And Still, No One Understand the Maple Leafs Salary Cap Strategy

Toronto Maple Leafs (Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports)
Toronto Maple Leafs (Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Montreal Canadiens and all of a sudden their salary cap strategy is crazy again.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs were cruising through the Canadian Division, it was a perfect plan that people were finally starting to come around on. But then Tavares got injured, Auston Matthews went on the coldest streak of his career, and here were are.

The Leafs iced one of, if not the deepest team in the NHL this year.  No team has the depth to replace their injured elite players.  In hockey, “depth” means you’ve got more NHL players than you can use.  This team scratched Rasmus Sandin and Nick Robertson and Timothy Liljegren and Travis Dermott and Adam Brooks and Alex Galchenyuk and Pierre Engvall at various times, so don’t tell me they didn’t have enough money to ice a great team.

Ignore the almost-President’s Trophy, the Division Title and the injuries and pretend it’s all because of that thing you used to complain about a year ago….Lose three games and suddenly you can’t win by being the smartest team in the NHL anymore.  Best to just do what everyone else does and hope you get lucky like the Montreal Canadiens…..or something.

I’d like to believe people are just emotional, but really,  they will just always go for the low hanging fruit, and since the Leafs do the salary cap differently from 30 other teams, it’s the lowest hanging fruit there is.

Toronto Maple Leafs and the NHL Salary Cap

The reason the Leafs plan is not only smart, but actually the way every team should operate is pretty simple: In the NHL, it only makes sense to spend money on players who are elite.

Roughly 90% of NHL players contribute between zero and one Wins Above a Replacement Player, over a full season.  10% of players contribute between One and Five WAR.

Since non-star players are more-or-less interchangeable, it doesn’t make any sense to pay them more than the minimum salary.  Just for example, the real-life difference between Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall is not enough to justify the difference in their salaries.

Real life isn’t static, and players are going to switch between tiers but this strategy is about probability: you pay for the players who are sure to be elite, and try to bet on some mid-range guys who can be elite, while going cheap everywhere else.

The main bar to success in the salary cap NHL is overpaying the mid-range players.  While the Leafs have been lucky with guys like Muzzin and Brodie, these are the dangerous contracts – not the big ones.  Every single NHL team, other than Toronto, has bad mid-range contracts that hurt them far more than the supposed overpayments the Leafs gave to Tavares and Marner.

Leafs Did Well Despite Unforeseeable Events

If you don’t believe me about the Leafs salary cap, consider this: Despite the salary cap not rising as expected, the Leafs were still able to sign TJ Brodie and make themselves into a top three team in the NHL, one that competed for the President’s Trophy until the final games of the season and entered the playoffs as heavy favorites.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs devised this strategy, they were betting on the cap going up because of gambling, expansion and TV.  They couldn’t have foreseen a pandemic and a flat cap, but if that hadn’t happened, they’d look like geniuses right now.

The other thing hurting their strategy is that the Mark Hunter drafts didn’t really produce any NHL players.  With a  lack of ELC contracts to help out, they were pushed to the limit this year (but again, still managed to ice one of the best teams in hockey and were the only team without a single bad contact).

Going forward, the cap is going to go up.  Sure, the NHL lost some money in the pandemic, but realistically, the expansion team money and the TV deal is going to have to shared with the players at some point.

But best of all, the Leafs have a whole bunch of useful Entry-Level Contracts to offset their expensive players now.  Nick Robertson, and Rasmus Sandin are going to be core players starting next season. Timothy Liljegren, Filip Hallander, Topi Niemela, Mikhail Abramov will all compete for jobs in training camp.

In the end, I do realize that most people will continue to criticize anyone doing anything different until the proof, in the form of a championship, becomes indisputable.  The Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t a perfect team, but they’re on their way.  Replacing the vets (Thornton, Simmonds, Bogosian) with kids is going to make them faster, more dynamic and give them a lot more ceiling.

Next. Blood Sweat Tears and the Same Result. dark

While fans are upset, and justifiably so, the Leafs  are going to stick with the math and it’s going to pay off.