Until the end of the play-in round in mid-August, teams will be contemplating what the effect of winning Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery and selecting Canadian junior star Alexis Lafreniere would have on their future. While clubs like Montreal, Minnesota or Arizona would simply welcome the talented forward into the fold, other clubs who are loaded up front might use their good fortune as an opportunity to reshape their roster and team salary structure.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a bevy of scoring forwards in Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner, but after signing all four to lengthy contract extensions over the last two seasons, the Leafs core four occupies nearly one-half of their $81.5 Million budget.
Kyle Dubas found it necessary to deal a conditional first-rounder to Carolina last June to clear Patrick Marleau’s $6.25 Million cap hit off the books and re-sign Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, but the Leafs GM was also depending on the league’s salary cap going up to have room to extend the likes of Morgan Rielly, Zach Hyman, and Frederik Andersen, as well as upgrading the club’s blueline.
With the cap likely remaining flat for the next three seasons, Dubas will need to be more creative to keep a strong supporting cast around their core group. If the Leafs lose their best-of-five against Columbus, they would have a 12.5% chance of drafting Lafreniere (who scored 112 points for Rimouski last season and 10 points for Canada in the 2020 IIHF World Junior). The 18-year-old winger is expected to step right into the NHL, as Matthews did after being selected first overall in 2016 and would also be exempt from needing to be protected in the Seattle expansion draft next June.
The benefit from the Leafs standpoint would be having a young talent capable of playing a top-six role with Matthews or Tavares for three years on his entry-level contract ($925,000 plus bonuses). That would allow Dubas the freedom to move a forward or forwards with a bigger cap hits to improve his club in other areas. The Leafs could choose to deal Johnsson or Kapanen, but the most obvious move would be to trade Nylander coming off his career-high 31 goal season.
The 24-year-old has four more years left at just under $7 Million per season and teams starved for offense would be willing to pay a premium for a scorer under control for multiple seasons. That premium might be in the form of an established defenseman locked up for a similar term, but more than likely would be a younger player making a lower salary.
This could be the same path that Toronto takes if top prospect Nick Robertson thrives in the NHL over the next couple seasons, but the Leafs would need to see him succeed in the big leagues before making such a significant move. If they are fortunate to be able to draft a “can’t miss” like Lafreniere, that kind of move could be made before the start of next season.
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