Lack of cap growth a hindrance for Leafs’ GM Treliving in free agency
Brad Treliving managed to keep David Kampf.
As for some of the other Maple Leafs’ pending unrestricted free agents that the Toronto general manager would like to retain, you might want to exhale before free agency in the National Hockey League opens on Saturday.
Had the salary cap had recognizable growth in recent years, the Leafs might have already signed forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Michael Bunting, as well as defenceman Luke Schenn, among others.
Instead, the cap stagnation finds the Leafs in a spot similar to many teams — roster holes to fill and not much money at their disposal.
The salary cap for 2023-24 will be $83.5 million US. For the 2019-20 season, it was $81.5 million. The pandemic killed substantial cap increase.
“Let’s call it what it is — there has been no cap growth,” Treliving said on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville after the 2023 NHL draft concluded. “Salaries continue to rise, there is no cap growth, something has to give. That’s the reality of it. Teams have had to make hard decisions and it’s difficult. It’s just a function of the business.”
Retaining key pieces such as O’Reilly and Bunting would have been preferable for the Leafs. Ditto Schenn, who was sharp in his Toronto redux following a trade with the Vancouver Canucks in February. For teams that can afford them, O’Reilly and Bunting should command $5 million a year on the open market. And though some Leafs fans had their fingers crossed that Schenn would be open to a team-friendly deal, it appears he thinks he is worth more than what he was paid on his expiring contract, which carried an average annual value of $850,000. Can’t blame him, considering his strong play with the Leafs, especially in the playoffs.
Other Leafs headed to free agency include forwards Alex Kerfoot, Noel Acciari, Zach Aston-Reese and Wayne Simmonds, and defencemen Erik Gustafsson and Justin Holl.
“We have a lot of UFAs, we have had lots of discussion with them,” Treliving said. “We like the players. We have not found numbers that work right now for us or the player, and you have to be very careful of falling in love with a player where the number gets to where it’s not manageable.”
With Kampf, the Leafs did not get to that point, signing the 28-year-old on Thursday to a four-year contract with an AAV of $2.4 million.
“You look right now at the market to try to find centres,” Treliving said. “It’s difficult. We felt it’s a manageable number (with) his age, where he can play in the lineup. Over the course of the last two years, he has played a lot in that 3C spot. I think there is some versatility to him. We found a deal that was able to work.”
Treliving has to add depth on forward, and on defence, he would like to make a clear upgrade. But the Leafs have approximately $5.9 million to spend without putting defenceman Jake Muzzin on longterm injured reserve, which would give Treliving another $5.6 million. Treliving has no plans to use the buyout period before it ends on Friday, so goalie Matt Murray, for now, is staying put.
“The difficulty right now, you see it league-wide, look at the number of pending UFAs and the (few) number of signings,” Treliving said. “We like our players, prices are high. We have some guys higher up the food chain who require contracts, we have to be smart in how we look at things. But that is league-wide. You are not seeing a lot of signings. We’ll see what happens over the next 48 hours.”
One result of the cap issues for teams is that free agency likely won’t be wrapped up, for the most part, in the first day or two.
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“Five years ago, by July 2, you could hang the ‘Gone Fishing’ sign up,” Treliving said. “I think you are going to see an elongated time frame.”
There also are some Leafs players who require a qualifying offer before the Friday deadline, including goalie Ilya Samsonov and defencemen Victor Mete and Mac Hollowell.
And of course, there are the contract negotiations with Auston Matthews and William Nylander, who can be re-signed starting on July 1. Neither is expected that day, and while talks with Matthews are not expected to get bumpy, the same can’t be said of Nylander.
It remains to be seen how active Treliving will be in the trade market, though those options don’t seem plentiful either.
Treliving is thankful he has assistant general manager and cap guru Brandon Pridham working at his side. While there might have been a concern a month ago that Pridham would join Kyle Dubas in Pittsburgh, that’s unlikely to happen.
“Brandon is one of the MVPs of this organization,” Treliving said. “When you look from a staffing perspective, Brandon is right at the top of the list. I’ve had a long relationship with Brandon. He is the best at what he does in the league. To have him there is really important.”