging contract. Instead, he was able to package Zaitsev in a deal for Ceci, who will cost the same $4.5M AAV in 2019-20, with the difference being that Ceci’s deal lasts for one year, while Zaitsev’s albatross hangs around through 2023-24. It’s true that the Maple Leafs also had to part with Connor Brown in that trade, but, overall, that’s a comically Maple Leafs-friendly deal, considering how toxic Zaitsev’s contract is.

(The Senators not getting a higher-level return for taking on Zaitsev is, well, a nice reminder that, as much as that team’s plight stems from owner Eugene Melnyk, Pierre Dorion’s also made some rough judgment calls in recent years.)

Time will tell if that blockbuster Kadri – Kerfoot – Tyson Barrie etc. trade ends up being a win, loss, or draw for Toronto, but as of this moment, it’s a bold and sensible example of two teams addressing weaknesses from areas of strength. Maybe Barrie has some flaws, but he’s a drastic upgrade at right-handed defense, Toronto’s biggest area of weakness. If it truly was time for the Leafs to part with Kadri, then that trade was really shrewd.

Speaking of shrewd, I quite enjoy some of the low-risk, medium-reward moves by Toronto. Jason Spezza‘s $7.5M cap hit made things downright awkward at times in Dallas last season, but at $750K, Spezza could be a sneaky-steal. Nick Shore’s an under-the-radar analytics darling, too, to the point that I was surprised that he had to sign in the KHL last season. (Too under the radar, I guess.)

It’s a little tricky to estimate precisely how much cap space the Maple Leafs have left for Marner, as you can see from this Cap Friendly tweet.

With Nathan Horton‘s looming $5.3M LTIR trip, that would put the Maple Leafs over $9M, with some wiggle room with other roster spots (again, see this thread to get an idea of some of the complications).

Toronto being where they are still leaves them vulnerable to an offer sheet on Marner, with these two compensation ranges (via the NHL) being the most relevant:

More than $8,454,871 to $10,568,589 — two first-round picks, one second-round pick and one third-round pick

More than $10,568,589 — four first-round picks (can be spread over five-year period)

Each offer sheet possibility would be interesting. An offer right under that $10,568,589 mark would at least make things a little uncomfortable. If a team wanted to push things into the stratosphere, they could also go well over $10.57M.

Under most circumstances, you’d expect the Maple Leafs to match a Marner offer sheet, yet that doesn’t mean that another team wouldn’t want to really put Toronto in a tough spot.

Theoretically, at least. It’s also plausible that teams a) don’t want to waste their time if an offer sheet wouldn’t work, b) winced at the reaction Marc Bergevin received, c) fear retribution if their big-ticket guys become eligible for offer sheets, or d) all of the above.

Overall, I wouldn’t be too worried if I were Dubas. They’ve mostly walked that tightrope with skill, and could really settle this offseason if Marner just wants to hash things out.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see at least some lane to put Toronto in an uncomfortable spot, as the other dominoes have mostly fallen. Could a team try to push the salary up above that $10.57M mark, which might mean that Toronto would have to trade a nice player such as Zach Hyman ($2.25M) to make the pieces fit? Could a team go very high AAV for three years, so Marner’s deal would overlap with possibly needing to give Frederik Andersen a raise, as the goalie’s team-friendly $5M cap hit dissolves after 2020-21?

The Maple Leafs eased concerns about other players by getting Kapanen and Johnsson locked down, so if there’s any chance Marner just wants to get this over with, I’d be inclined to hammer a deal out.

***

Even in the unlikely event that Marner signs for the same cap hit as Sebastian Aho, the trio of Marner + Auston Matthews + John Tavares costs well over $30M ($22.634M for Matthews and Tavares alone).

That statement should neatly summarize the notion that, chances are, the Maple Leafs will struggle with salary cap headaches for the duration of their window of contention, if not longer.

As we’ve seen with teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins, it’s difficult to avoid making mistakes, although Toronto will surely hope to avoid trading Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin-type gaffes, or … doing whatever it is the Penguins think they’re doing right now.

We won’t get the Maple Leafs’ full grade until we see how they handle the final exam that is the Marner situation, but judging by this summer school salary structure session, they’ve been honor students so far.

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.

Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

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.

Maple Leafs extend Shanahan’s contract through 2024-25

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The Toronto Maple Leafs announced an important contract extension on Tuesday, but no, it’s not for Mitch Marner.

Instead, it’s for the man behind the plan to bring in players like Marner. The Maple Leafs handed Brendan Shanahan a six-year extension as team president (and alternate governor), which means that extension runs through 2024-25.

It’s easy to get lost in the particulars of the contract squabbles involving Marner and William Nylander, and two straight postseason defeats to the Boston Bruins, and forget that the Maple Leafs have come a long way since bringing in Shanahan in April 2014. The team’s press release does a nice job of quickly summarizing that success:

The 50-year-old native of Mimico, Ontario first joined the club in April 2014. Since then, the Maple Leafs have earned three consecutive playoff berths (2016-17 through to 2018-19), while recording their most points in a single season (105 in 2017-18) and consecutive 100-point seasons (2017-18 and 2018-19) for the first time in franchise history.

The “Shanaplan” involved bringing in Mike Babcock as head coach and convincing Lou Lamoriello to come aboard, and then eventually pass the torch as GM to Kyle Dubas. During that time, the Maple Leafs have made some significant moves, most notably landing John Tavares in free agency.

Of course, the biggest tests lie ahead.

The Maple Leafs must solve the riddle of the Marner contract situation, and the salary cap crunch that is likely to result. Who will they trade to make room for the bigger names, or will this situation demand that the Maple Leafs trade a big name to make it work? Dubas likely carries the heaviest burden in making all of that work, but Shanahan’s almost certain to have some say, even if it’s more of a big picture outlook.

