The Leafs, The Cap and the Summer Ahead
One of the least mentioned elements of the Maple Leaf season has been the fact that for the vast majority of the campaign, the club spent well below the league's salary cap.
Really, since demoting Jeff Finger and his awful contract to the Marlies in October, the club has operated $4-6 million below the league's $59.4 million cap all season, unusual for a team that has consistently spent to the max since the salary cap was instituted after the lockout. Other than Joffrey Lupul, the team hasn't added a large contract this season, while Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin were sent packing.
Compare that to Buffalo, which added the $4 million contract of Brad Boyes at the trade deadline, the proceeded to stay ahead of the Leafs in the fight for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot. Seventeen teams will spend more than the Leafs this season, a group led by the Calgary Flames, a team that may not make the post-season and has an enormous number of no-trade/no movement contracts.
Clearly, Brian Burke and Co. were trying to avoid bad contracts and maintain roster/cap flexibility going forward, particularly with a new CBA coming sometime after September, 2012. But the amount of money the Leafs had to spend before the deadline could have in theory added two more players to the roster to help the club's late season playoff push.
That said, the reluctance to do that does put the team in a better position for the off-season, with only approximately $37 million committed to 13 players and the cap expected to rise by $2-3 million. It also means that while the whining never seems to end about Mike Komisarek's contract (3 more years at $4.5 million) it's really not a deal that poses a major problem for the Leafs right now.
Could they buy him out? Theoretically, sure. but remember they're still looking at a cap hit of $1 million for each of the next three seasons for buying out Darcy Tucker. These decisions last. It would make a heckuva lot more sense to work with Komisarek and get him back to playing where he was two or three seasons ago.
Even after signing some key restricted free agents, the Leafs could still have upwards of $15 million to spend. It would be hard to believe that they won't go back to being a team spending to the maximum next season.
The five key restricted free agents are:
--D Luke Schenn. This is the only situation that could result in a big contract, and even that is ameliorated to some degree that Schenn's current contract, his entry level deal, comes with a cap hit of $2.975 million per season. The likelihood is he'll be able to command a salary somewhere between $3.5-4 million on a long-term deal, likely four or five years.
--G James Reimer. This is a tricky one. How do you fairly compensate a goalie who has played extraordinarily well, but in less than a half-season. Reimer makes $597,000 now, and the most sensible approach would be something like the Leafs did with Jonas Gustavsson last summer, with Gustavsson receiving two years with an annual cap hit of $1.35 million. No reason to break the bank. Media calls for a deal of five years, $25 million are preposterous.
--LW Clarke MacArthur. MacArthur has had a career season, but he has injured his off-season bargaining power by going cold since the trade deadline. He's at $1.1 million now, even arbitration seems unlikely to bump him above $2.5 million. The Leafs could live with a one-year award at that figure.
--C Tyler Bozak. In less than two years in the league, Bozak has proven he's an NHLer with upside. There's more skill than 29 points in 76 games suggest, and a minus-27 rating doesn't alter the club's thinking that he's a good penalty killer and generally sound defensively. He'd be a nice fit at the No. 3 slot. Like Schenn, his current cap hit is inordinately high for a young player - $3.725 million - so there will be cap relief on the way if he is signed. Something like $1.5 million per season on a short-term deal makes sense.
--D Carl Gunnarson. His minutes and responsiblties have skyrocketed since Kaberle's departure, and the fact he is an even plus-minus player after 62 games, best among the regulars on the club's blueline, is a positive stat. He's 24 years old and currently makes $800,000. That doubles next season, quite probably, but stays below $2 million.
So say the total cap hit for those five RFAs comes in around $12 million, or below. That should still leave about $15 million to sign four more players to get to 22, whether that includes UFAs like Tim Brent and Joey Crabb, or significant free agents.
So while it might have helped the club short-term to take on contractual committments beyond this year to help fuel this late season playoff push, not doing so will be enormously helpful going forward. Now, the trick will be finding players worth spending on.