The recent rise in Cody Franson's level of play, along with a number of other Leafs is looking to make this a very difficult offseason for Leafs' management.
Toronto - December 12, 2014 - As December hockey gets underway, Leaf fans have to be pleasantly surprised with the play of the boys in blue and white. The Leafs are playing solid hockey and currently sit in the top wild card spot in the East. On top of the team success, there has also been a number of players who have surprised Leaf faithful this year. Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, Peter Holland, Jonathan Bernier and Morgan Riley have all continued to develop and are playing better hockey than they ever have as Leafs. There have also been a number of surprises from the Leafs offseason signings. Leo Komarov, Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik have played fantastic hockey, and are a huge part of the team”s improvement on last year’s play. However, the high level of play from all of these players means that at some point they will need to get paid, and for most of the players I just mentioned, that will be this coming July.
Kadri, Bernier, Franson, Santorelli, and Winnik will all need new contracts this summer. That does not even include the number of depth players that also need new contracts; Richard Panik, Brandon Kozun, David Booth, Carter Ashton, Trevor Smith, and Korbinian Holzer. In the end, the Leafs will have 11 players at the end of the season that will be either UFA’s or RFA’s.Thats nearly half the current roster. This coming offseason will be the most decisive offseason for the Leafs in years, and you can bet that if it doesn’t go well, GM Dave Nonis will be out of a job. So what should the Leafs do? Well to answer that, we first need to understand a bit about the NHL salary cap.
Welcome to NHL ECON 101. The salary cap breaks down basically like this: the most economically powerful team in the NHL is the Leafs, and the Canadiens aren’t far behind in third. Vancouver is the 5th most valuable franchise and the remaining Canadian teams are all in the top 20. As a result, the NHL has a dependency on the economic strength of the Canadian teams, and also the Canadian dollar. Furthermore the Canadian dollar has a dependency on the price of commodities (like oil). For the last few months the price of oil has been dropping and as a result the Canadian dollar has dropped. This means that the revenue generated by the Canadian teams is not as much when converted to U.S. dollars, and therefore the NHL makes less money.
Just to recap before going forward. The Canadian teams make a lot of money. The salary cap is then influenced by the Canadian teams and as a result the value of the Canadian dollar. If the Canadian dollar keeps dropping in value as the price of oil drops, the league makes less money and the salary cap will in turn drop. As of last week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that if the Canadian dollar stays at $0.88 in relation to the US dollar, the salary cap would be a projected $73 million. However this means that the price of oil needs to stay roughly between $60-70USD per barrel, which is where it currently is. This may not be where it stays though. At this time last year the price of oil was nearly $100 per barrel, and in June of 2014 it was $105. It has been steadily been dropping since June and there is talk that it could reach $50 dollars a barrel in the not too distant future.
Now that we understand the economic influences on the cap, we can begin to dissect the decisions Nonis and company have to make. First and foremost Jonathan Bernier needs to be re-signed. The dollar value he will ask for isn’t much of a concern because he’s making a push to be considered an elite goalie in this league. He’ll be around 5 million and he deserves it. Pay the man. There’s a lot of talk about Kadri being worth around the same as Bernier, and I think that is correct. However Dave Nonis has a track record of being a very effective negotiator with restricted free agents. This makes me think that Kadri might take a shorter contract with a dollar value in the 4-5 million dollar range. Either way, Kadri falls into the “must sign” category for the Leafs, or else you’re left with a 1-2 punch of Bozak and Holland at centre. As much as I like what Peter Holland is doing, that’s not a combination Leaf fans want when Kadri is available.
Now onto Cody Franson. In my opinion, he is also a must sign player, and if the cap ends up at the 73 million dollar mark, he is signable, maybe. However if the dollar slips, and the cap drops to the 70 million ballpark there are some choices to make. Bernier is the only ‘must sign’, Kadri is close to being in the same category. Franson is a right handed defenceman who puts up great offensive numbers, can play on both special teams, and this year has made fantastic strides in his defensive game. I’ve gone from wanting Franson out of town for whatever we can get for him, to thinking he might be the best on the team, which is why the Leafs might have to trade him.
If Franson hit the open market today, you could expect him to pull 6 million dollars a year without hesitation. A right handed defenseman playing at his level is a very rare commodity in today’s NHL. If the cap is around 70 million next year I’m not sure the Leafs can sign him, not without moving some salary (trade Bozak perhaps?). If the trade deadline rolls around and it’s looking like that is going to be the case, I think Leafs’ management has to trade Franson for the simple fact that they will get a lot for him. Franson has said he wants to be a Leaf, and the three straight 1 year contracts he has signed is proof of that; so there is a chance he would take a lesser wage to stay a Leaf. He might also feel that after three 1 year contracts it is his turn to get paid. No one really knows for sure. What I do know is that the Leaf’s have more depth on defense right now than they do at centre. However none are a right handed shot, which is a problem.
Stuart Percy, Peter Granberg and Korbinian Holzer are all poised to make the move from the Marlies to the Leafs. If it comes down to Kadri or Franson, I think the Leafs have to sign Kadri and move Franson. The Leafs have some young centre’s in the system in William Nylander and Frederik Gauthier, however they’re still a few years from being top six NHL forwards. If the Leafs don’t resign Kadri, they could find themselves in a similar situation to where they found themselves in the 2013/2014 season, when they had zero depth at center. That lack of depth and some key injuries is what resulted in trading for Peter Holland.
Even if the Leafs are presented with the best case scenario, and the salary cap is $73 million next year, resigning Bernier, Kadri and Franson is going to be difficult. Very difficult. How the Leafs’ management handle this coming offseason will have a lasting effect on this team for years to come. They may elect to make a trade, or maybe find a way to get everyone signed under the cap. All that can be said for sure, is that the Leafs are in tight against the cap, and everyone has to be wishing they didn’t sign David Clarkson to that atrocious contract.
NOTE: As I am posting this, the price of Texas Crude oil just dropped below $60 a barrel, just in case you needed evidence of how unpredictable this whole situation is.