Dubas did what he could to squash rumblings about Babcock’s future, explaining that the Maple Leafs “are all in on Mike, and Mike is all in on us.” Still, the perception is out there that the head coach and GM diverge on some key matters when it comes to running a hockey team, and those rumblings will grow louder during every inevitable rough patch in 2019-20, and possibly beyond.

[Babcock did what he could to clear the air during a volatile time in March.]

Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe also hovers in the background, in part because he might buy into Dubas’ vision more than Babcock, but also because other NHL teams might try to snatch him up as their next head coach.

So, basically, Shanahan faces difficult challenges both on the ice with cap management and behind the scenes with managing people. This has largely been a success when it comes to rebuilding a lump of clay (or worse) into a consistent playoff team, yet it’s arguably even more difficult to make the leap from “good” to “great.”

There could be many more growing pains along the way, but overall, it’s easy to see why the Maple Leafs have so much faith in Shanahan, and the Shanaplan.

(We might be getting to the point where it’s time to retire Shanaplan, though, as great as that word splice is.)

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.

Babcock clears air about ‘depth’ comments, talks relationship with Dubas

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When Mike Babcock entered the NHL head coaching ranks with the Anaheim Ducks his general manager was Bryan Murray. The late GM imparted some wise words with his rookie head coach that have stuck with him 17 years later.

“As a coach and a general manager, never let anyone get in between you and if you do you’re going to be in trouble,” recalled Babcock after Friday’s practice. “That relationship is so important.”

Babcock was bringing up Murray’s advice on the heels of a week where speculation was rife that there was some brewing tension between him and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas. The head coach’s comments earlier this week about a lack of depth on an injury-tested roster raised some eyebrows.

“All good players, let’s not kid yourself, you’re way better when you have all guys on deck,” Babcock said on Monday. “The thing about a team is you have 23 spots on it and you have a minor-league team, you’re supposed to build the best program you can to have as much depth so you don’t miss people. If you have enough, you don’t miss a beat and you just keep on going. There are other teams that have done a better job when different players are out than we have in keeping on going. That just tells you what state you’re at and you have to keep adding better players.”

That came two months after he said, “There’s no question about it: It’s not perfect, it’s what we got. It’s what was available and we’re going to make it work,” following the Maple Leafs’ acquisition of Jake Muzzin, adding another left-hand shot to their blue line.

The Maple Leafs are in a little rough patch having gone 8-7-2 in their last 17 games as they prepare for an inevitable Round 1 matchup against the Boston Bruins again. So when a team with such high-end talent and sky-high expectations falters, especially at this point in the season, the vultures are going to circle.

“Whatever people speculate or think, I don’t believe that’s the case,” said Babcock. “I know Dubie and I talk all the time, we’ve talked about this since this happened. If any of my comments in any way… I don’t read it [as others did], but if any of my comments in anyway hurt anybody… if anyone’s wife is reading it the next day, and they feel hurt, then you’ve done the wrong thing. That’s not my intent.

“One of the comments was about depth. Depth in the organization, we’ve got keep improving our depth, everybody knows it. … [W]e’re all trying to do it so that we can get to be like these teams. Tampa, to me, is just a model of what depth is. It doesn’t matter if you get guys hurt, not hurt… so if there was any slap at anyone, it sure wasn’t intended, that’s not what I meant to say.

“I go to the media, what, twice a day. Sometimes three times a day it seems like. There’s gonna be a s—-storm once in a while. There just is. You’d like to say everything perfect, and sometimes maybe you don’t.”

Babcock added that his relationship isn’t as good with Dubas “as it’s going to be four years from now,” noting that it was the same with Murray and in Detroit with Ken Holland and with Lou Lamoriello when he was hired by the Maple Leafs. This is the first season for the two in the GM/head coach relationship, so it’s going to be bumpy, especially in Toronto and especially where the team is in regards to Stanley Cup contender status.

The Maple Leafs have eight games remaining to try and catch the Bruins for home ice in Round 1. They have a relatively soft schedule over the next week and building off of Wednesday’s win over Buffalo will go a long way in pushing the distractions aside.

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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.

‘A master troll job’: Leafs GM enjoyed Marchand’s Tweet on Marner’s next contract

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Brad Marchand‘s elite pest skills don’t work just on the ice, and with a likely first-round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs coming up next month, the Boston Bruins tried to stir the pot on Twitter Tuesday.

Responding to an NHL PR account Tweet about Mitch Marner reaching 80 points, Marchand put on his free agency speculation cap as the Leafs forward could be a restricted free agent on July 1.

The Leafs face an interesting off-season in trying to not only re-sign Marner, but also RFA Kasperi Kapanen, if they choose to do so, as general manager Kyle Dubas navigates a tight salary cap picture. But Marchand says he was just showing some respect to a great player.

“Some people really took that the wrong way,” Marchand said after Tuesday night’s win against Carolina. “You gotta give the kid credit. He’s a great player that’s all I was trying to get at. He’s having a great year. It’s a big milestone for him. Just giving some credit where credit’s due that’s all.”

Dubas was appreciative that the Leafs were on Marchand’s mind one month before the start of the playoffs, and he also respected the attempt.

“I think it was a master troll job, to say the least. You have to respect that element of it,” Dubas said from the NHL GMs Meetings. “From my end, I think the part that I liked about it was that there’s over a 90 percent chance we’re going to play them in the playoffs if you just take the probabilities of it, so that he woke up the morning of a game day and was thinking about the Toronto Maple Leafs. I thought was a positive thing for us.”

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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.