The Shanaplan Meets NHL Salary-Cap Reality
When Brendan Shanahan was hired as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014, his strategy for rebuilding the moribund roster was quickly dubbed “The Shanaplan” by long-suffering denizens of Leafs Nation.
He cleaned house behind the bench and in the front office. In came well-respected hockey men like Mike Babcock as head coach and Lou Lamoriello as general manager, along with Lamoriello’s eventual successor Kyle Dubas.
The Leafs struck gold in the opening rounds of three successive drafts, selecting forwards William Nylander (2014), Mitch Marner (2015) and Auston Matthews (2016). Since 2016-17, the trio played crucial roles in turning the Leafs from a perennial non-contender into a dominant team.
The Leafs restocked with talent while shedding salary in the process. Expensive, unhappy veterans Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf were sent packing. In came forwards John Tavares, Patrick Marleau and goaltender Frederik Andersen. Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, and Travis Dermott were picked up via trades and the draft.
Thus far, “The Shanaplan” is a success. The Leafs are off to a sizzling start to 2018-19, leading the league in scoring. As of Oct. 13, Matthews and defenseman Morgan Rielly were atop the scoring race with Marner and Tavares among the top-six. Matthews and Tavares sat first and third in goals while Rielly was the league’s assist leader.
Leafs fans are once again daring to dream of the end of their long Stanley Cup drought. Unfortunately, the Shanaplan could be derailed by the NHL’s salary cap.
Despite inking Tavares to a pricey seven-year, $77-million contract, the Leafs entered this season with over $12 million in projected salary-cap space. However, they’re currently mired in a contract standoff with restricted free agent Nylander, who’s back home in Sweden while his agent handles negotiations.
Earlier this month, Shanahan seemed to hint the Leafs would prefer if those players accepted a little less than the full market value in order for the club to maintain a winning franchise. So far, Nylander doesn’t seem willing to accept any hometown discounts.
Both sides reportedly prefer a long-term contract but money is the sticking point. The Nylander camp apparently seeks over $8-million per season while the Leafs prefer something between $6 million to $6.5 million.
There’s also talk the two sides are working on a short-term bridge deal but the annual salary again remains an issue. The Leafs are believed offering closer to $4 million per season while Nylander could seek over $5 million annually.
Whether Nylander is worth $8 million is debatable. The Leafs can afford to re-sign him for that much this season if they wished. However, that would take a much bigger bite out of their salary-cap payroll next summer when Matthews and Marner become restricted free agents.
We don’t know what Matthews and Marner will set as asking prices. However, there’s already talk Matthews could command around $12.5 million per season. Should Marner exceed last season’s 69-point performance, he could be in line for $10 million annually.
Assuming the Leafs re-sign those two to those rumored asking prices and paid Nylander $8 million per, they’ll be investing over $30 million in just three players. That total will push their cap payroll for next season, already at over $49 million, to over $79 million tied up in just 14 players. If management can convince Matthews, Marner, and Nylander to accept, say, a combined $25 million, the cap payroll would still come in at close to $75 million.
Even if the salary cap rose to $84 million for 2019-20, they still won’t have much payroll remaining to flesh out the rest of their roster. That includes re-signing or replacing veteran defensemen Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, both due to become unrestricted free agent next summer.
That limited wiggle room under the cap ceiling could prompt second-guessing over the wisdom of investing $11 million annually in Tavares. There could also be some grumbling over Marleau’s $6.25-million cap hit through 2019-20 or defenseman Nikita Zaitsev’s $4.25 million per season through 2023-24.
Given the rising young talent already on the roster, it can be argued the Leafs didn’t need to sign Tavares. Perhaps that money would’ve been better invested in bolstering their questionable blueline depth or maybe pursuing more affordable forward options.
Of course, it’ll all be considered worth it if the Leafs end their 51-year Stanley Cup drought next spring but that’s not a certainty.
Despite their offensive prowess, they’re tied with the lowly Detroit Red Wings for the most goals against (22). They’re top-heavy at forward, especially on the first two lines. Andersen is a good goaltender but he’s yet to prove he can carry a club to championship glory. Should these factors derail their championship hopes, they won’t have enough cap room to fix those problems.
The Leafs are starting to navigate a potential salary-cap minefield of their own making. One wrong move could blow up their Stanley Cup dreams.