After weeks of anticipation, a final decision was made on July 1 — the annual first day of free agency — that saw John Tavares leaving the New York Islanders and signing with his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In a nearly unprecedented move, Tavares decided to leave the team that drafted him to test the open market. The last time a superstar of his caliber left their original team via free agency was in 2005, when Scott Niedermayer left the New Jersey Devils to join his brother Rob on the Anaheim Ducks.
Tavares’ new contract will see the Leafs pay him $77 million over the next seven years, giving the Mississauga native an average annual cap hit of $11 million.
Interestingly, both the Islanders and the San Jose Sharks are reported to have offered Tavares more money. The Sharks originally offered Tavares $84 million over 7 years, with an annual average value (AAV) of $12 million per season, before upping their offer to $91 million on Saturday, June 30, the eve of free agency. This proposed contract would have given Tavares an AAV of $13 million per season, making him the highest paid player in the league.
The fact that Tavares chose to sign with the Leafs for a significantly smaller amount indicates two things: first, that he wanted to come home to Toronto, and second, that he believes in the Leafs’ Cup chances improving. In fact, Tavares made both of these points clear in his press conference and tweets following the signing.
“With where this team is at and how good and young their core players are,” said Tavares at the press conference, “and obviously seeing in recent weeks how the Marlies did and what the future holds with much more talent and the job that they’ve done here, it was just hard to turn down this opportunity.”
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
All that said, there are still several questions surrounding the signing and what it means for the future of the Maple Leafs.
Salary cap implications
Perhaps the biggest concern surrounding the Tavares signing is the impact that his contract will have on the team’s salary cap moving forward. With a cap hit of $11 million per season, Tavares is the second highest paid player in the league, behind only Connor McDavid.
While the Leafs still have over $16 million in cap space due to the departure of several free agents and the recent increase of the league’s salary cap, there are questions about how they will be able to afford to keep all of their young stars who are due new contracts — and hefty raises — either this summer or next.
William Nylander became a restricted free agent (RFA) on July 1, meaning that his entry-level deal has expired and he is owed a new contract by the Leafs before the beginning of next season. With plenty of cap space at the moment, it will be easy to extend Nylander to a long-term deal, but next year, things become trickier.
On July 1, 2019, both Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews will become RFAs and will have to sign new deals. Given their track records thus far, they will both be owed hefty contracts: Marner is projected to make upwards of $7 to $8 million per season, while Matthews’ closest comparison, Jack Eichel, is making an average of $10 million per season.
After signing Nylander, who is projected to earn $6 to $7 million per season, the Leafs will have about $24 million in cap space next season, the lion’s share of which will go towards Marner and Matthews. If we assume the two will make about $20 million combined, that leaves only $4 million to sign unrestricted free agent (UFA) Jake Gardiner and RFA Kasperi Kapanen, on top of other depth players.
That said, there are three things that are likely to happen due to this potential cap crunch.
First, the Leafs will attempt to clear cap space by trading away bad contracts. On July 3, General Manager (GM) Kyle Dubas began this process by trading Matt Martin and his $2.5 million cap hit to the New York Islanders, in exchange for minor league goaltender Eamon McAdam.
The Leafs will also rely heavily on young, cheap, homegrown talent from the Marlies to fill out the fringes of their roster, in the mold of the recently successful Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins. Regardless, there will be casualties as a result of the cap crunch.
The most likely candidate to leave the team via free agency next year is Jake Gardiner, who becomes a UFA on July 1, 2019, and will demand a significant pay raise from his current cap hit of $4.05 million. Gardiner is an important cog in the Leafs’ defence, but it is improbable that the team will be able to retain his services.
All things considered, the cap situation will be tight, but with a consistently rising salary cap and an astute front office led by Dubas, the core of the Leafs’ roster can easily remain intact.
Tavares’ impact on Auston Matthews
In the weeks leading up to July 1, there were many questions surrounding Leafs’ star centreman Matthews, and how he would react to the potential signing of Tavares. Media around the team questioned whether Matthews would feel threatened or diminished by the prospect of bringing in another bonafide number one centre.
Head coach Mike Babcock is reported to have met with Matthews shortly after the Leafs’ elimination from the playoffs in April to discuss some of the young centreman’s worries. Insiders speculated that one of the issues brought up by Matthews was his lack of ice time throughout the regular season and playoffs, as he ranked only 40th among centres in terms of average time on ice last season.
Given that the Leafs were already one of the deepest teams at the centre ice position last year with Matthews, Kadri, and Bozak, bringing in Tavares will surely make it even more difficult to spread out the ice time, especially given Coach Babcock’s penchant for rolling his top lines equally.
Regardless of how ice time will be dispersed by Babcock this upcoming season, the Tavares signing seemed to sit well with Matthews, as he took to Twitter to welcome his newest teammate shortly after the signing.
— Auston Matthews (@AM34) July 1, 2018
Despite the controversy surrounding Tavares’ signing, there is reason to believe that it will impact Matthews in a positive way both on and off the ice.
Firstly, a deeper team is always a better team. By having three legitimate scoring lines centred by Matthews, Tavares, and Kadri, the Leafs will be nearly impossible to gameplan and defend against. If the opposition is going to play their top line or defensive pairing against Tavares and their checking line against Matthews, they will be exposed by the third line, centred by Kadri, who has reached the 30 goal plateau in back-to-back seasons.
