The Leafs and John Tavares are a great match

Recently, Cam Lewis (Nation Network Editor-in-Chief) wrote and article titled “John Tavares and the Leafs aren’t a match”. The premise of this article, as the title suggests, is that the Leafs aren’t a realistic option for John Tavares to sign with this off-season. My response to this can probably best be described by this gif:

What I will say from the outset is that I thought Cam’s article was well written and you should give it a read. However, it’s conclusion hinged on two points which I believe to be fundamentally wrong. Here is an excerpt from the article which speaks to these points:

The Leafs don’t really need a star right now like it seemed that they did in 2016 when Stamkos was set to hit the open market for the first time in his career. That’s why Tavares and the Leafs don’t make sense. That, and, well, money.”

Cam makes two assertions here that I think damage his argument that the Leafs are a bad fit for Tavares:

  1. a) The Leafs don’t need John Tavares.
  2. b) Even if the Leafs did need Tavares, they couldn’t afford him.

I will address these points separately as I speak to why the Leafs and Tavares are a great match.

31 Teams Need Tavares:

A common sentiment among hockey fans (even many Leaf fans) since drafting Matthews is that the Leafs “don’t need John Tavares”. I’d like to respond to this statement with a question? Did Golden State “need” Kevin Durant? No. But they could afford him. And he made them better. So why wouldn’t they sign him?

It wasn’t so long ago that people made these same kinds of arguments about the Penguins before they won their back to back cups. “When you have Sidney Crosby, you don’t really need another top line centre in Evgeni Malkin”. There is literally a meme where people tweet “Malkin?” any time a player is rumoured to be on the block. But the Penguins didn’t trade Malkin because, by keeping him, they can ice a lineup that is an absolute matchup nightmare for other teams. The Leafs have the chance to become the next version of the Penguins by signing Tavares.

John Tavares is the type of player that almost never hits free agency. He is a true superstar. He has hit 30+ goals in 3 of his last 4 season. His insane vision allows him to be dominant on both ends of the ice. When he has the puck, it takes three defenders and a miracle to get it off of him. Simply put, he is a game changer and there are only a handful of hockey players in the world who I can confidently say are better than him. Letting a player like this pass-by simply because you aren’t in desperate need of a player at his position just doesn’t make sense. The Leafs have two excellent centres but three excellent centres would be even better.

Just because their need isn’t as great as another team, it doesn’t mean the Leafs should turn down an opportunity to improve their situation. For example, whether my salary is $100K/yr or $20K/yr, winning $50K in the lottery is going to better my situation. Sure, my life will be more drastically changed if I was only making the $20K/yr but even with the $100K salary, winning $50K would be pretty sweet. I could buy a jet ski or something. John Tavares is that jet ski.

Let’s Talk Money:

It’s hard for me to blame Cam for thinking that the Leafs can’t realistically afford Tavares AND pay the Big Three. I have heard this misconception repeated by hockey analysts for the better part of the year. However, this assertion that the Leafs can’t get Tavares under the cap is simply untrue.

In order to project what the Leafs lineup could look like in the coming years, we must first establish what we expect the cap to be. Grab your calculators folks. We are doing some math!

Up until midway through this season, it looked like the Leafs cap situation was going to be an unmitigated disaster. With slow growth and concerns around escrow mounting, it looked like the league was headed for a flat cap in 2018-2019; holding steady at around $75MM. This would have essentially ended all hope of the Leafs landing any kind of top end player in free agency. However, due to a number of factors this year, hockey related revenue is way up and the cap is expected to rise significantly.

According to Craig Custance of The Athletic, the league expects the cap to land between $78-$82MM. For argument’s sake, let’s split the difference and say that the cap only goes upto $80MM in 2018-2019. For the 2019-2020 season, I will be conservative and project that the cap will only increase at a rate of 2.7% vs. 2018-2019 (this growth rate is equal to the growth from the 2016-2017 season to the 2017-2018 season). This gives us an ~$82MM cap in 2019-2020.

