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Maple Leafs set up for big changes soon -- if they want them

Maple Leafs set up for big changes soon -- if they want them

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with William Nylander #88, Auston Matthews #34, Mark Giordano #55 and Mitchell Marner #16 after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightningduring the third period in Game Five of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Scotiabank Arena on May 10, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

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As a team that’s perpetually butting its head against the salary cap ceiling, you’d think that the Maple Leafs look doomed to that fate forever.

Often, that’s the outlook of many teams who spend big and take large risks to contend. If the current plan fails and the GM gets booted, the next person usually isn’t just looking to improve the team. They usually have to clean up big messes. (See: Mike Grier being left to clean up the Sharks.)

Yet, the scary thing about the Maple Leafs could also feel liberating.

If things don’t work out in this era of the Maple Leafs, they’re structured for big changes. It’s a thought that’s hovered here and there. Credit to Cap Friendly for tweeting it out in a way that really hammers home the point in a visual manner:

Saying goodbye to Matthews/Marner would mostly be bad, but Maple Leafs can change gears if they want to

Over the years, rival fans have tormented Maple Leafs fans about Auston Matthews leaving town, possibly for the Arizona Coyotes. Sometimes Maple Leafs fans themselves have wallowed in that grim scenario, or other similar ones.

Matthews, 24, didn’t just sign a contract that carried a hefty (but actually still very team-friendly) $11.64M cap hit in 2019. It also only kept him under contract for mid-range term. In a league where star players almost always sign for seven or eight years, Matthews merely inked a five-year contract.

Similarly, Mitch Marner and (excessive trade rumor magnet) William Nylander signed six-year contracts with the Maple Leafs.

Really, the standout long-term contracts were handed out to John Tavares when he was a hot-ticket free agent, and Morgan Rielly to keep him off that market.

Yet, even with Tavares’ often-criticized contract, you can already see some light at the end of the tunnel. His $11M salary cap hit expires after the 2024-25 season.

[A deep dive on the Matt Murray gamble]

Overall, it’s still fair to picture this working against the Maple Leafs.

After vastly improving on defense (to the point that he justifies Selke Trophy mentions), Auston Matthews surged to his first Hart Trophy in 2022-23. He’s one of those players who are in rarified air where they could essentially “name their price” on their next contract. The Athletic’s model placed Matthews’ “market value” at $22.3 million. The Maple Leafs -- or some other team -- would be lucky if Matthews’ next contract isn’t a lot more expensive than his current one.

As much as people love to pick on Mitch Marner and William Nylander, they also deliver far more than people give them credit for. Marner’s absolutely an elite playmaker who’s unusually dangerous as a penalty kill counterpuncher. By that same Athletic model, he wasn’t worth his much-maligned near-$11M price tag; he was worth more: $17.5M. While it’s not as dramatic, William Nylander’s easily worth a cap hit in the $7M ballpark (in my opinion, and based on that model).

So it’s not as though this situation couldn’t be difficult for Toronto. That said, it’s fascinating that if the Maple Leafs decide this mix isn’t working, they can shift gears more easily than any perennial contender in recent memory.

Would a full-blown rebuild be wise? Probably not, but that route could even end up open.

Kyle Dubas’ window is even smaller

That’s especially relevant because of just how big of a gamble Kyle Dubas took this offseason.

For all the defenses about the term not being that bad, Matt Murray still having two years on a scary cap hit (even post-retention) of $4.6875M makes things worse. Perhaps you can trade out of those problems. Maybe Murray’s significant injury history nudges him to LTIR. Maybe a cheap buyout after 2022-23 makes this truly a one-year bet.

Still, one year might be all Dubas has. Maybe Dubas isn’t actually risking his job on Matt Murray, but it sure feels that way, and is presented that way.

Maybe not the room to make scorched earth decisions that hurt Dubas in the future, or a potential replacement?

Again, that’s where this situation could get really interesting.

Look throughout both long-term and recent NHL history with GMs on the hot seat. In many cases, those GMs make desperate moves that set the next GM up with serious messes.

  • Instead of moving on from Chuck Fletcher, the Flyers kept him around, and the outlook of this team keeps looking worse.
  • The Canucks were in a position to just let previous Jim Benning mistakes (Antoine Roussel, Loui Eriksson, and Jay Beagle) simply expire after the 2022-23 season. Benning stayed, had nothing to lose, and thus the Canucks are stuck with a brutal Oliver Ekman-Larsson contract.
  • Few GMs in all of sports were left with as many headaches as Mike Grier inherited with the Sharks. Though there have been early ups and downs, it could be crucial to get out of (most) of Brent Burns’ contract. There’s a staggering amount of work to do, overall, though.

Maybe a tight salary cap situation actually keeps Dubas from throwing Hail Mary interceptions that would put a potential replacement in bad field position. Either way, this team isn’t saddled with a ton of bad contracts that stretch far into the future.

Potential near-future decisions for whoever runs the Maple Leafs

So, that opens up room to operate for whoever’s calling the shots. You can look at decisions in the frame of when contracts expire/when players are eligible for extensions.

  • There are still some immediate questions to answer. Rasmus Sandin may require salary cap gymnastics, or even a pragmatic trade.
  • Quite a few depth players approach contract years. Michael Bunting, 26, appears headed for a big raise. Ilya Samsonov, 25, could raise his stock as a pending RFA. The Maple Leafs may appreciate certain deals coming off the books, such as Alexander Kerfoot. (The 27-year-old is a nice player, but maybe extravagant at $3.5M, at least when every dollar counts.)
  • Plenty of significant deals expire after 2023-24, so the 2023 offseason could provide crucial clarity. The Maple Leafs may decide to extend both Matthews and Nylander. Three aging defensemen see contracts expire after 2023-24: Mark Giordano, Jake Muzzin, and T.J. Brodie. Naturally, Toronto could move on from Muzzin and/or Brodie to make other future moves, as both cost $5M+. Muzzin’s health issues may also eventually become LTIR material. Either way, it’s possible there could be an eventual changing of the guard on defense.

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

  • Two Lightning-rod contracts (both essentially around $11M AAVs) expire after 2024-25: John Tavares and Mitch Marner. If the Maple Leafs keep but don’t extend Matthews and Nylander before their deals expire, Toronto could grapple with a potential Marner extension during the same 2024 offseason where they may also go through some UFA drama with Matthews and/or Nylander. For all we know, there could also be rumblings about Tavares sticking around on a “hometown discount.”

Interestingly, there’s one other wrinkle to either Dubas or a replacement GM having future flexibility to tweak or maintain the Maple Leafs.

Few of these big names have no-trade or no-movement clauses. (At least the forwards; Rielly, Muzzin, Brodie, and Justin Holl all have at least no-trade clauses.)

None of Matthews, Marner, or Nylander have no-trade clauses. Tavares is the big exception, as he has a flat-out no-movement clause. So Dubas -- or a Dubas replacement -- could carry more power in trading out core pieces if the Maple Leafs decide that the group is rotten.

A pivot would probably make more sense than a total change, but flexibility is nice

To reiterate: Matthews, Marner, and Nylander needing new deals soon likely leans closer to “bad” than “good.” (Instead of complaining about those cap hits, fans should probably cross their fingers that future deals look similar.)

Still, many are understandably running low on patience. While you’re not going to land players like Matthews and Marner often -- even top prospects the last few years haven’t looked close -- the frustration of falling a Game 7 or three short of playoff series wins can gnaw at your patience.

The Maple Leafs don’t have everything locked in place, which could end up a negative. But at least they’re not stuck if they want to shift gears.