It’s been a crazy 2019-20 NHL season and looks to get even crazier. Although it’s been almost three months since the NHL played a regular-season game, there was some action last week. The NHL shared plans for a 24-team tournament that would begin with a round of play-ins to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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To avoid some complexities (for example with trade clauses), the league clarified and defined a difference between the “playoffs” and the “play-ins,” decreeing that only those teams that won their first-round series would be deemed to be in the playoffs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs Have Engaged in Business-as-Usual, Sort of
During the three-month hiatus, although it hasn’t been business-as-usual, the shutdown hasn’t stopped clubs from engaging in the on-going business of hockey. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs have signed a number of players moving from the KHL and prospects to entry-level contracts. As well, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas and his team have been making plans both for the end of this season – whatever that might look like – and plans for hockey past this season – again whatever that looks like.
There’s no doubt that the NHL’s financial losses will necessitate restructuring salary cap plans over at least next season. Again, right now no one knows what next season’s salary cap structure will look like, but rumors suggest the best-case scenario will be that the salary cap will remain where it is.
However, other professional sports – such as major league baseball – are struggling to negotiate a new structure with its players. It’s in the fog of this complexity and confusion that I am writing this post. I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to be a professional hockey player whose paycheque is ending soon and doesn’t yet have a deal on the table.
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Specifically, I’m thinking about the Maple Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie. The team needs to put together a viable defense in the face of the complexities of the context that COVID-19 has placed upon the NHL.
How Might the Maple Leafs Improve Next Season’s Defense?
In the two seasons I’ve been writing about the Maple Leafs, the team’s defense has been a key issue. Given how the team’s salary has been structured with the strong core of forwards eating up such a large chunk of the salary cap pie, it’s almost inevitable that the team has to tread water in some areas. And, for the Maple Leafs that area is the defense.
Yesterday, Fansided’s Matthew Rodrigopulle wrote a thoughtful post about the Maple Leafs’ desire to sign a defenseman. And then he outlined what players the team might go after and who they might sign. Like most other hockey commentators (including me), for all the right reasons he first named Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo ticks all the boxes the Maple Leafs need – no question. He’s a great defenseman, a hometown player, and a right-handed shot – check, check, check! But, there’s no way the team will be able to sign him given its contract structure. There’s no room in the salary cap.
Then Rodrigopulle, like most other commentators, takes it as a given that the Maple Leafs will allow both Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie to walk. Here’s where I disagree with the majority of other Maple Leafs hockey commentators. I believe Ceci will be gone, but I simply don’t believe it’s a slam-dunk that Barrie will leave.
How Barrie Might See the Future
If you’re a player facing an uncertain contract future, given the lack of ability to see where the salary cap will go, it might be time to sit tight for a season to see what happens within the hockey world and to allow the real world to get closer to normal. I can see that, in such a context, Barrie might choose to sign a team-friendly contract to stay right where he is and to bet on himself playing for his next larger contract in the offseason after 2020-21.
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First, I think he’s valued in the organization because he was a veteran presence who helped a beat-up defensive corps keep winning when Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly, and Cody Ceci were all injured at the same time. Second, I think he likes Sheldon Keefe as a coach. Third, if you’re going to try to showcase your talent with a team that’s likely to help you put up big numbers, the Maple Leafs might be that team. Fourth, NHL players live to play for a Stanley Cup and – if a player looks around the league – there’s no way the Maple Leafs won’t be in the conversation for a strong season in 2020-21.
Reading Between the Lines of Barrie’s Comments About Being a Free Agent
Less than two weeks ago, Kristen Shilton of TSN spoke with the pending unrestricted free agent defenseman. At the time Barrie noted he’s not sure where his future will be, but he clearly knows what he wants.
When you read Barrie’s comments – he’s finishing the last year of his four-year, $22 million contract – you get a sense of how tough it might be to be facing the end of a pretty hefty paycheque and staring into the salary cap unknown. He said:
“It’s a weird time to be heading into free agency, that’s for sure. We’re still not certain what’s going to play out here for the second half of the season and playoffs, and obviously that will extend into free agency. It’s an odd time.”
He then added some comments about the Maple Leafs, noting that his focus is to help the Maple Leafs make a run during the playoffs. He believed, “That’s why they brought me in and that’d be pretty spectacular, so hopefully we get a chance to do that.”
He also listed that his desires included being signed by a “good team headed in the right direction and a good organization.” And, he noted he was willing to negotiate, saying that, “it’ll be a process where you sit down, and we’ll just go through everything important to me.”
In short, I’m not sure the Maple Leafs – at least for the short run – don’t check the boxes Barrie wants to check. And with the Seattle expansion coming up in June 2021, it might be a far better time to be an unrestricted free-agent next June than this June.
Would and Could the Maple Leafs Sign Barrie?
Whether or not the Maple Leafs can afford him ultimately depends on general manager Dubas being open to negotiating with Barrie. It also depends upon Barrie being open to a team-friendly, one-year contract.
Over the past 10 days since Barrie’s conversation with Shilton, the possibility that the Maple Leafs might just sign Barrie to such a single-season contract has been growing on me. Given normal circumstances, I wouldn’t think the Maple Leafs could afford him and wouldn’t even try to sign him.
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However, even given the team’s cap crunch and perhaps because of the NHL’s salary cap crunch in general, I believe there’s a chance the two sides could negotiate a deal that would fit Barrie’s desires and that would be affordable for the Maple Leafs.
I’m just saying I think it’s possible.