With the help of the ARMCHAIR-GM tool on CapFriendly.com, I have built out potential Leafs lineups for the 2018-2019 ($80MM cap) and 2019-2020 ($82MM cap) seasons.

2018-2019

At a high level, it’s hard to argue with the strength of this forward core. I can comfortably say that this would be the deepest centre depth in the league. With the addition of Tavares, you are able to keep Nylander on Matthews’ wing (where he has been so dangerous). Marner slides up to play on JT’s right side and Kapanen gets promoted to play with Kadri/Marleau. These top three lines would be a matchup nightmare. The defense being average (at best) isn’t of particular concern to me because the other team won’t ever touch the puck. I have also promoted Garret Sparks (as I suspect he would otherwise be claimed on waivers and McElhinney has a shot to make it through due to his age and contract status). If you prefer to put Pickard in that spot, make it so.

A few key callouts:

  1. I have traded Nikita Zaitsev + a pick for Mark Pysyk (might not even require the pick). If you don’t like Mark Pysyk (or don’t think Florida would move him), sub in the defensive-minded/underrated dman of your choice (Maybe Tanev or some other effective shot suppressor). The important thing is the team should move on from Zaitsev.

Based on the way Babcock talks about Zaitsev, I don’t think the Leafs would have any trouble moving him and getting value back. He is cost controlled for the next 5 seasons, he is in his prime, he is right handed, he plays the PK. These are all qualities that would make him a very attractive trade target. He also has a $3MM bonus due on July 1st. If the Leafs covered that, they could probably attract cash conscious teams looking to replace a right handed defenseman. *cough* Ottawa *cough*

Zaitsev is a great skater, good shooter, decent with the puck. The problem is the results just haven’t been there and the Leafs are out of time to wait and see. After next season, Zaitsev’s limited NTC kicks in and the Leafs will lose the ability to send Zaitsev wherever they want if they decide to cut bait. The Leafs could end up moving on from a decent top 4 dman by making this move but if they don’t move him, it almost certainly costs them a sure-fire top 4 dman in Gardiner.

  1. Martin has been traded to Calgary for a late pick. Leafs likely have to retain salary ($1MM). Calgary mgmt has been saying a lot of things to the media about needing leadership and not having people step up in the face of adversity. This feels like a team primed to add a “room-guy” like Martin. Honestly, if not Calgary, I don’t think the Leafs would have trouble finding a suitor for Martin. This is a player that had options when he signed with the Leafs (including an equivalent offer to what the Leafs gave him). He hasn’t shown to be any worse than when he hit free agency; he just plays for a team that is incredibly deep at his position. If the Leafs were willing to eat 40% of his money, I think there are lots of teams that would be willing to take a flyer on him. He probably even helps some of them.
  2. You will probably notice that I have left a lot of money on the table. There is just over $10MM in cap space and I haven’t opted to place Nathan Horton on long term injury reserve; paying the full value of his contract against the cap. This isn’t an oversight. It’s nearly a necessity. The Leafs will need all the cap space they can get in 2019-2020. In order to fit a player like Tavares into the lineup (while paying the Big Three) they won’t be able to have ELC bonuses hit their 2019-2020 cap. To remedy this, I have allocated cap space to pay for this in 2018-2019. The Leafs also have to pay for bonuses overages accumulated in the 2017-2018 season. According to Chris Johnston, the Leafs will carry $2.55MM in bonuses on their 2018-2019 cap for overages in this past season.
We won’t know for sure how much the Leafs will owe in bonuses but it will almost certainly fall below $5MM. After all is said and done, that’s $7MM-$8MM in dead money sitting on the 2018-2019 cap (could be less but we won’t know that until the season is already underway). The rest of the ~$10MM is for any fringe improvements or deadline deals the team wants to make. Ultimately, the team can almost certainly add to this roster as long as they don’t acquire players that negatively affect their 2019-2020 cap space.

