The Toronto Maple Leafs cap woes were on full display against the Calgary Flames on Thursday night.
With Wayne Simmonds staying behind after welcoming his second child, the Toronto Maple Leafs headed out to the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome with 7 defensemen and 11 forwards.
Further to this, the Maple Leafs have been practicing with a couple of amateur players, namely the University of Toronto’s Brendan Bornstein and Kyle Potts, as extras.
Not exactly the best look for an NHL side, but it is a situation that arises out of necessity to remain underneath the salary cap. However, it’s not necessarily fair to look at this is a negative.
The Leafs, in order to dress the best team possible, have to spend to the cap. In order to do so, while allowing for the ability to add at the trade deadline, they have built in quite a lot of flexibility into their roster, mostly through the practice of signing players to low-cost, short-term deals. Think Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, David Kampf or Jason Spezza.
For example, they could attempt to move Nick Ritchie, Justin Holl or Alex Kerfoot and create enough cap space to trade for anyone they want, and therefore it’s hard to be too critical of a competitive team that has limited cap space.
You could look at the situation in Calgary as a calculated risk in order to gain some space for later, or you could look at it as the cost of trying to squeeze the most out of the system.
What it most certainly is not, however, is an error made due to incompetence. The Toronto Maple Leafs may have spent to the cap, but outside of a reasonable bet on Nick Ritchie, they don’t have any bad long-term contracts that are handcuffing their ability to compete.
Toronto Maple Leafs challenged by curtailing of Taxi Squad
With the NHL opting to curtail the Taxi Squad across the league, the Maple Leafs were put in a bit of a bind. The team runs very tight to the salary cap, thus a day off practice for Auston Matthews meant approaching varsity players, rather than simply promoting minor-leaguers for the day.
Right now, experienced NHL players like Nick Ritchie and Kyle Clifford are now on the Toronto Marlies roster, as a result of taxi squads no longer existing.
You have to question how these guys are feeling about their minor league demotion and how their morale might influence their performances even if promoted.
Why was this an issue against the Calgary Flames?
The key reason for the issue versus the Calgary Flames was that the team was already playing short on the forward lines and then Ondrej Kase left the game.
After getting nailed by Flames’ defenseman Nikita Zadorov in the first period, the Czech winger left the ice and did not return to the game.
Suddenly, the Maple Leafs had to shuffle things up and manage the last two periods with just 10 forwards available. The team was put into this bind solely because there isn’t cap room to move an extra player onto the roster in light of Wayne Simmonds’ absence.
And while the Leafs ultimately lost the game, it was also a game in which they still performed admirably well for a team short of 2 forwards. In fact, having 48 shots on goal in this scenario felt quite impressive.
Were there any other options for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
The only real options available for the Toronto Maple Leafs would’ve been sending one of their 2 waivers-exempt (per CapFriendly) defensemen down to the Toronto Marlies.
However, it would’ve been a real challenge to justify sending either Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Lilijgren down. Certainly their performances in the NHL this season don’t justify dropping them.
These players now own their roles on the team, both seeing special team time in the game, and this would obviously hurt the team more than what they ended up doing.
Beyond that, you’re really looking at taking a huge risk like demoting Travis Dermott and wearing the fact he’s all but certain to be picked up on a waivers claim.
Even a demotion of either of the Swedish defensemen would’ve only created enough room to promote a player with very limited NHL experience. The likes of Alex Steeves, Joey Anderson, Brett Seney or Nick Robertson realistically were the only ones meeting that criteria, with small enough cap hits.
Moving forward, this is going to continue to prove problematic for the Toronto Maple Leafs. With a full compliment of players available, they’re likely to be running a 20-man roster until the playoffs begin.