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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be among the five teams selected to roll out the red carpet for John Tavares during the interview period this week.

The Tavares camp hopes to have the full list nailed down on Sunday, with meetings not to begin before Monday in Los Angeles.

Aside from intrigue about the presentation and the hoopla to woo the most impactful free agent to potentially hit the market in hockey history - will the Leafs’ jersey with Tavares’ name on it have a ‘C’ on the front? - one critical question remains:

How could the Maple Leafs make the money work?

Toronto currently has just a shade under $25 million in salary cap space for next season with a deal still to come for restricted free agent William Nylander.

But this year was never going to be a problem. The true cap conundrum is two seasons away in 2019-20, when Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will need to be paid.

That is why many are wondering whether the Maple Leafs will experiment with the idea of a one-year deal at the new maximum salary of $15.9 million.

No player in the NHL’s salary cap era has ever pinged the max salary, which is 20 per cent of next season’s $79.5 million limit.

There is no question it is an intriguing option for the Maple Leafs. A one-year deal is a low-risk, high-reward option that allows Toronto take a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup without the burden of an expensive long-term commitment. He would replace all of James van Riemsdyk’s 36 goals, and then some, in addition to driving play down the middle.

That type of contract is not without total consequence, though, as it would mean that extensions for Matthews and Marner would have to wait until next summer because of tagging constraints. The idea of “tagging space” is complex, but explained simply, teams cannot exceed this season’s current salary cap of $79.5 million in cap commitments for the season beyond (2019-20).

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has already stressed patience on the Matthews and Marner front, signalling those deals could take longer than fans and even the players might hope.

The more difficult part is in trying to reason why Tavares would be interested in that type of contract structure. 

Like anyone else, professional athletes crave security. Tavares could be leaving as much as $72 or more million on the table, if a recent report about the Islanders’ ballpark offer of eight years, $88 million is accurate.

Insurance is a possibility, but it is expensive. There is no way to insure all of that $70-plus million, and Tavares already paid for insurance last year in the final year of his deal in New York.

The upside is that a $15-million signing bonus could be wired into Tavares’ account on Canada Day. He would be paid half as much in one year as he earned in his last six seasons with the Islanders, when he was a two-time Hart Trophy finalist.

Plus, Tavares would finally get that chance to lace up for one of the eight or ten plausible Stanley Cup hopefuls. That he could use the season as a test case - to see if playing in his hometown is really as overwhelming as players say - with the chance to walk and cash in again next summer could be pretty appealing.

If Tavares ends up being as strong a fit as the Leafs think he may be, he could sign a seven-year extension, then, as early as Jan. 1, 2019 - to match the same eight-year term able to be offered now only by the Islanders. That new extension, which would come into play in 2019-20 when new deals kick in for Matthews and Marner, could creatively "account" for the max money paid in Year 1 - and push the salary cap hit down to make it more manageable for Toronto when it matters most. Teams would cry foul with cap circumvention, but it's perfectly legal so long as those parameters were not agreed to if/when an original one-year deal was signed.

Either way, a one-year deal is likely a looooooong shot. The smart money remains on Tavares re-upping with the Islanders.

If Tavares does choose the Maple Leafs, Dubas is confident they will be able to make the money work, even over a seven-year deal. 

“We have the best cap people in the league, I hope, so we will try to figure that out if the opportunity presents itself,” Dubas said Saturday. “We’re confident right now with our cap situation that we can do really whatever we want to do at this point. Nothing is going to stop us and hold us back.”


