Toronto Maple Leafs: What Every Fan/Analyst Gets Wrong About the Cap

Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Toronto Maple Leafs are often criticized for having 4 x forwards making a combined $40 million.

However, this criticism shows a major misunderstanding in how NHL games are won, and how teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, should approach team building in a salary cap system.

You will often see people arguing the difference between say, Matthew Tkachuk making $9 million, and William Nylander asking for the same amount.

You’ll see people say things like “$9 million is fair, but let him walk if he wants $10 million.”

And you will also see people talk about how Marner is overpaid by half a million, or that Tavares is a million overpaid, etc.

The thing is, it doesn’t really matter what you pay star players.  A million or two one way or the other isn’t really going to make a difference, because, based on what star players do compared to non-star players, you almost cannot overpay them.

What Nearly Every Single Fan and Analyst Gets Wrong About the Salary Cap

What matters is how you spend the rest of the money you have.

In a pro league, roughly 90% of players are statistically indistinguishable from each other over the long term (the differences are marginal only, and while this would matter in a pro league without a salary cap, the salary cap basically makes it a poor-value bet to ever pay a non-star more than the league minimum).

In the NHL, non-stars make up 90% of the player population. The best non-star player might be worth 1 win over 82 games, but even the worst player, assuming he is only paid the league minimum, and isn’t deployed in a crazy way, isn’t going to have zero value.

The other 10% of players are worth between 1.01 and 6 wins.  These are the players you pay.

If there was no salary cap, marginal differences would matter a lot.  But with a cap, the team’s goal should always be to get value on a contract.

That means paying players before they are worth what you’re giving them in the hopes they end up being worth more down the road.

It means not signing players to longterm deals into their 30s, except in very special circumstances.

Most of all, however, it means not spending money on mid-range players.

Max Domi, John Klingberg, Ryan Reaves and David Kampf combine to cost over $11 million dolllars.

This is going to hurt the Leafs far more than whether or not they pay Nylander an extra million.

The Leafs could easily have dressed a better team by forgoing Domi, Klingberg, Reaves and Kampf and replacing them with  3 x replacement players for $2.7 million dollars, giving them $8 million to spend on a star player.

The Leafs got suckered into the age-old trap of paying players with name-recognition more than their anonymous, but equally likely to succeed, counterparts.

Now, there may not be one of those available in the summer, but you can bet that there will be one available when teams are eliminated from contention in March.  It is a virtual guarantee that any random star + 3 AHL players would do more than the combined efforts of Domi, Klingberg, Reaves and Kampf.

A Second Example of Where the Toronto Maple Leafs Got It Wrong

A second example of what I’m talking about can be seen on last year’s Toronto maple Leafs roster.

They were right up against the salary cap, but what if instead of Alex Kerfoot for $3.5 million and Calle Jarnkrok for $2  million they used Alex Steeves and Nick Abruzzese until the deadline, where they could have added a star player like Timo Meir or Bo Horvat?

Clearly they’d have had a better team.

Ranking the Top 5 NHL Defensemen. dark. Next

These examples show what nearly everyone gets wrong about the salary cap: It’s not the extra money spent on stars that hurts you and prevents you from competing.  It’s the money spent on replaceable players.