We knew that the Maple Leafs would eventually have to trim their roster to 21 bodies in order to accommodate the big contracts they signed over the summer, but it wasn’t clear until now as to what those cuts would look like.
With the Leafs reportedly shopping Nic Petan, it’s safe to assume he’ll be out of the picture.
John Tavares being injured certainly doesn’t make the situation any easier, either. Tavares was eligible to be placed on IR on October 17th, and if he’s unavailable for 10 games and 24 calendar days, he can be placed on LTIR retroactively. Those 24 days lead to November 9th, encompassing exactly 10 games. If Tavares is eligible and the Leafs elect to go that route, he would then be available for their November 10th game in Chicago.
Tavares going on LTIR would make his full $11 million available to replace him, allowing the Leafs to keep a 23 man roster until the Chicago game. However, it’s become apparent that Tavares’ return will be before Hyman’s, meaning the Leafs won’t need relief on his $11m contract in order to keep 23 players on the roster.
Who’s in Danger?
If we assume the aforementioned Petan is out of the equation, only two cuts remain. Frederik Gauthier has played his way out of this conversation, shockingly, therein leaving the trio of Nick Shore, Jason Spezza, and Dmytro Timashov on the chopping block at forward.
On defence, the Leafs could waive one of Justin Holl or Martin Marincin if they choose to, but that presents an interesting challenge.
Shore, Spezza and Timashov are three forwards on wildly different career paths, which is an important thing to consider given the minimal difference in their overall impact. Admittedly, they do each have unique traits to bring to the lineup, but outside of special teams, their value on the fourth line is largely comparable.
Spezza signed in Toronto at a discount to play for his hometown team, but underwhelmed upon his arrival and now finds himself in a battle to continue his illustrious NHL career. Prior to last season, Shore had proved himself at the NHL level before going to the KHL, returning this season for the opportunity to play on a contender. He’s done well in his PK assignments and rotated in and out seamlessly, but Spezza may be better suited to play up in the lineup while Tavares is out.
Finally, there’s Timashov. The 23-year-old was a surprise to even make the roster this year, but at this point, there’s no certainty he will clear waivers. Such are the problems with having good players. Timashov’s success is a bit like found money; he was a 5th round pick the same year as Marner and Dermott were drafted but hasn’t made any big waves since he left the QMJHL.
Still, Timashov’s promotion is indicative of the developmental ability the Leafs have, taking advantage of his waiver exempt years by rounding out his game in the AHL. Four points in ten games for a guy making less than league minimum should be mighty attractive to the Leafs, landing him beside Gauthier on a fourth line comprised of pleasant surprises.
Carrying Six Defencemen
The Leafs could still decide to cut Marincin and keep an extra forward, but there would be some major drawbacks.
If the Leafs reduce their roster to six defencemen, they’d have to play a game with five defencemen before they can make an emergency recall, and even then, they wouldn’t be eligible to bring up someone like Rasmus Sandin, who makes more than the $800k limit for emergency recalls.
To make matters worse, the Leafs can’t even make that emergency recall unless their active roster will dip below 20, so carrying an extra forward will prevent the Leafs from recalling a defenceman in any manner unless there’s a second injury.
The solution to that problem is a weird one, and one that most people won’t like.
Ilya Mikheyev is the only waiver exempt player on this projected roster, so any time that cap shenanigans are required for the Leafs to be compliant, he’ll have to be the one who gets papered to the AHL. In this scenario where the Leafs are without a spare defenceman, Mikheyev would have to sit a game in order for the Leafs to recall another defenceman.
It gets worse than that, too. Mikheyev’s European Assignment Clause in his ELC allows him to terminate his contract and return to the KHL if the Leafs ever assign him to the AHL. I happen to think that he enjoys playing in Toronto and it wouldn’t be an issue, but the Leafs are still playing with fire here when it comes to one of their roster’s bright spots.
Minimizing Your Losses
Hyman and Tavares are the two question marks that remain, but we’ve got a pretty good idea what their timeline looks like.
