As you may have heard ad nausem throughout the offseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made some interesting decisions with respect to salary cap management for the 2013-14 season. With many of their best value deals coming up for raises by way of the restricted free agency process, the Leafs now find themselves short on bargain deals that helped them find success without just out-spending other teams.
This summer, though, Dave Nonis hasn’t been tight with the purse strings – he bought out Mikhail Grabovski and Mike Komisarek, he opened up the cheque book for Tyler Bozak and David Clarkson, and he’s had RFAs receive more than the anticipated amount.
All of that adds up to leave the Leafs in a precarious cap situation, with just under $5M left to sign both Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson (spoiler: not happening). So, with a different cap situation and a few changes to the roster, I wanted to look at how the Leafs have shifted their allocation of assets.
Before the changes are examined, it’s worth looking at how the Leafs maximized cap space last year. The graph below shows the amount of available minutes a player played versus the amount of cap space he took up. In an economic equilibrium (with proper player deployment from the coaching staff), these would line up in a clear pattern whereby salary is commensurate of minutes (and minutes would be indicative of overall performance). Given the realities of the league – namely, the bargains that are most entry level contracts – that’s not the case.
As you can see, the Leafs had a few outliers at a high cost without many minutes played (Komisarek being the most obvious and Joffrey Lupul standing out due to injuries). There are also some extreme bargains, players who played major roles at a low cost (Bozak, Franson and Mark Fraser).
What sticks out as interesting when comparing salary structure between this year and last year is that the Leafs are actually increasing spending on useful players despite the cap going down. The Leafs paid $7.87M in cap space to buyouts, retained salary and buried salary in 2012-13. At the start of this year, that number is "just" $2.5M. The Leafs were also about $6M under the cap last season. Basically, while the cap went down by about $6M, the Leafs still had about $5M more to spend on actual contributors. And they used it.
The Leafs have essentially spent all of that additional money to upgrade their second line and second pairing. The salaries of their top centre, wing pair, defense pair and goalie has only risen from $27.3M to $28.1M, while the cost of their third and fourth lines, final pairing, back up goalie and reserves has dropped from $17.1M to $16.8M. It’s the second line and second pair where the jump is noticeable, as those five players have risen in cost from $11.5M to $17.3M. (And again, these line designations are based on salary alone, not the expected depth chart.)
Despite the Leafs paying the same in "salary" this year, their cap space and flexibility is much smaller thanks to the decline in the salary cap.
I should note that for the purposes of displaying a "full" roster, I have assigned Kadri and Franson a $2.5M value each, a number that is probably far too low but pushes the team to the cap. Obviously, if both are to be signed other moves are required, but this works for our purposes here.
From the graph above, it’s clear the Leafs are spending more across the board. However, as mentioned, there is almost zero room for flexibility. The "depth" figure refers to salary paid beyond 12 forwards and seven defensemen. The Leafs are banking on either not needing much depth from the AHL or being able to find cheap depth – players only come off the cap if they are injured for a long period – as they have little wiggle room to add, say, Morgan Reilly ($1.74M cap hit including deferred bonuses) in the event a defenseman is banged up.
I’ll throw one more graph up that tells us even less but is still interesting. The graph below is the same as the previous one, just broken down by specific role. This is based on salary, not actual deployment, so, for example, Jake Gardiner is not a D1 or D2 (instead, Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles are).
Particularly looking at the centres, it’s clear that Grabovski is gone and Bozak is a cheaper "first line center" (in name only) while the team is now paying more for a "second line center" (Dave Bolland), although Kadri’s eventual price tag will change how this looks. On defense, the Leafs are paying more across the board once you get past Phaneuf and Liles, as every defense spot has gotten a raise. Both goalie positions have also spiked.
Again, none of this is new. The cap crunch the Leafs face has been discussed plenty, and the discussion is far from over. The Leafs have several moves left to make, whether they be trades or signings of their RFAs or both. This will look different by the start of the season.
But the fact remains that all of the changes this offseason have brough have put the Leafs right up against the cap with no easy way out. This whole exercise also speaks to the value of having a steady pipeline of young, controllable talent to fill spots when players get too expensive, something the Leafs are lacking a bit this year compared to last.