Toronto Maple Leafs Use Market Inefficiencies to Their Advantage

TORONTO, ON-Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Auston Matthews talk before a face off in the Nashville Predators zone in Toronto on Monday (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star) (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON-Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and Auston Matthews talk before a face off in the Nashville Predators zone in Toronto on Monday (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star) (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a significantly better team than they were last year.

The Toronto Maple Leafs spent the summer fixing their salary cap issues.  They moved out several bad or under-performing players, and they brought in a group of cheap, dependable players making around the league minimum.

By finding a set of bottom-of-the-lineup players that are set to drastically out-perform their counterparts on most other teams, the Leafs have given themselves a real edge heading into the season.

As for the rest of their lineup, it was already among the best in the NHL and it stands to get better as Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnson, Travis Dermott, Kasperi Kapanen and  Trevor Moore all stand to improve as they progress closer to their looming peak seasons.

Toronto Maple Leafs Depth Is Insane

You really shouldn’t be able to ice a lineup this good in a salary cap league, but the NHL has a specific problem that the Leafs are taking advantage of: The league’s teams routinely pay mid-range players salaries of three, four and five million dollars, while leaving many effective non-name brand players available for close to the league minimum.

The difference between veteran players making mid-range salaries vs players like Nick Shore exists, but is not worth the extra money, if you spend the savings wisely.

In the case of the Flyers, they’ll be paying an insane $7 million dollar cap hit on Kevin Hayes.  The Toronto Maple Leafs on the other hand, will be paying Nylander less money, even though Nylander is four years younger, and scored more points in his rookie season than Kevin Hayes’ career high.

Additionally, Nylander has the potential to be much better, while Hayes is likely already past his best year.

By paying big money only to super star players and potential stars, the Leafs have put together a “studs and duds” salary cap structure that is only possible because other teams overpay for medium players, while low-scoring vets with great advanced stats are basically free.

Kevin Hayes is definitely better than Nick Shore, but he isn’t an elite player.  If he was, he would be better than the six Nick Shores you can otherwise afford if you don’t pay for him.  But since he isn’t elite, he isn’t worth the opportunity cost of signing him.

The Leafs paid Marleau a $6 million cap hit last year, for which he performed worse than an average fourth line player.   By getting rid of Marleau, the Leafs were able to add Nick Shore, Garrett Wilson, Jason Spezza, Pontus Aberg and Kenny Agostino.

It doesn’t take a genius to see why this works: for the price of one player you have signed five players who all stand to outperform him.

Now, if we were talking Marleau in his prime however, he would be worth keeping instead of those five guys.  The NHL is a “strong link game” and therefore the best thing you can do is add elite players to your roster.

But as long as you properly identify those players, buying up all the under-appreciated left overs from the UFA market allows you pay for them.

A “studs and duds” approach to the salary cap would not work if the league properly valued players.  It is only because of two factors that it will work for the Leafs 1) The NHL UFA market drastically under values the Nick Shores of the world, and 2) Almost every other team has a bad contract such as Kevin Hayes that cripples their ability to match Toronto’s depth.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have identified a way to play the salary cap to their advantage and this will make their team so, so much better than last year’s.  The Leafs replaced the only high-end players they lost (Gardiner, Kadri) with Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot.

The slight downgrade in talent there should be made up for by the fact that the incoming players (a right-side defenseman and a defensive forward) fill holes that the roster had.

Next. 2019-20 Individual Player Expectations and Forecasts. dark

The real uptick in the team’s power will come from their depth, which is considerable and impressive, as well as the age related improvements for their young stars.  The team that probably has the most first line players in the NHL is now also the deepest team.

Look out.