2019-2020

Speaking of 2019-2020, this is where the salary gets very tight. As you can see, I am using LTIR and am still up against the upper bounds of the cap. All the the Big Three have been signed to deals between 6-8 years. By this point, Ron Hainsey has left the team and been replaced by Borgman. I have also promoted prospect Carl Grundstrom and Timothy Liljegren to the big club. Jake Gardiner and Kasperi Kapanen also earned themselves new contracts (for 5 years and 2-3 years respectively). The rest of the roster is mostly the same (why mess with perfection).

A few key callouts:

  1. I suspect there will be some pushback on the contracts I’ve given to Matthews, Marner, and Nylander. The thing to remember is that, despite their immense skill, they are still RFAs. Unlike UFAs, who can sign anywhere, RFAs only have one team option. Ultimately, their AAV comes down to comps and the player’s willingness to hold out. For Nylander and Marner, they’ll be pointing to the likes of Gaudreau ($6.75MM), Pastrnak ($6.66MM), Ehlers ($6.00MM), and Kucherov ($4.76MM). For Matthews, McDavid ($12.5MM) and Eichel ($10MM).
  2. In the following years, Dermott and Liljegren will inevitably need to be paid. Marleau comes off the books after the 2019-2020 season so that helps. Continued cap increases will help too. If some of the young players (Kapanen, Dermott, Liljegren) turn into superstars and need huge deals after 2020, you can look at trading other players (Gardiner, Brown, etc.) at that point. Let’s face it, having too many elite players would be a pretty great problem to have.

Let me get ahead of the inevitable nitpicking that will ensue about this lineup:

“PYSYK?! He’s not even that good. You only put him in there because you love him.”

– Well yeah I do love him. Sub in somebody else if you want. It’s more about getting Zaitsev out.

“You missed a contract clause and made a math error. The Leafs would be $50K over cap.”

– Yeah probably. Math is hard. Just pretend I also suggested trading Brown or something.

Look, there are lots of different ways the Leafs could approach the off-season. There are lots of different players they could target, whether or not they sign Tavares. I am not saying the lineup I have built is the only option or even the best option. I am showing only one of many possible ways that the Leafs could get all their key players signed and land Tavares in a way that makes the team better.

I will admit, by signing Tavares, the Leafs are essentially sacrificing their ability to sign a top end right handed defenseman. Here is why I think that is OK. No team is going to be elite at every position. There are maybe 2 right handed defensemen that would have as big an impact on the Leafs as John Tavares would (if it’s even that many). There’s no guarantee they could attract these players and even if they could, the Leafs would be weaker up front as a result.

The d-core that the Leafs could ice with Tavares in the lineup is roughly league average; I could name at least 10 teams that are worse. However, this plan would give the Leafs one of the deepest forwards groups we’ve ever seen in the cap era. Goaltending on this team is more than capable. People say defense wins championships but I think the Pittsburgh Penguins have shown it’s not the only road to success.

So, should I pickup a Tavares Leafs jersey now or wait until the off-season?

Well… here’s the thing. Although I truly believe that the Leafs and Tavares make a ton of sense from a hockey perspective, that often isn’t what these decisions come down to. Tavares will have 31 teams wooing him and any number of personal reasons could sway his decision. Maybe he thinks Toronto is too much in the spotlight. Maybe he wants to move to sunny California. Maybe the Islanders pick up two top 3 picks in the draft lottery and JT decides Barclay isn’t all that bad. If I had to guess, I think he re-signs with the Islanders.It has to be tough to leave fans that have supported and rooted for you since you first entered the league, after all. And frankly, moving is a bitch.

This decision will be 100% up to Tavares. He’ll have his choice of where he wants to play. The Leafs may not ultimately land JT this summer, but they’ll be able to offer him as much as any other team in both salary and opportunity to contend; maybe more. So, in the words of @3rdperiodsuits: Why not the Buds?

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