You can configure the matchups in any way you like, but the Leafs will almost always have at least one line that can take advantage of lesser competition. Better yet, if the Leafs are at home, where they hold the advantage of the final change, Babcock will be able to send out either Tavares or Matthews to feast on lesser competition. Barring injury, expect both Matthews and Tavares to have career years — a result of the Leafs’ three-headed attack.
Secondly, at 27-years-old, Tavares is in his prime and has already played nine NHL seasons, accumulating tons of valuable wisdom and experience along with lofty point totals. The Leafs are still a relatively young, inexperienced team, so the addition of a veteran and former captain will bolster the team’s leadership group, relieve some of the pressure that Matthews faces on and off the ice, and provide an example for Matthews to look up to.
Matthews and Tavares have followed similar paths in hockey: both were highly touted prospects, drafted first overall, became the face of their respective franchises, and are now superstar centremen on the same team. If anyone is going to benefit from the Tavares signing directly, it will be Matthews, gaining a mentor who has already walked his inevitable path.
Leafs’ needs and free agency
Following the Tavares signing, it’s difficult to expect Dubas to make any big splashes in free agency. The Leafs look to be a relatively stable team at this point: their offence is stacked, and poised to be one of the highest scoring groups in the league. Frederik Andersen remains a relatively strong performer in goal with several viable backup options in Garrett Sparks, Curtis McElhinney, and Calvin Pickard, and the defence, while only average, can’t be fixed through free agency alone.
The best course of action for the Leafs will be to draft and develop from within while also adding minor depth pieces through free agency or trades. The main need on defence is a top four right-handed defenceman, which the Leafs hope they already have in Timothy Liljegren.
Liljegren, the 17th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, is projected to play another season with the Calder Cup-winning Toronto Marlies before making his jump to the NHL in the 2020-21 season. The Swede was impressive last season and produced well for his age — he turned 19 in April — while also showing a clear development in the defensive end. However, until Liljegren makes the jump to the big club, the Leafs will likely run with a similar defence to last season, and hope that their high-octane offence can carry them.
Projected 2018—19 lineup
The addition of Tavares makes the role of armchair GM an absolute joy to play, so one can only imagine how Dubas and Babcock must feel. On Sunday, Babcock was asked about potential lineups for next season and said that he plans to start with Marner and Tavares on one line, while keeping Nylander on Matthews’ wing.
Babcock creates his forward lines based on pairs of complementary players, which makes a lot of sense: he usually puts in two skilled players who have good chemistry together, and then fills in the third spot with a more rugged player who can do the dirty work in the corners.
A perfect example of this formula is the Hyman-Matthews-Nylander line, where Matthews and Nylander primarily handle goal scoring while Hyman forechecks hard to create loose pucks and turnovers.
Based on Babcock’s comments, we can expect to see the Matthews line remain unchanged at the start of the season. The other scoring line will be based around the Tavares and Marner pair, which frankly could be one of the deadliest duos in the league, if they develop the right chemistry. Kadri’s line will likely be used as a shutdown line once again, an ironic title considering Kadri has scored 30 goals in two straight seasons.
Babcock did not comment on the configuration of Kadri’s line, but if he wants to maintain some continuity from last year, he may keep Marleau on Kadri’s left wing, while inserting the speedy Kasperi Kapanen on his right.
Also of note is that long-time Leafs Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk were all lost to free agency this summer, which means that former Marlies Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson will likely be entrusted with more responsibility this season.
My projected forward lines:
In terms of defence, the Leafs will likely head into the season with a relatively unchanged lineup. The real shuffling may be based on performance as the season wears on. I expect Travis Dermott to impress Babcock and earn an increase in ice time, while 37-year-old Ron Hainsey may lose a step and slide down the lineup.
The sixth defensive spot will also be highly contested as the Leafs lost Roman Polak to free agency. Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen both saw time with the Leafs last season and will be expected to fight for a full-time spot on the club this year, while Connor Carrick, who just inked a new one-year deal, will also look to regain a regular spot in the lineup.
Projected defensive pairs:
Time to plan the parade?
After finishing seventh in the overall standings with a franchise-record 105 points last season, the Leafs were already pegged as one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup. However, after the acquisition of Tavares, the Leafs are certainly viewed as one of the premier teams in the league, as well as the odds-on favourite to win it all next year. With a centre corps of Matthews-Tavares-Kadri, rivaled only by Pittsburgh’s lineup of Crosby-Malkin-Brassard, you can probably understand why.
Before the signing, Las Vegas-based oddsmakers Bovada pegged the Leafs at 10-1 odds to win the Cup next season. Following the signing, the Leafs moved up to 7-1 odds, leaping past the Tampa Bay Lightning to become the new favourite.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of the new signings, but let’s not fool ourselves: the Leafs are not a perfect team, especially on the backend, and the Stanley Cup is never a guarantee. We recently saw Alexander Ovechkin and his Washington Capitals finally hoist the Stanley Cup in June, after years of pain and anguish.
Ovechkin has been in the league for 13 years and, until this season, had never made it past the second round, despite the Capitals winning the President’s Trophy for most points in the regular season multiple times.
All that said, the Leafs are trending towards being a perennial Cup contender and setting another franchise record for points, before hopefully making a deep run into the playoffs. It’s going to be a long summer of waiting for the blue and white to return to the ice.