The Leafs are a have team in a league that has no shortage of teams claiming to be have nots. The fact that we are expected to weep for billionaires in Ottawa and Florida who do not have profitable organizations and have the Leafs stymied by limited salary caps and the league’s ridiculous quest for parity is a pain in the ass for fans who just want to see the Leafs win a cup and don’t care if rules are bent to do it.

The free spending Quinn years are a reminder that the Leafs can’t simply go out and buy a Cup, but they can come buy themselves into being in the conversation annually, and that’s why this suggestion from Kurt Overhardt is so intriguing…

Under this new system, each Club would be allowed to designate one Exception Player whose compensation would be excluded from the team’s salary cap considerations as well as the players’ share of the revenue split. The benefits of this system extend far past the Exception Player as an individual as there would now be more money in the pool available for his teammates.

Competition among the League’s 31 owners is fierce with each Club constantly looking for any angle to gain a competitive advantage. This system also represents a win for NHL owners as they are provided a strategic mechanism in which they can fight for the League’s top players. Exception Players could be obtained via the Draft, trade or free agency, thus heightening the competition amongst owners for the League’s super elite. Players would eligible for the designation upon the expiration of their Entry-Level Contract.

This would be an opt-in system and choosing to use the designation would be 100% at the discretion of each Club. There would be no minimum payment threshold to qualify for the designation and only allowing one Exception Player per team would avoid bias towards the richer organizations. The broad diversity of NHL markets and players’ idiosyncrasies would enable each Club to attract and retain its own super elite player over time.

Even in the event that a small-market team pushes back against the Exception Player rule, the League could require that any Club that designates and signs an Exception Player pay a luxury tax which would then be distributed to the Clubs that have not made such a designation.

The article sums up a lot of the state of the league’s finances and is worth a read for that as well, and frankly this seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement for the teams and players, but also a generous olive branch to the players heading into what will now be an even more complex CBA negotiation which will kick into high gear shortly after puck drops on the 2021-22 season. Preemptively addressing something that aids in minimizing escrow and protecting hockey related revenue for all owners is a good start. The one thing that falls victim here is the parity the NHL believes it has, but that parity was generally a lie to begin with and as long as bubble teams can still be propped up by overtime loser points, that shouldn’t be an issue.

So let’s say the league does this, we should ask ourselves the most important question we can think of and that’s…

How does this affect the Leafs?

Well, the Leafs are absolutely a team that will take advantage of this, and by making Auston Matthews an exceptional player they’d immediately free up another $11.34M to go out and spend on the Leafs. This likely means that the blueline will be upgraded and not at the cost of shipping out Johnsson, Kapanen, Kerfoot or anyone else. That’s a pretty good thing.

It does mean that the Leafs would be kicking in some additional money to fund the league, but that’s not really anything new, but perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate that even rich teams might be a little stingy without gate revenue for the foreseeable future. I’d have to guess the Leafs would roll the dice, and there’s no doubt that the Leafs owners, Rogers and Bell will be benefiting quite nicely from a complete reliance on television to take in the games, and the immediate thirst to watch live sports again, so the money will be there.

Another option rather than just naming Matthews as the exceptional player is that the Leafs could set the precedent of being the first team to hand out a ridiculous exceptional player status contract and do so in free agency. Throwing a ridiculous amount of money at a player like Alex Pietrangelo could be an interesting play, and would help the blueline significantly without changing anything with the forward group.

At the very least this idea creates options. Fun ones if you’re a Leafs fan. Decidedly less fun ones if you are a Senators fan.

The long term effects of this are that after teams use it this year, they’ll basically be locked into another cap ceiling situation. It’s basically getting a credit limit increase on a maxed out credit card so you can spend to your new limit. The short term relief feels good, but you know you’re not that far off from the exact same situation. Of course there is always hope that you’ll learn, but that’s largely just lying to yourself.

The Leafs would also benefit from other teams having some additional money to throw around as well, and perhaps players like Johnsson, Kapanen, and Kerfoot, who the Leafs wouldn’t necessarily want to move will have their value increase because they are easier additions for teams to make. That flexibility throughout the season, or longer term could help and we might see more teams take advantage of the exceptional player status as time goes on or drop in and out of the program. It makes things a little interesting even if we can assume the Leafs will be permanently maxed out.

For now it’s just an idea, and admittedly it feels like one that won’t come to fruition, but given the bizarre state of the sports world, I’m sure doing something interesting is an idea the NHL is finally considering.