Toronto Maple Leafs Present Master Class In the Salary Cap

TORONTO, ON-Toronto-DUBAS.The Maple Leafs announced today the promotion of Kyle Dubas to General Manager. Brendan Shanahan was on hand for the announcement..May 11, 2018. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON-Toronto-DUBAS.The Maple Leafs announced today the promotion of Kyle Dubas to General Manager. Brendan Shanahan was on hand for the announcement..May 11, 2018. (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are forcing critics to eat their words.

After a master class in roster construction, the critics who complained that Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs were not properly managing their salary cap have to apologize and accept that they were wrong all along.

Several years ago, while the Leafs had three franchise players on entry-level deals, the media (almost unanimously) declared that they would never be able to sign all three.

Then, when they did, the goalposts were moved. Sure, they could sign all three, but it was a massive mistake.  These grievances even included one of the most embarrassing modern hockey takes: that somehow signing future Hall of Famer and current Captain John Tavares was a mistake.

The Leafs were doing something that no one had ever done before (essentially eschewing mid-range players and employing a “studs and duds” cap approach) so criticism was to be expected.

But will critics eat their words or move the goal posts again? Time will tell.

Toronto Maple Leafs and the Salary Cap

Turns out that the Leafs weren’t in a “cap crunch” and that they weren’t in “cap hell,” but instead have maximized their ability to compete by properly spending their money.  This has been proven during this month’s free agency period when the Leafs set themselves up as the NHL’s deepest team without sacrificing a single core player.

The Leafs are currently over the salary cap, but teams aren’t under any obligation to ice the maximum 23 man roster, and with several players eligible to go to the AHL without waivers, and with their AHL team located in the same city, the Leafs can shuttle players back and forth in order to stay under the salary cap.

If they limit their long-term injury reserve money, they can accrue cap space throughout the season, and then add players at the deadline if they want to (money will need to go out, but that is fine because they won’t need a higher quantity of players anyhow).

There is no benefit to saving cap space for later, and every NHL team should aim to be as close to the limit as possible in order to maximize potential competitiveness.  So we can’t complain about the Leafs current cap total, but only ask if they spent their money correctly.

For my money, they have.  They haven’t had to make any salary dumps (Johnsson and Kapanen were replaced with players who should easily provide what they provided) or sacrifices to their vision for the sake of the cap.

The Leafs have a top ten goalie.  They have four elite forwards, which matches or exceeds every team in the NHL.  Their top three defensemen – Rielly, Muzzin and Brodie – matchup or exceed every blueline in the league.  Their depth? Unsurpassed.

Its subjective, obviously, but if a person wanted to declare the Leafs to have the NHL’s best roster, they would be hard to argue against.  Colorado, Las Vegas and Tampa come close, and may surpass it, but no one else is within five miles.

The Leafs have no bad long term contracts which they’d like to get out of.  They have zero mid-range players taking up space.  Every single player they are paying more than $1.5 million to has the potential to be one of the 10% of NHL players that significantly impacts the game.

The Leafs have seven high-impact (elite) players on their roster and a top notch goalie (not to mention that both Hyman and Holl were top of the lineup players last year). Their situation didn’t prevent them from adding the necessary depth, and they aren’t shy about manipulating the rules to their advantage.

People said it was wrong to put so much money into so few players, but given the teams ability to draft and scout cheap players, and their ability to attract quality, low cost veterans, that concentrated spending cannot be said to cost them anything.

Based on the marginal difference between a mid-cost NHL player and a replacement player, the Leafs cap strategy is mathematically sound, and it is now proving to be real-world effective as well.

Th Leafs have  a trio of elite forwards that range from 22-24.  This is the core of the team, along with Morgan Rielly, and since they went out and surrounded this core with Tavares, Thornton, Simmonds, Kerfoot, Muzzin, Brodie and several high-ceiling unknowns (Barabanov, Lehtonen, Robertson) it can’t be said to have prevented them from doing anything.

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Who’s laughing now?  Myself, for one.  Kyle Dubas and Brendon Pridham for another.  I see the usual suspects are still embarrassingly trying to trade Nylander, but that ship has sailed.   The Leafs have presented the rest of the NHL with a master class in cap management.  Like I said several years ago, this will become the standard M.O for teams eventually, but for now the inventors of the process have a massive advantage.