With Tavares already shooting and projected to be back before Hyman, November 2nd or 5th seem to be around when he’ll return. This aligns with the initial two-week diagnosis upon his injury, and falls just before when Hyman should be healthy.
On the bright side, this could give Spezza another opportunity to show he’s not done with the NHL, but if he does demonstrate that there’s more left in the tank, it puts the Leafs in a tough spot, too. Hyman should be healthy sometime between the November 7th game vs. Vegas and the Islanders game on the 13th. If Spezza has earned a spot by then, the Leafs have some decisions to make.
If Spezza can’t beat Timashov or Gauthier for a spot in November, I don’t think it’s very likely that he’ll be able to do so in the playoffs when he’s nearly 37. Looking even further head, Gauthier and Timashov are RFAs, so they’ll continue to hold value for the Leafs as depth pieces for next year. I don’t think Spezza is done in the NHL. He’s shown flashes. That being said, he’s had a bumpy adjustment to the Leafs at an extremely inopportune time.
It’s impossible to know if Spezza would clear waivers, or if he would even be willing to stick around with the Marlies, but that would be the ideal scenario. If the Leafs are going to carry seven defencemen — which I think they should — it will be important to have another centre ready for emergency recall. Whether that’s Shore or Spezza remains to be seen, but the Leafs will have to be very careful not to decimate their depth up the middle.
I wouldn’t expect to see Petan traded until they’re certain they can keep a fifth centre in the organization, even if trading Petan is the mechanism they use to achieve that. Trading Petan and Shore to teams that would’ve placed claims on Spezza might be a sneaky way to keep the best NHL depth possible despite working with only 21 roster spots.
Ultimately, within a day of Hyman’s early November activation is when the Leafs will get their roster in order. It will require 24 hours for players to clear waivers, meaning that one day before the game Hyman’s scheduled to return for, there should be movement.
If Spezza does make it to the Marlies, the Leafs are in really good shape. If Shore makes it to the Marlies, the Leafs are in really good shape, too. If neither make it, which is entirely possible, their centre depth will be significantly weakened, and they can’t get an asset in return for Petan anymore. In that scenario, the Leafs might have to call on Tyler Gaudet or Kalle Kossila to fill the void, which is a noted step down in quality from the depth they’ve been enjoying this year so far.
There’s also an outcome in which the Leafs don’t need to waive Spezza/Shore. But no matter how I wrap my head around it, I just can’t see Mike Babcock using only six defencemen.
One other, lesser-known possibility exists that I should touch on so people aren’t blindsided: a waiver party. There’s some motivation for the Leafs to waive Spezza, Shore, and Marincin, since the Leafs will be rolling with a 21-man roster and will need two short-term injuries before they can use an emergency recall. That would mean that any time there’s just one injury, the 20 healthy guys will have to play regardless of position. If Marincin was on the roster and waiver exempt, the Leafs could send him down and recall whichever one of Shore/Spezza is still around in the event a forward got injured. If both forwards are claimed, there’s still Petan. And if Marincin is claimed there’s still Sandin and Gravel.
The Leafs went to great lengths this offseason to ensure there would be plenty of depth throughout the organization for a reason.
Of course, there’s a drawback to that. A player becomes waiver eligible again after 30 days on an NHL roster. The Leafs could get around this by “papering” Marincin to the Marlies every day the Leafs don’t play a game, and then recalling him on game days so he can travel with the team.
“Papering”, by the way, is a term used for when a player is sent to the minors on paper but remains physically with the NHL team. Marincin is on a one-way contract so it would have no impact on his actual salary. This way, the Leafs could keep him waiver exempt for 30 games, leaving lots of flexibility for recalling a forward in case of injury.
We’re going to see some elegant solutions to a few very unique problems plaguing the Leafs in the coming weeks. But it won’t be all bad, though. Management should be able to navigate their cuts without losing too much depth, and the remaining fourth line of Moore – Gauthier – Timashov would still be extremely strong. Not to mention, the Marlies will likely get a little stronger, the Leafs will open up at least one SPC slot, and perhaps even get a draft pick for Petan in the process.
It’s alright, it’s okay, The Leafs are cap compliant another day.