As is modern society, the NHL middle class is changing where there is now the “upper” middle class and the “lower” middle class. Top players are still being paid top dollar, while veteran role players are making less and less, dependent upon how far down the line up they play. Mid-30 year old players are being replaced by rookies on entry level contracts (ELC) or first year European players. Players hitting free agency in their early 30s are no longer getting the returns they had banked on; European leagues are riddled with former NHL players looking to cash in on one final paycheck.
Times have changed in a cap system where inexpensive youth is valued more than veteran experience. The middle class salaries are relevant to the team’s success and available cap space. Competitive teams pay their top players and rely heavily on their farm system to fill the holes, while up and coming teams are in full rebuild mode paying young players earlier to hold on to them.
With all that in mind, what will the Toronto Maple Leafs do with a player like Kasperi Kapanen? This season’s stats would be a large Welcome sign for any NHL team, especially at his young age. Kapanen’s value is increasing every game he plays; he is on pace to score 30+ goals in the NHL coming off his Entry Level Contract (ELC). There were only 32 players on 21 teams in the 2017/18 season that scored 30+ goals. Five of those players were/are on entry level contracts, so just under $160 million were paid to the other 27 goal scoring players. Goals equal “pay dirt”; those 27 players averaged $5.925mil in AVV. The Leafs are full of young assets and will never pay Kapanen $5-6 million or close to it after just one season, even though he is earning it.
In fact, he’s currently having a better year than William Nylander has ever had alongside Matthews. Kapanen could demand and get $6mil/yr from another team recognizing him as part of their future. Look at the following examples: Jake Guentzel just signed a new 5yr/$30 extension with Pittsburgh and he plays alongside Sidney Crosby! Guentzel’s statistics are not flashy by any means, which shows having the chemistry to play with an elite player carries value. Also, consider when an $8.5mil/yr Leon Draisaitl isn’t playing on the top line, Edmonton searches for an option to play with Connor McDavid. Finally, William Karlsson earned a 1 year deal off his ELC of $5.25mil after his 40+ goal performance on the expansion Golden Knights.
The major issue for Kapanen is that he is the eighth or ninth best player on the Leafs and the Leafs will try and pay him like the eighth or ninth best player. A potential 30 goal scorer, however, ought to be looking for a larger pay day on any other team. With this season’s numbers, he would be a top 6 forward on most NHL teams, and certainly a top line option for the bottom third of the league. On the Leafs, Kapanen is in a middle class “no man’s land”; good enough to earn respectable dollars, but not too much to fit in the Leafs pay structure.
An option for the Leafs is to try a bridge contract with Kapanen due to other contract priorities in Marner and Matthews. After paying M&M, the extra dollars will become a bit tighter; every $500k will matter if they want to fill out the rest of their roster competitively. BUT the Leafs can not play lowball with Kapanen, the rarely used Offer Sheet might work better in the potential Kapanen situation than those other Leaf RFA franchise cornerstone players in Marner and Matthews. The compensation for an offer sheet under $4mil/yr AVV is only a second draft pick, well worth the compensation to land a 22 year old, 30 goal scorer. Kyle Dubas is on record stating that he “loses zero sleep about offer sheets”, but screwing the Leafs financial structure so they can’t easily retain all of their top young talent and depth should be a conscience (or subconscious) front office goal for rival GMs. Again, the Offer Sheet is rarely used, but with the cap in mind, it is only a matter of time before GMs realize that games are played on the ice, off the ice AND in the front office.
After the Nylander signing, the Toronto media have switched their attention to Matthews and Marner, but let’s not forget about the middle class in Kapanen. Having too much talent is never an issue a GM would complain about, though trying to fit them all under the cap might be.