The Last Word: Dancing on the edge of the salary cap - The Hockey News on Sports Illustrated

The Last Word: Dancing on the edge of the salary cap

It should never go unnoticed that some of the best work done by GMs these days is finding creative ways to maintain a contending roster without blowing the budget.
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Shortly after making a blockbuster trade that rivaled any of the signings and offer sheets that were produced on the first day of NHL free agency, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas made the following observation: “You can’t ever really rest.”

The young fella is right. Spot on, actually. And it’s especially true if you happen to be heading up the hockey-operations department for an elite team in the NHL these days. Welcome to the parity-driven, salary-capped NHL where revenues aren’t rising as much as everyone would like, the Canadian dollar is depressed and the players are sick of seeing so much of their paycheques deducted in the form of escrow. It makes for a less-than-robust salary cap and a constant challenge for teams such as the Maple Leafs. It seems if you don’t perennially have the blade of the cap precariously up against your throat these days, you’re not trying hard enough. And you’re certainly not contending.

So it should come as no surprise that Dubas had to be creative in gerrymandering his cap situation, and even then his team is still up against it. It should also come as no surprise that he had to get rid of a team-friendly contract and give up a first-round pick to get a team to take a team-unfriendly one in order to do it.

When you can’t trade the contracts you’d like to shed, you trade the ones you can. Just ask Nashville GM David Poile, who dealt an elite defender for prospects in order to continue his unending search for a No. 1 center.

That’s the reality of the NHL these days and the good GMs will be the ones who are proactive and stay ahead of the curve by doing things such as making the series of moves Dubas did to change the complexion of his roster. The biggest of those deals, of course, was the decision to move on from Nazem Kadri, trading him and prospect defenseman Calle Rosen to the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Tyson Barrie, who scored 59 points this past season and half of whose $5.5-million cap hit will be absorbed by the Avs, and true third-line center Alex Kerfoot.

That deal came on the heels of a six-asset trade that sent two roster players in Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev to the Ottawa Senators for Cody Ceci, who analytically might be the most un-Dubas-like player ever to come to Toronto, and others. (The Leafs then signed both Ceci and Kerfoot, leaving them with just Mitch Marner to sign.) But that Ottawa deal came only after the Leafs paid a total of $3.5 million in bonus money to Brown and Zaitsev as a parting gift, which is something that only rich, big-market teams can do. Dubas walked up to one of the many very full vaults at Scotiabank Arena and paid real money in order to get cap space, giving the Senators a couple of players who help them get up to the league minimum without having to pay the players real money. (That deal also lays to waste the notion that division rivals can’t trade with one another. There was a time when there was no more intense rivalry than the Battle of Ontario and here they are now, making nice with each other and solving each other’s problems.)

And then there was the first-rounder given up to the Carolina Hurricanes to make all-around good guy Patrick Marleau and his $6.25-million cap hit go away. And let’s not forget the signing of Jason Spezza, who like John Tavares, gets to live out a boyhood dream and who, unlike Tavares, will do so while making the NHL minimum. That’s a lot of heavy lifting.

Dubas also made a host of other low-level deals and signings that indicate he plans to identify and reward his core of elite players, then allow the rest of the roster to be filled by affordable players who are hungry to succeed. Nothing wrong with that.

In sum total, the Maple Leafs get an elite, puck-moving, right-shot defenseman, albeit one who is just one season away from unrestricted free agency. They lose a luxury they could not afford in Kadri and get a true third-liner they can in either Spezza or Kerfoot. They free up cap space to get Marner under contract and they balance out the left-right makeup of their blueline, something that is of utmost importance to coach Mike Babcock.

So here’s the problem for the Leafs. They have only one defenseman, Morgan Rielly, who is under contract beyond this coming season. Goalie Frederik Andersen is committed only for the next two seasons. The only thing that really is certain – assuming the Leafs sign Marner to a long-term deal – is that they’ll have four forwards in Auston Matthews, Tavares, Marner and William Nylander who are on long-term deals and will eat up almost half of their cap space in 2019-20. Having Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen on team-friendly four- and three-year deals helps a lot, a lot, a lot.

So Dubas will find himself once again next summer doing this delicate tap dance around the salary cap, having to find creative and innovative ways to keep his roster together. And that’s fine. He’s proved capable of doing it. This has now become standard operating procedure for him and GMs of other contending teams. When you have a lot of good players, you have to find a way to keep them all happy. And, considering the alternative, that’s a good problem to have.