You might be surprised by how much room there is. But it’s nearly all an illusion.
It’s that time again, too soon again, to calculate how much cap space the Leafs have in the offseason and what they’ll have once next season starts. Those two numbers are not the same for two reasons. One: there is a cushion of 10% on the salary cap that teams are allowed to exceed in the offseason. Two: the offseason calculation is not the same as the in-season version.
Prior to the new CBA Memo of Understanding, there was a very complex system that governed contract signings for the following year prior to July 1. That old method has been turfed, likely because no one outside the NHL offices could seem to figure it out, and replaced with a similar method used for the offseason.
The offseason cap calculation counts all one-way contracts regardless of where the player plays, and all qualifying offers that are one-way. All two-way contracts and two-way qualifying offers are prorated by days on the NHL roster. My read of the CBA says that includes IR, LTIR and Active Roster, and excludes days on emergency recall. If that’s correct, and I think it is, the Leafs shaved some small amount off their offseason cap hit by using goalies and some skaters on emergency recall.
I’m not going to post the full table of calculations this year because its final answer is so close to what Cap Friendly is showing right now, it’s not very illuminating. But to emphasize, Cap Friendly does not show offseason space, although they sometimes tweet it out. The cap calculation there is always a projected roster for the following year. They have said, rightly, that the complex offseason calculation rarely matters to most teams, and what they can afford for the next season is more meaningful. Very cap-strapped teams are the exception so, for the Leafs this might be an issue closer to training camp, but for now, there’s room to do anything they’d like and then figure out how to make it work later.
That’s exactly what I expect them to do. With all the prorated deals added to the one-way contracts, and including the last season of retained salary, the offseason cap hit is just over $69 million, giving the Leafs just over $20.5 million in space when you include the cushion. The salary cap will remain at $81.5 million under the terms of the MOU.
Now for the bad news. That includes only seven forwards who were fulltime NHL last year, as well as five defenders and one goalie. The extra scraps from the two-way players who had some days here and there add up to enough to cover Rasmus Sandin for a full year. To get to a full roster, there needs to be nine players added who will gobble up that space. Note: Travis Dermott is included at his qualifying offer amount, so if he is signed for more, the difference comes off that space.
If you average that out, that’s two and something million per player that has to be added to the roster to bring it to 23 players, and that doesn’t sound so bad, until you consider one of that nine needs to be a goalie, who won’t likely be on a bargain deal like Jack Campbell. Someone has to play the assignments Zach Hyman, Alex Galchenyuk and Nick Foligno/Joe Thornton filled. And it might be some of those same people, Hyman isn’t signing for $2.5 million again.
Now for the worse news. That’s the cap space with the cushion included, and come day one of the regular season, that’s ripped away, and Brandon Pridham has to sit on a hard bench just like the players. Without the cushion, the average cap space per player to add nine more is less than $1.5 million.
If you budget even as low a figure as $3 million for a second goalie, the amount left for eight players is down to $1.2 million each. If you think you can talk Hyman into taking $4.75 by giving him too much term and telling everyone you aren’t worrying about year seven, the average per player to sign seven more is now $780,000 each. The league minimum is $750,000 in the coming season.
Allocating that small amount of cap space is the set of hard decisions Kyle Dubas has to make over this offseason. That $20.5 million is his line of credit, and most of it has to get paid back before the players hit the ice. He can assume he’s running a short roster again, and shave some off his debt that way, but there’s only so much that gets you.
However, those decisions about how to pay for the additions will likely come after some signings are made, so it’s going to be one of those years where it all looks impossible until the last minute. We should likely just forget the Leafs are running a tab this summer and enjoy the speculation and actual signings, but I’m not betting that’s what happens.