After collectively catching their breath (or exhaling a sigh of relief, depending on the perspective) Leafs Nation prepares for life after Stamkos. (Steven, we hardly knew ye, but it was fun to dream for the last year or two!) Now, the hard-hitting fact that the Shannaplan will go on as scheduled is inevitably sinking in.
The Bay St. Brain-Trust will undoubtedly leave no stone unturned in seeking out potential edges for the Toronto Maple Leafs to exploit. Many of those edges will come down to throwing their weight, or in this case, their wallet around. Tomorrow’s unspectacular UFA crop (or what’s left of it) has no huge names jumping out. Aging vets looking for big money will fill Saturday’s headlines. It is full of players the shrewd Leafs management would never consider signing, as they focus on the future, and not today or yesterday. This isn’t your Father’s Maple Leafs!
But is there some value to be found in some of these big name vets? At first glance, the answer is seemingly no. However, when you wield the kind of financial clout the Maple Leafs do, unique opportunities often present themselves. The strategy I suggest to Lou and gang is this: sign a couple of the big names to 1-year deals. Overpay them. Then, at deadline, retain half their salaries and trade them at a very discounted price for valuable assets.
Under the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), there are few rules that need to be followed when retaining salary. The ones we will focus on are simply:
1.) teams can retain up to 50% of a player’s salary
2.) the retained money cannot exceed 15% of the overall cap hit, or $10,950,000.
3.) teams can only retain salary on 3 traded players (Phil Kessel is already on the books, so there are two remaining spots available).
The Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in the fortuitous position where they can conceivably sign up to two high-profile UFA’s, and retain nearly 11 million dollars on their salary at deadline! While many players analyze numerous factors when choosing a location to play (See Steven Stamkos), for the vast-majority, money talks.
The player the Toronto Maple Leafs could best utilize this strategy with is UFA Eric Staal . The 6’4 centre has just finished a 7 yr./ $57,750,000 contract he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite the well-documented dip in his performance, Staal was still remembered for his playoff accolades by the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. Despite his $8,250,000 cap hit, the New York Rangers still believed enough in Eric to trade a pair of second round picks, and former third round pick Aleksi Saarela for his services. Unfortunately, Eric was miscast in a third line role with the Rangers, and his production dipped even more. Many teams will be apprehensive about paying the elder Staal the type of contract and giving him the role on a team that he desires. Cue the Leafs.
The Maple Leafs, fresh off their successful “tank” campaign, are in need of some veteran leadership. They are looking to shelter newly minted saviour Auston Matthews, as well as other high profile prospects such as William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Eric Staal could enjoy the type of role he is accustomed to: top-six minutes. Playing with the talent-laden Leafs, it is not a stretch of the imagination that Staal will score some points under Mike Babcock, supported by the speedy and young forward corps.
In addition, the Leafs are, well, rich. They could afford to pay 3-4 Million dollars for a 1st round draft pick with the same ease as that you or I exhibit in purchasing a cup of coffee. With over 7 million in available cap space, as well as Lupul (?), Horton, Robidas all likely placed on LTIR, the Leafs are flush with space.
It is clear Staal would likely be given 1C or 2C duties. With that, he would be playing with wingers such as JVR, Komarov, Marner, Nylander, etc. A considerable increase of talent on his flanks as he had toward the later stages of his Hurricanes tenure, as well as 3C duties with NYR.
As such, we could assume that Staal’s production would likely resume a trajectory throughout the earlier days of his career. Coupled with the Leafs eating half his salary at deadline, it is very likely some GM will overpay for his services. If the NYR would pay 2 x second round picks and a prospect while Staal is scoring at a 15 goal pace with a $8, 250, 000 cap hit, what would someone pay if he is scoring at a 30 goal pace but only costs 2-4 million? The answer friends, is through the proverbial nose!
This is essentially a large-scale version of the Maple Leafs’ annual reclamation projects. It is a strategy that has served them well, with excellent returns on players such as Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, etc. If this strategy works with stopgap players, then why not try it on the borderline marquee ones? The beauty is that if Staal performs miserably for the Leafs, it is only for 1 year when they have an abundance of cap space. For the richest team in hockey, they could free-roll themselves for an opportunity at a bevy of assets.
Thanks for reading!