By Stan Smith
The Maple Leafs Are Bleeding Defensemen
The Toronto Maple Leafs are a bit shy in the defence depth department. They began the preseason short two of their top six defensemen. Timothy Liljegren underwent hernia surgery shortly before camp opening and is expected to be out for at least six weeks. With that timeline for his recovery, we expect him to start the regular season on Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR).
After participating in the team’s annual golf tournament just prior to the opening of camp, it was announced that Jake Muzzin would miss some time due to “back issues.” That begs the question, are Maple Leafs’ players injuring themselves on the golf course now?
Then, in a matter of about half a period in the Maple Leafs’ exhibition game vs the Montreal Canadiens, two more defensemen went down with injuries. Jordie Benn’s groin failed him in his first shift in the game and he will miss at least three weeks. The period ended worse for Carl Dahlstrom. He will miss six months after undergoing shoulder surgery following a hit by Rem Pitlick.
Related: Tavares Could Be Key to the Maple Leafs Opening Night Roster
Fortunately, Rasmus Sandin Signed Recently
Luckily for the team, Rasmus Sandin came to his senses and signed what was pretty much the same two-year, $1.4 million per-season deal he rejected weeks ago.
At this point in time, the Maple Leafs have six healthy defensemen who appear to be capable of handling NHL minutes, Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Mark Giordano, Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin, and Victor Mete.
The Salary Cap Crunch
According to the website Capfriendly.com, the Maple Leafs are $2.9 million over the salary cap with a 23-player roster.
If and when Liljegren is placed on LTIR and his $1.4 million cap hit is removed they will then be $1.5 million over the salary cap.
There are presently 14 forwards on their roster. Right now, our opinion is that Kyle Clifford and one of Joey Anderson or Adam Gaudette could find themselves on waivers. That would remove just over $1.5 million from their cap hit and get the team barely under the salary cap with a roster of twenty players, consisting of twelve forwards, six defensemen, and two goalies.
Related: Maple Leafs Quick Hits: Giordano, Marner & Aston-Reese
If the Regular Season Began Now, …
Assuming that Jake Muzzin is ready for the regular season, the defensive chart would look something like this.
Morgan Rielly – TJ Brodie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Mark Giordano – Rasmus Sandin
Mete could be the seventh defenseman on the list, but the team doesn’t have the cap space to keep him on the roster. He would have to clear waivers and, for the time being, be sent down to the Marlies. We aren’t sure he would clear waivers given the solid training camp he’s had.
Then, what happens when Liljegren is ready to return to the lineup? The Maple Leafs would find themselves over the salary cap by about $1.4 million.
Do the Maple Leafs Have to Lose a Bigger Contract?
With only the bare minimum of twelve forwards on the roster, if the Maple Leafs divest themselves of a forward they have to replace that player. Even if they used a league minimum wage ($750,000) player, that would mean they would have to drop a forward with a cap hit of about $2,150,000 (Liljergren’s $1.4 million + $750,000). The only forwards with a large enough salary to cover that overage are Alex Kerfoot ($3.5 million), and Pierre Engvall ($2.25 million).
Despite being part of numerous trade rumours, both Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe obviously value Kerfoot and his versatility in the lineup. We really can’t see them being willing to part with him. That leaves the only forward with a large enough salary cap hit to get the Maple Leafs back under the salary cap as Engvall.
Another option could be to trade Holl. Just replacing his $2 million cap hit with Liljegren’s $1.4 million would work and give the Maple Leafs an additional $600,000 in cap space. But, that would leave them with the six defensemen we listed above and absolutely no NHL depth beyond them. Keeping Holl would give them seven NHL-caliber defensemen.
While Engvall’s size, speed, and defensive acumen would be missed, the one thing training camp has shown us is the Maple Leafs have a number of Marlies players that could step in and compete for his spot on the roster.
Like it or not, it appears the best option to keep this team under the league salary cap may be to deal away Pierre Engvall.
Related: THE GOOD & BAD NEWS ABOUT LILJEGREN’S BEING SIDELINED FOR SIX WEEKS