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The Next Era of Maple Leafs Hockey: Cap Purgatory

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing William Nylander. Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

A Contractual Breakdown Of The Maple Leafs Roster

Elliotte Freidman recently reported that William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs have agreed on an extension. Another big contract for a star as Toronto continues to dig a hole for themselves. The Maple Leafs are forcing themselves into a dark era of salary cap misery. How will the Maple Leafs handle Nylander’s extension? The increasing cap provides no relief for a franchise continuously signing big deals.

The Swedish forward has been the Leaf’s 2nd most productive forward ever since his 80-point campaign in the 2021-22 season. He has continued his success with a 40-goal season last year, which sparked the talks for his lucrative extension. Friedman reported the average annual value of his new contract is expected to be in the $11.5 million range. In a vacuum, this seems to be a league-average deal for someone of Nylander’s output and capabilities. Added to the already clogged pay logs of the Maple Leafs, the future for many players becomes unclear.

With approximately $14 million coming off the books this offseason, the finances of the Maple Leafs appear to not be a concern. But when analyzed on a macro level, paying 4 forwards $10+ million AAV does not seem to be a sustainable strategy. Especially, in a sport where 23 players are under contract with the NHL club. One that must operate under a salary cap of 87.7 million (2024-25 projected cap).  Paying your top 4 players a combined $46.9 million is an ineffective game plan.

Is There A Solution?

This is a considerable amount of complaining and little action on my behalf, so here is a possible and potentially probable scenario in which the Maple Leafs stay competitive and create cap space for free agency flexibility. In all of this, I would guess there is one man on the outside looking in and my prediction may surprise you. John Tavares would be the forward of choice to let go of to keep the core intact and young.

Without moving on from one of the significant earning forwards, it would be impossible for the Leafs to improve their continuously revolving cast of defensemen. A situation like this could lead to the Maple Leafs’ outlook pointing towards similar to the Los Angeles Lakers. Now it’s hard to knit pick Lebron James, but his strengths have never been in the cap-conscious general manager’s department. When James and Davis play for the Lakers, they are a perennial playoff team. But, when injuries or load management catch up with them, they are a draft lottery contender.

This comparison explains that paying your top players a majority of the salary cap in any given sport limits what a team can have as a surrounding cast. Veterans are an important part of any championship team but as role players, not as expected contributing talent. Handcuffing yourself to players playing the same positions forces the organization into filling the other positions with stop-gap players. The other option would be to sign players willing to come play for the minimum. Each can be a valuable piece, but when this subset of skaters becomes sizable, the future begins to look bleak.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a historic franchise woven into the roots of hockey in North America. Toronto should be a coveted destination for any free agent. The front office needs to provide themselves the flexibility to adapt to their club’s needs in the coming seasons. Conquering the Stanley Cup has become an impossible feat for this 13-time champion. The Leafs have the core to return to this dominant position, but will the front office play their cards right?

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