There is a poker game going on right now for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Management feels that with the cap coming down, prices on players should as well.
But players (and their agents) have other ideas.
That’s not going to be a unique situation around the league this off-season either, one that will start with a bang at the end of next week as GMs gather in New York in advance of next week’s draft.
Leafs GM Dave Nonis may be busier than most, though, as he has four unrestricted and six restricted free agents to contemplate re-signing, and there’s a feeling out process taking place.
The cap is dropping nearly 9 per cent – from $70.2-million to $64.3-million – in time for next fall and that may mean players aren’t able to get what they’ve grown accustomed to.
Further complicating matters is the fact the NHL’s limit isn’t likely to return to the $70-million mark for two or three seasons, depending on how revenues grow.
That means that what constitutes market value isn’t shooting up the way it has been every summer, and executives aren’t certain where it’ll settle.
“I can’t stress this enough: The cap is coming down,” Nonis said when asked about stalled talks with centre Tyler Bozak, talks which CBC’s Elliotte Friedman reported this week weren’t going all that well. “It’s the first time in history that it’s come down, and we have to make sure we’re spending our money wisely.
“Not to just retain all the players you have but be in a position where you can try to get a different piece or two. We have to make sure if we’re spending a significant amount of money and term on players that they line up [with what we want to spend] and that it makes sense for us.”
At first glance, the Leafs appear to be in great shape cap wise, as the richest organization in hockey has $18-million in space to give them more room than all but seven other NHL teams.
Add in an expected compliance buyout next week for defenceman Mike Komisarek and that number creeps over $22-million.
But Toronto’s restricted free agents alone should eat at least $10-million to $11-million of that, leaving Nonis with only another $10-million to make decisions on UFAs Bozak and Clarke MacArthur and attempt to upgrade in other areas.
Nonis has been very quiet as to what’s coming next, but he did admit on Thursday that progress has been slow with the team’s RFAs with the focus is on the two weeks ahead, which includes a buyout period, the draft and then free agency.
The buyout period is what hits first, opening 48 hours after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup final, which will end Monday or Wednesday night, and closing at 5 p.m. on July 4.
It’s expected that at least a dozen players will be bought out, beginning with Danny Briere, who the Philadelphia Flyers bid an early adieu to on Thursday afternoon.
Next to Komisarek, veteran blueliner John-Michael Liles is the next most likely Leafs player to be targeted for that treatment given he is coming off a difficult season and has three years remaining on a deal that pays $3.875-million a season.
“I think if we decide to do something we’ll announce it prior,” Nonis said of using the team’s two allotted compliance buyouts, which can be deployed this summer or next. “But we haven’t come to that conclusion yet. There’s no real need to do it [ahead of time].
“You never know what’s going to become available in terms of player movement. Even if there’s a player [on your team] that may be bought out, there’s always potential for money moving back and forth in deals. So we’re not at that point of making a decision yet.
“It’s my experience you never know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what other teams are thinking or what players might be available. So for us to make that decision on a compliance buyout or two until we actually have to – it doesn’t make sense to do it.”
Trade activity, meanwhile, is expected to pick up in the two or three days prior to the draft next Sunday in Newark, and teams will then have a two day negotiating window with other teams’ UFAs beginning July 3.
Free agency then opens in earnest at noon on July 5, although the big fish may be spoken for in advance given how this process has opened the door to that under the new collective agreement.
That includes Bozak, who will go looking for other offers on July 3 should he not have a deal in hand from the Leafs.
If talks with Bozak don’t pan out, it’s highly likely that the Leafs pursue other options down the middle, too. Mike Ribeiro, Derek Roy, Stephen Weiss, Matt Cullen, Valtteri Filppula, Briere and Boyd Gordon are some of the UFAs potentially available, although in general 2013 presents a fairly thin free agent crop at every position and players may be overpaid.
Nonis, however, doesn’t believe he and Bozak’s agent, Wade Arnott, have hit an insurmountable impasse.
“I wouldn’t talk about contract talks with any player,” Nonis said. “If there’s talk that it’s not going well, it’s not coming from our side. Nothing has changed from our standpoint. Tyler is a player that we like and we’d like to have stay here in Toronto. If he wants to stay, there has to be a number that has to make sense for both of us.
“We’re not saying we’re set in any one area,” he later added, declining to target a specific area of need. “If we can improve and add a piece or two that can help us, then we’ll definitely look to do it.”
As for the Leafs key RFAs, Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson will likely be the trickiest to re-sign, as both had breakout years in the abbreviated season and are due massive raises.
Toronto has kept its RFA talks on the back burner for now, as the buyouts, trades and UFAs take centre stage over the coming weeks, but one or two deals could still get done.
Don’t be surprised, however, if some file for arbitration to force negotiations to pick up.
“[Assistant GM] Claude [Loiselle] has started with some of them, but it’s still very premature,” Nonis said. “There’s not a lot going on. I wouldn’t doubt that it takes quite a while to see where the market goes and where the players think they fit in that market.
“[Kadri and Franson] did play well during that half season so you can’t not reward their play and say that they didn’t play well for 48 games. Naz tailed off at the end but he also played more hockey than anyone else. He’s probably one of the few guys that did play 82. And Cody did a very good job. His point totals were very good and he was a core part of our defence.
“So does a short season impact [how you evaluate] it? I would say yes, to a point, but you also can’t discount what they did.”