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Toronto's salary cap woes are due to bad luck, not incompetence

The Toronto Maple Leafs may have the most talented roster in team history, and they’re paid like it. They have the most expensive 1-2 punch at centre in the entire league paying Auston Matthews and John Tavares $22.6 million collectively. They also have the highest paid right winger in the NHL in Mitch Marner who makes just under $11 million. Comparatively, William Nylander at 6.9 looks like a steal, but he’s still the 13th highest paid right winger in the league and makes more than the likes of David Pastrnak, who currently leads all wingers in points this season.


Toronto has allocated over $40 million, or 49 per cent of the $82.5 million salary cap to paying these contracts until 2024.


With NHL rosters comprising of 23 players, what was Kyle Dubas thinking giving almost half the team’s budget to just four forwards?


He was thinking ahead.


There was a reason Brendan Shanahan hired Dubas as Assistant GM in 2014. He represented a new era of sports management. An executive that values draft picks, analytics and salary cap management. Don’t get it twisted, Lou Lamoriello may have been hired just a year after Shanahan, but he was always a placeholder, a mentor for the future guy.  “The Shanaplan” as it’s been coined, always had Kyle Dubas as that guy.


After missing the playoffs in 2014, Leaf fans saw the writing on the wall when Mike Babcock warned them that, “Pain was Coming.” Cue the fire sale. Big contracts and big names were sold off to the highest bidder, bringing in some much-needed cap space and a litany of future draft picks.


When the dust settled, two years had passed. Two years of finishing bottom five in the league. Two years that gave the Leafs their future, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.


Dubas was officially made GM three years after their collective debut in 2016/17, and although the group made the playoffs in each of those seasons, they had yet to win a series.  


Looking to make his mark on the team, he took a big swing, signing superstar free agent John Tavares to a seven-year $11 million contract. The move showed the league that the rookie executive meant business. But his promotion came at an interesting time, with their rookie contracts about to expire, it was time to pay the young stars.


Those negotiations completely cash strapped Toronto leading to players like Nazem Kadri, Zach Hyman and Frederick Andersen suddenly being too expensive to keep around. With each departure came more criticism of the hefty contracts.


But what critics often fail to mention is that when Dubas offered these contracts, his plans for the future relied on the salary cap going up and at the time all signs suggested that it was going to.


The last two times the cap jumped significantly were immediately following the Las Vegas expansion in 2018 and the NBC US broadcasting contract, signed in 2011.


Let’s start with the TV deal. It gave NBC exclusive broadcasting rights for 10 years, making it set to expire after 2020/21 season. The network paid the NHL $2 billion for the privilege, and that increase in league revenue resulted in the salary cap rising 8.25% for the 2011/12 season.


The Vegas Golden Knights expansion carried a buy-in fee of $500 million, and the addition of another team meant continuous revenue for the league, so naturally the year after their inception, the cap bumped up another 6%.


The NHL’s new broadcasting deal splits rights between ESPN and TNT, who are paying $2.8 billion and $1.825 billion respectively over the next seven years. The new contracts are worth more than double the previous and with three years less term, showing the rising value of the NHL product. Pair that with the $650 million Seattle Kraken expansion, a team that debuted in the same year as the broadcaster change and it’s no wonder Kyle Dubas planned for a spike in the salary cap.


But it didn’t spike, it remained flat for two seasons, because what he didn’t have a plan for, was a global pandemic.


On March 4th 2020, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told GMs across the league that the salary cap was projected at $84 to $88.2 million for the following season. Eight days later, COVID-19 forced the NHL to postpone play. Fans were removed from the stands once regular season play resumed, and the owners lost money. This is important because the NHL’s CBA contains a hockey related revenue split between the players and the owners. Meaning when the total salaries of the players is higher than the revenue, the owners are owed money until the balance is settled and while they’re owed money, the salary cap can’t increase.


Kyle Dubas is the General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so he’s bound to get his fair share of criticism, and hey a lot of the time I would probably agree with it. But this is not his fault. Foreseeing a global pandemic isn’t in his job description. This isn’t incompetence, it’s just bad luck.

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