I pull up the Leafs' Cap Geek page at least once a week. It rarely changes and yet every time I see it, I find myself bewildered.
Intuitively, we all know that the Leafs are spending a lot on their defense and way too much on the bottom half of their depth chart.
I decided to have a look at what the Leafs are spending on various sections of their lineup and to compare that against other teams that are capped out.
Our current cap structure is as follows:
Top-Six Forwards: $19.6M
Bottom-Six Forwards: $14.4M
Top-Four Defense: $13.15M
Bottom-Four Defense: $9.6M
Darcy Tucker: $1M
Before I get into doing some comparisons between other teams, I'd like to make some observations on this breakdown on its own.
Here's your per-player spending at each slot:
Top-Six Forwards: $3.27M
Bottom-Six Forwards: $2.4M
Top-Four Defense: $3.29M
Bottom-Four Defense: $2.4M
As you can see, there isn't a huge discrepancy between our average top skaters and our average bottom skaters. Part of this is a product of guys skating in the top units on efficient deals (Gardiner at $1.1M and Bozak at $1.5M) but part of it is a product of vastly overpaying guys who are effectively role-players on this team like Lombardi, Armstrong, and Connolly. In fact, if you assume that those three players were to constitute our third line, their average salaries would exceed the average salaries of those skating in our top-six group.
Per-Player Spending: Successful teams
The top four teams in the NHL based on point totals are St. Louis, the New York Rangers, Vancouver, and Detroit.
Top-Six Forwards: $3.22M
Top-Four Defense: $2.71M
Top-Six Forwards: $4.37M
Top-Four Defense: $2.43M
Top-Six Forwards: $4.33M
Top-Four Defense: $3.59M
Top-Six Forwards: $4.12M
Top-Four Defense: $4.02M
The Leafs spend significantly less on their top forward units than the Wings, the Rangers, and the Canucks and only slightly more than the Blues who have a group of young, controlled players and Andy McDonald.
On defense, the Leafs spend more than the Blues and the Rangers, a comparable amount to what Vancouver spends on their top D-men and less than the Red Wings.
In goal, only the Red Wings spend less than the Leafs and the other 3 teams spend significantly more than the Buds.
A Little Context
When looking at the better players on each of these teams, most are developed internally or were brought in as a result of a trade where the dollars on their deal were not prohibitive (Shattenkirk, for example).
Notable free agents who commanded high-value deals were Dan Hamhuis, Brad Richards, and Marian Gaborik.
Chicken or Egg?
The big question that we're left with is whether the spending differences the Leafs have with other teams is a product of circumstance or design.
The Rangers have clearly made acquiring elite talent a priority (whether you consider Brad Richards elite is another question for another day). They've paid a steep price to bring in Richards and Gaborik as free agents and as such their cap structure is heavily tilted toward their premiere players.
The Blues success is predicated on very efficient deals from homegrown talent. There's not a forward on their team who makes over $4.7M a season as things sit today and Alex Pietrangelo is making a very modest $3.17M. If St. Louis is going to retain all these players, their forward group will clearly see its average cap hit rise substantially (both Oshie and Perron are RFAs this offseason).
The Canucks and Red Wings have both spent significant dollars to retain the elite players that they themselves have groomed. Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Kesler, Sedin 1, and Sedin 2 have all been paid well to stay in the organizations that drafted them. Roberto Luongo is the only player on either of these teams who makes over $5M per year who was drafted by another organization.
The Vitruvian Salary Structure
Whether it's a product of circumstance or design, the salary structure currently employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs is a long way from ideal. Looking at the teams above and understanding that St. Louis' payroll will increase as their players hit their unrestricted seasons, it seems clear that spending $4M+ on your average top-six skater is probably the optimum strategy. The Leafs also don't spend enough on goalies, clearly.
Why Are We Here?
It's apparent to me that the reason for the Leafs' current structure is two-fold.
Firstly, the team Burke inherited was devoid of top-tier prospects and players. Of the players Burke inherited, only Grabovski will make over $5M next season (and this includes those who were traded to other teams).
Secondly, the Leafs have been unable to lure elite players to Toronto. Our most expensive free agent signings are skating in the bottom half of our lineup (Connolly, Komisarek) and our best was a guy who became a free agent because his team decided to let him walk rather than abide by an arbitrator's ruling (MacArthur).
As far as goaltending goes, we haven't found one internally and haven't sought one out externally. If Brian Burke has only one failing (he has more) it has been his inability to get a legitimate starting goalie for the team.
Breaking The Status Quo
This offseason will provide the Leafs an opportunity to get a little closer to a more standard spending structure both in the short and the longterm.
From a longterm perspective, it seems clear that the Leafs will have a top-10 pick in this year's draft --top-5 with any luck-- and this is the type of asset that has the potential to develop into the internally developed core piece which seems to be integral to a team's success.
In the medium term, divesting ourselves of players like Colby Armstrong, Tim Connolly, and Matthew Lombardi who all have one more year remaining on their deals would lessen the strain placed on our top-half spending by bad bottom-half contracts.
In the short-term, the Leafs need to stop going after middling talent and start big-game hunting. Enough with the Colby Armstrongs and Tim Connollys of this world. Suter, Nabokov, Vokoun or Parise are UFAs that will command big dollars but have the potential to produce big results.
Obviously I'm not talking about spending for spending's sake. Sure, we could grab Scott Gomez out of Montreal, drop him into Bozak's slot on the first line, and we'd be closer to the cap-ideal. The trick is to spend the money wisely but also to recognize that top-end, costly talent is what wins games.
Adding a high-paid free agent wouldn't decimate this team from a salary cap perspective; what has really killed this team are the half-measures who end up skating at the bottom of our lineup or wearing suits at game time.