Under the current structure of team president Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas, the Toronto Maple Leafs have proven to be solid talent-identifiers and producers. Sometimes, though, they’re almost too good. And if that sounds counterintuitive, all you have to do is look at their present-day roster, and the future of a few players, to see how the machine works in Toronto.
Specifically, let’s look at two Leafs forwards – winger Ilya Mikheyev and forward Alex Kerfoot – to explain what we mean. Kerfoot is 27 years old, and has a year left on his contract, which pays him $3.5 million per season. Mikheyev is also 27, and he’s working in the final year of his $1.65-million-per-season contract. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this coming summer.
With the salary cap not expected to rise by large amounts, Dubas and the Leafs can’t afford to retain mid-tier talents like Kerfoot and Mikheyev. Other teams will step up to offer Mikheyev on the UFA market. Kerfoot can be a valuable addition to an up-and-coming team. But if Toronto is going to retain the services of star goalie and soon-to-be UFA Jack Campbell, another part of the Leafs’ lineup is going to have to go to young players still under team salary control, and/or veterans on one-or-two-year contracts.
You don’t anticipate much change on Toronto’s defense corps, as top-blueliner Morgan Rielly’s recent contract extension cements his place in a group that includes veterans T.J. Brodie (signed through 2023-24) and Jake Muzzin (signed through 2024-25). The Leafs’ third-pairing also will likely have to be cheap contractually, but having half your D-men signed for at least a couple of seasons is a feat under a flat cap situation.
Many times, Dubas has hit the jackpot when filling out his roster, and sometimes, he hasn’t. For instance, Dubas did well to sign winger Ondrej Kaše last summer; Kaše’s salary of $1.25 million is a steal for what he’s brought to the Leafs (including eight goals and 16 points in 28 games), and this summer, he’ll be a restricted free agent, ensuring Toronto will be able to bring him back for at least another season. And his fellow Czech Republic native David Kämpf (four goals, 10 points in a largely checking role) is signed through the 2022-23 campaign at a very reasonable $1.5 million cap hit per year.
On occasion, Dubas has missed the mark. Current first-year Leafs winger Nick Ritchie is the best example: Ritchie has had some unfortunate bad puck luck, but his $2.5 million average salary for this season and next season is a relatively big amount, and ultimately, his production of only one goal and eight points in 29 games simply isn’t good enough. They could pay a young prospect two-thirds less than Ritchie is making to wallow at the bottom of Toronto’s scoring ranks.
More often than not, though, Dubas and his management team have been solid in identifying talent to augment the core of their roster. Indeed, their biggest rival might be the cap itself, as it forces teams to jettison some young players as they project every player’s future.
Nazem Kadri. Connor Brown. Zach Hyman. Andreas Johnsson. James van Riemsdyk. Kasperi Kapanen. All of them above-average players. All of them, with the exception of van Riemsdyk, would’ve preferred to remain a Leaf. But the cap forced them out of Toronto. In some cases, those talents have got Toronto something in a trade, but in many cases, players have walked away, with nothing but cap space in return. (Not that cap space isn’t notable and useful.)
This is just the NHL’s cap system working as intended. The cap is an Edward Scissorhands to the league, forever snipping and slicing its way through successful teams. Franchises have to adhere to a difficult cap ceiling, and they cannot afford to overpay on secondary-tier talents.
So, non-core players will continue to come and go in Toronto. Remember last year, when forward Alex Galchenyuk showed he had something left in the tank? He’s exactly the kind of low-risk, decent-reward asset that teams always will need. But he’s now in Arizona, languishing on a one-year, $700,000 contract. This pricing system, where NHL owners pay superstars and thriving prospects, and essentially hollows out the middle class of the league, is not going to be good to players like Mikheyev and Kerfoot.
If, as an NHL GM, you can find someone cheaper than a $3.5 or $4.5 million player to give you a second-or-third-line amount of quality two-way play, you’d be a fool not to do it. Cap space is so valuable. It gives a GM flexibility. It allows for a bigger investment in a player they already know and appreciate more than any player they deal away.
It’s no certainty Mikheyev and Kerfoot are playing their final season as Leafs, but both players are at or approaching a point in their careers where the business of the sport takes over, and virtually no player is safe from a trade, or a simple move right out of town at season’s end. So nobody should be surprised to see them follow Brown, Hyman, Kadri et al out of Toronto. It’s just part of the business.
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