TORONTO (Dec. 29) — Allow me, for a few minutes here, to think outside the lines on behalf of the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a football analogy, so far outside the lines as to be in the 10th row of the upper deck.
To offer a scenario whereby the top five players on the hockey club, beginning next season, consume $50.4 million in salary–cap space. Leaving roughly $32 million with which to compensate the remaining 18 members of the roster. It sounds crazy, and probably is; encompassing a degree–of–difficulty that would humble Albert Einstein. In fact, it is everything off–the–wall you may choose to consider. Except, impossible.
Here’s the plot: the Leafs, nearing the Feb. 25 trade deadline, are able to score goals with any rival in the National Hockey League, but are clearly susceptible in the defensive zone. General manager Kyle Dubas has a pair of options — add an inexpensive “body” on the blue line for depth. Or, take on the biggest challenge in modern franchise history… and go for broke. The latter option involves phoning Los Angeles Kings’ counterpart Rob Blake and requesting that Blake ask Drew Doughty to waive his no–movement clause. In return for a “yes”, Dubas would agree to ship Nazem Kadri, Kasperi Kapanen and Jake Gardiner to the enfeebled Kings — situated at the bottom of the NHL with a league–worst 88 goals in 38 games (or 2.32 per match). At the same time, Dubas would ask Kadri for a list of ten clubs, including L.A., to which he’d waive his limited no–trade pact. And, hope the southern–California climate/lifestyle might appeal to young Naz.
DREW DOUGHTY HAS TWICE LIFTED THE STANLEY CUP WITH THE LOS ANGELES KINGS.
Having completed the blockbuster, the Leafs would go into the playoffs (and well–beyond) with John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Doughty and Morgan Rielly as an unparalleled six–pack — providing awesome power up front and a Norris Trophy recipient, still just 29, on the back end. Those arguing Doughty is too “old” for Toronto to make such a move have to know that the elite blue–liner pre–dates Tavares by a mere nine months (Dec. 8, 1989 to Sep. 20, 1990). And, Johnny T. hardly looks ancient in his first year with Leafs. By assuming Doughty’s $11 million cap–hit beginning next season, Dubas would yield roughly $14 million… and have no further concern about negotiating with free agents Gardiner and Kapanen. Yes, it would be difficult, and risky, to lose Kadri’s cap–friendly deal ($4.5 million for the next three years) and all that he brings to the table. But, you don’t get a Norris Trophy winner for scraps.
Frederik Gauthier and Par Lindholm would need to step up… and we all know Nylander can play in the middle. With Tavares and Matthews, though, the Leafs would still be more–than–solid at center.
In the deal, the Leafs would obtain one of the most–complete NHL players, at any position, over the past decade. Since arriving in Los Angeles as the No. 2 pick of the 2008 draft (behind Steven Stamkos of Tampa Bay), Doughty has been among the top five defensemen in the world. With decent size (6–foot–1, 200 pounds); terrific ice–vision; excellent skating ability and a heavy shot, the London, Ont. native helped the Kings to Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014; then won the Norris Trophy in 2015–16 over Erik Karlsson, having finished runner–up to Karlsson the year before. He was rewarded, last June, with an eight–year, $88 million contract extension that carries through 2026–27. He isn’t as noticeable, right now, with a bottom–feeder as he was from 2009–16, when the Kings finished with 102, 101, 100 and 98 points — defeating New Jersey (in 2012) and the Rangers (2014) for the NHL championship. Doughty has, however, spoken wistfully about playing in Toronto and could truly excel amid renewed Cup contention with the Maple Leafs.
Yes, his $11 million cap–hit would be challenging — though not impossible — for the Leafs to maintain after signing Marner and Matthews out of entry–level salary restriction before next season.
Here’s a projected look at the top five cap–figures for the Blue and White:
AUSTON MATTHEWS: $12.5 million
JOHN TAVARES: $11 million
DREW DOUGHTY: $11 million
MITCH MARNER: $9 million
WILLIAM NYLANDER: $6.9 million
Again, having five players consume $50.4 million of cap–space is bad economics in the NHL. But, which other team would be able to put five–such players on the ice at the same time? Gardiner is having a decent year, yet the Maple Leafs are all–but resigned to losing him after his contract expires in July. With 14 goals in 38 games, Kapanen is on pace to score 30–35 this season. As such, he’ll look to be appropriately compensated next summer. He and Kadri are precisely what the impotent Kings need to plan their escape from the nether regions. Given Kadri’s $4.5–million contract, the Leafs could easily trade $14 or $15 million in a swap for Doughty, who would team with Rielly, Travis Dermott and Nikita Zaitsev to provide Toronto a very–good top four on the blue line. Doughty and Rielly would rank with any No. 1 defense–pairing in the NHL.
THE NECESSARY EVIL: OBTAINING DREW DOUGHTY WOULD NECESSITATE THE LEAFS TRADING POPULAR NAZEM KADRI TO THE KINGS. WINNING THE STANLEY CUP OFTEN REQUIRES A DIFFICULT CHOICE. GETTY IMAGES
This sort of trade would be akin to the NBA Toronto Raptors acquiring Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan (last July 18) — a deal aimed at putting the Maple Leafs over the top with one of the most–accomplished skaters in hockey. Fans would scream, fret and obsess… and mourn losing Kadri, as Raptor zealots did DeRozan. But, the Leafs — like the Raptors — would get the best player in the trade. And, splendidly enhance the position most–lacking on the club for the past 40 years.
The challenge for Dubas would then be to economize elsewhere. Finding a suitor for Patrick Marleau in the last year of his guaranteed $6.25–million deal would provide optimum cap relief — requiring Marleau’s permission and, ideally, a spike in goal production from the classy veteran during the second half of the schedule. And/or in the playoffs. Again: difficult, but not impossible. Other tough calls might be required; such as those made by Chicago GM Stan Bowman during the mini–Blackhawks’ dynasty of three Stanley Cups in six seasons (2010–13–15). Bowman is paying for it today with aging veterans (Duncan Keith, 35; Brent Seabrook, 33; Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, 30) gobbling up cap–space on guaranteed deals, but it’s nearly impossible in the salary–cap era to avoid such a scenario. The objective of a cap is to prevent teams from staying on top — as were the Blackhawks and Kings in the West for half–a–decade, combining for five NHL titles. The Leafs, somewhere down the line, will be similarly handcuffed with Tavares and Doughty. Yet, happily, if the future Hall–of–Famers help to end the longest current Stanley Cup drought.
So, to summarize — Dubas is likely to lose Gardiner and Kapanen for next–to nothing in the roster–crunch that begins next season. Why not add in Kadri before the trade deadline and swap a potential $15 million to the Kings for Doughty’s $11 million? Again, this would require Doughty’s permission, but appealing to his competitive instinct is well worth a try. Sprinkle the bottom–two forward lines with inexpensive players from elsewhere in the NHL or the AHL Marlies. And, trust — as did Bowman in Chicago — that your nucleus (a superb blend of youth and experience) can challenge for the Stanley Cup in the next five seasons.
From my perspective, the Leafs haven’t yet attained that capacity on the blue line.