The Toronto Maple Leafs have a little more than two weeks to go until the start of unrestricted free agency and in that time, GM Kyle Dubas will have to find a way to upgrade his blueline without taking too much away from the other areas of the club.
The Leafs will be among a number of clubs looking for defensemen, with the free-agent prize being St. Louis Blues team captain Alex Pietrangelo. It is uncertain whether the 30-year-old King City, ON will reach the free market on October 9, but Dubas has to be prepared for a plan of action if he does or does not. Once that is determined, Toronto has to be ready to accommodate the blueliner’s salary demands.
Each NHL club can exceed the salary cap by 10% ($8.15 million) during the offseason, which would allow the Leafs to sign Pietrangelo without moving anyone out, but if Dubas does that, it would put Toronto in a weak negotiating position to get the best return in a trade when the other clubs know he has to move someone out. That means laying the groundwork for moves that will open up the necessary cap space before the free-agent frenzy starts.
The challenge for Toronto is how they will be situated after potentially signing Pietrangelo. With just over $6 million in available cap space, the Leafs would have to clear at least another $6 to 7 million to fit the defenseman’s salary (let’s say $9 million) and enough room to re-sign RFA’s Travis Dermott and Ilya Mikheyev. That would mean a combination of moves, dealing off winger Andreas Johnsson ($3.4 million), center Alex Kerfoot($3.5 million), and/or goalie Frederik Andersen ($5 million) or trading either Mitch Marner ($10.893 million) or William Nylander ($6.9 million).
Dubas is reportedly not looking to break up his core four forwards unless absolutely necessary, but if they don’t the Leafs risk becoming the modern-day version of the Tampa Bay Lightning after they won the Cup in 2004. The Lightning had a core group of Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle, who took up a disproportionate amount of the newly implemented salary cap, which did not allow them to bring back a valuable support player in Cory Stillman and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin.
If the Leafs sign Pietrangelo, trading a number of players would weaken the club’s depth and make them too dependent on their core to produce every night or vulnerable if one gets injured. Trading Nylander or Marner would clear out enough salary to accommodate some or all of the blueliner’s cap hit, reallocate a chunk of the budget towards their most glaring area of need, and bring assets back in a potential trade.
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