They huddled in one big group around their head coach at centre ice, listening as Randy Carlyle barked a few stern words at practice about their play in a preseason win in Ottawa a night earlier.
Minus two more minor-league bodies that were cut Friday – Spencer Abbott and Kevin Marshall – the Toronto Maple Leafs were finally beginning to look like the squad that will make up the opening night roster.
With 10 days left in training camp, Toronto is down to 32 players, putting Carlyle and Co. within nine cuts of getting to the 23-player maximum by Sept. 30.
Not in that group, however, is defenceman Cody Franson, a restricted free agent who is skating with the Ryerson University team because of a contract stalemate.
Whether or not he signs in the coming days has major implications for the Leafs roster, both in terms of the number of players they can carry and fitting under the $64.3-million (U.S.) salary cap.
“Those are things that are always talked about internally,” Carlyle said of the Leafs potential cap crunch, which will be an issue even if Franson signs for a reasonable figure, such as $2.5-million a season. “The cap is an issue only when you’re over. … We’re not in a situation where the cap is affecting our decision making process yet.”
One partial solution to potential salary cap issues will be to carry fewer bodies than the 23-player max, something several NHL teams have resorted to over the last few seasons to stay cap compliant.
General manager Dave Nonis said Friday using a 20– or 21-man roster at times would be “definitely an option that we will look at.”
But there are two potential dangers of going with a limited roster.
Issue No. 1: Teams often need injury replacements with little notice, especially if a player is hurt during a morning skate while on the road.
Issue No. 2: Almost all of the Leafs so-called tweener players – that could bounce back and forth between the minors and the NHL – would have to be placed on waivers to do so, which Carlyle acknowledged complicates this strategy.
Even so, the Leafs coach sounded open to the notion despite the fact he has generally had a full roster to work with in Toronto.
“I don’t think it’s as big an issue as [some] might think,” Carlyle said. “Because of the situation geographically where the [AHL’s Toronto] Marlies are, we can reassign people to the Marlies and bring them back with a 20-minute ride.”
Because of how tight the Leafs situation could get, the Franson issue looms over the final week of training camp, as his new deal may force as many as three or four players off the roster at the last minute.
Even without Franson or camp tryout Mason Raymond signed, as many as 19 spots on the Leafs roster are believed to be already account for.
That puts the following group of 12 young prospects and minor-league veterans in tough given there may not be a single spot left: forwards Carter Ashton, Troy Bodie, David Broll, Joe Colborne, Jamie Devane and Trevor Smith; defencemen Morgan Rielly, Andrew MacWilliam, T.J. Brennan, Stuart Percy and Korbinian Holzer; netminder Drew MacIntyre, who will be the Marlies’ No. 1 goalie this season.
Some are even hoping their small contracts or waiver status will help them make the team.
“For myself, cap wise, it couldn’t look any better,” said Brennan, who will make $600,000, or just over the NHL minimum. “I’m as low as it comes basically. It doesn’t seem like [cutting salary] would ever be an excuse for me. So as long as I’m giving everything I can here, it seems like things will fall into place.”
As for waiting for the Franson shoe to drop, Carlyle said his staff plan on dealing with the situation only as it develops.
If Franson doesn’t sign before opening night, the Leafs will likely have a lot more options. There will be plenty of cap space and roster spots to hand out, opening an opportunity for defencemen like Brennan and Rielly – the organization’s top prospect – to get much longer looks in the NHL.
“As a coach, you’re prepared to go with the players we have,” Carlyle said. “Obviously, we’d like the player here, but he doesn’t have an agreement in place so he doesn’t even become part of your thought process. It’s a cruel thing to say but you move on without people.”