After word came out that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager David Nonis managed to get defenceman Cody Franson signed at a bargain rate, teammate James van Riemsdyk tweeted early Thursday morning it is “always nice waking up to good news.”
There was no such tweet from Leafs defenceman John-Michael Liles, though. Nor was there any sign of the usually talkative veteran after the team’s morning practice, one that was interrupted by the Leafs slapping their sticks on the ice to salute Franson’s late arrival following the paperwork on his one-year, $2-million (all currency U.S.) contract.
And for good reason: Liles is the prime candidate to solve the Leafs’ problems with the NHL salary cap of $64.3-million. The most obvious solution is to put Liles on waivers before Monday’s roster deadline.
When he clears, which is a dead-solid lock given the three years that remain on his contract at $3.875-million a year, he can be sent down to the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
Under the new collective agreement, NHL teams can no longer wipe the entire salary of a player off their cap list when he is sent to the minor leagues.
But they can save a portion of it, which in Liles’s case amounts to $925,000.
According to the authoritative capgeek.com, that would leave the Maple Leafs $733,333 under the cap, assuming they carry just 20 healthy players and that minor-leaguers Joe Colborne and Trevor Smith make the final cut. Colborne ($600,000) and Smith ($550,000) have cap-friendly contracts, so that more than anything could determine their fates.
That would also allow Nonis to carry one more player as insurance, at least in the short term.
This also means that prize defence prospect Morgan Rielly, 19, is unlikely to get even a brief look at life in the NHL. The cap problem means he will have to go back to junior.
Leafs assistant general manager Claude Loiselle said Thursday the management team is “still evaluating” its next move.
The problem is the 10-game suspension new Leafs forward David Clarkson blundered his way into in that brawl with the Buffalo Sabres. He stays on the roster during the suspension, and so does his $5.25-million salary. Plus, the Leafs have to add another body and a salary to replace him on the ice (presumably Smith).
This is on top of the injury to forward Frazer McLaren. He’s out with a broken finger, but he stays on the roster, too. This puts the Leafs at 22 players, one under the NHL’s limit, and it also prevents Nonis from following his earlier plan of carrying just 21 or 22 active players to create enough cap room once Franson signed.
There are a couple of other options, explored on globeandmail.com by my colleague James Mirtle, but they come with conditions that are probably too difficult for the Leafs to meet.
Back in the day, of course, Nonis could simply try to trade Liles. But life under the salary cap means no GM has any interest in a 33-year-old defenceman who has three years left on his contract at almost $4-million per. Nonis could pay up to half of Liles’s salary in a trade, but that would have to be added to the Leafs’ cap list, so that’s out, too.
In the meantime, Franson is happy to be back with the Leafs, even if he took less than market value. The key for him is the one-year term, which means he can cash in next summer on a long-term, rich contract if he has another season to match his last one, in which he posted 29 points in 45 games.
Franson, 26, said he is not looking forward to another round of contract negotiations, but that he does want to remain a Maple Leaf.
“At the end of it, you sit back and look at it and you realize it’s just business,” he said. “[Nonis and Loiselle] have a job to do, to try and make everything work, and I understand that. This is my dream place to play. I’m hopeful there’s a long-term deal coming up after this.”
It can be assumed Nonis is also not looking forward to his next round of negotiations. He could have five of his defencemen become restricted (Franson) or unrestricted free agents next summer. Also up are Dion Phaneuf, Mark Fraser, Paul Ranger and Jake Gardiner, plus scoring star Phil Kessel. Nonis had better warn his family there won’t be any long vacations.
But Loiselle offered a hint of what the plan might be: “In the past, you never negotiated contracts [during] the season. At this point, you may have to start.”