Here are the latest Top 60 players available ahead of July 1’s Free Agent Frenzy:
 

THE TOP 60

 
RK Player Team Pos Age GP G PTS 17-18
1 John Tavares NYI C 27 82 37 84 $5.5M
2 John Carlson WSH RD 28 82 15 68 $3.96M
3 James van Riemsdyk TOR LW 29 81 36 54 $4.25M
4 Paul Stastny WPG C 32 82 16 53 $7M
5 James Neal VGK LW 30 71 25 44 $5M
6 Mike Green DET RD 32 66 8 33 $6M
7 Tyler Bozak TOR C 32 81 11 43 $4.2M
8 Rick Nash BOS LW 33 71 21 34 $7.8M
9 David Perron VGK RW 30 70 16 66 $3.75M
10 Jack Johnson CBJ LD 31 77 3 11 $4.36M
11 Carter Hutton STL G 32 32 2.09 .931 $1.13M
12 John Moore NJD LD 27 81 7 18 $1.67M
13 Thomas Vanek CBJ LW 34 80 24 56 $2M
14 Patrick Maroon NJD LW 30 74 17 43 $2M
15 Michal Kempny WSH LD 27 53 3 10 $900K
16 Jonathan Bernier COL G 29 37 2.85 .913 $2.75M
17 Riley Nash BOS C 29 76 15 41 $900K
18 Derek Ryan CAR C 31 80 15 38 $1.43M
19 Brooks Orpik COL LD 37 81 0 10 $5.5M
20 Anton Khudobin BOS G 32 31 2.56 .913 $1.2M
21 Ian Cole CBJ LD 29 67 5 20 $2.1M
22 Michael Grabner NJD RW 30 70 27 36 $1.65M
23 Leo Komarov TOR LW 31 74 7 19 $2.95M
24 Thomas Hickey NYI LD 29 69 5 25 $2.2M
25 Kyle Brodziak STL C 34 81 10 33 $950K
26 Valtteri Filppula PHI C 34 80 11 33 $5M
27 Matt Calvert CBJ LW 28 69 9 24 $2.8M
28 Tomas Plekanec TOR C 35 77 6 26 $6M
29 Dan Hamhuis DAL LD 35 80 3 24 $3.75M
30 Blake Comeau COL RW 32 79 13 34 $2.4M
31 Calvin De Haan NYI LD 27 33 1 12 $3.3M
32 Jay Beagle WSH C 32 79 7 22 $1.75M
33 Chris Kunitz TBL LW 38 82 13 29 $2M
34 Mark Letestu CBJ C 33 80 9 23 $1.8M
35 Greg Pateryn DAL RD 27 73 1 13 $800K
36 Scott Hartnell NSH LW 36 62 13 24 $1M
37 Ryan Reaves VGK RW 31 79 4 10 $1.13M
38 Kevin Connauton ARI LD 28 73 11 21 $1M
39 Brian Gibbons NJD C 30 59 12 26 $650K
40 Tim Schaller BOS LW/C 27 82 12 22 $775K
41 Luca Sbisa VGK RD 28 30 2 14 $3.6M
42 Nick Holden BOS RD 31 73 4 17 $1.65M
43 Brandon Manning PHI LD 27 65 7 19 $975K
44 Christian Folin LAK RD 27 65 3 13 $850K
45 Antoine Vermette ANA C 35 64 8 16 $1.75M
46 Antoine Roussel DAL LW 28 73 5 17 $2M
47 Derek Grant ANA C 28 66 12 24 $650K
48 Jaroslav Halak NYI G 33 54 3.19 .908 $4.5M
49 Ondrej Pavelec NYR G 30 19 3.05 .910 $1.3M
50 Alexei Emelin NSH LD 32 75 1 9 $4M
51 Michael Hutchinson WPG G 28 3 3.26 .907 $1.15M
52 Toby Enstrom WPG LD 33 43 1 6 $5.75M
53 Matt Read PHI RW 31 33 7 16 $3.63M
54 Roman Polak TOR RD 32 53 2 12 $1.1M
55 Daniel Winnik MIN LW/C 33 81 6 23 $660K
56 Cam Ward CAR G 34 43 2.73 .906 $3.3M
57 Scottie Upshall STL LW 34 63 7 19 $800K
58 Luke Schenn ARI RD 28 64 1 7 $1.25M
59 Chris Wagner NYI C 27 79 7 16 $637K
60 Tommy Wingels BOS RW 30 75 9 17 $750K