Illness, injury uncertainty abound as NHL camps open – Domi to wait – Dubas, Canucks shit themselves

Oft injured waste of cap space.

Oft injured waste of cap space.

The Montreal Canadiens and centre Max Domi have agreed to wait another seven to 10 days before deciding whether Domi will join the team for the remainder of the season. Domi, who has Type-1 diabetes, is considered high-risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Players have until Monday at 5 p.m. ET to announce whether they will opt-out of playing without punishment, but this agreement between team and player will allow both to make a responsible decision over a longer time frame.

This is supposed to be just the beginning for the Vancouver Canucks, the start of a sparkling new era as the team blasts towards the heavens on the twin booster rockets of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

Instead, this summer’s Stanley Cup tournament could already become a kind of ending for this particular group.

There is no escaping the debilitating gravity of the NHL’s salary cap.

While the league and its players’ association have delivered peace with a negotiated extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement during the worst pandemic in 100 years, no one was lighting sparklers and breaking into song while keeping six feet apart in the Canucks’ hockey-operations offices.

At least the salary cap won’t go down next season and, happily, commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t invent any new ways to hammer the Canucks retroactively for doing what had been entirely legal in the previous CBA. How, in the most litigious society on Earth, Bettman and owners got the Roberto Luongo cap-recapture penalty past NHLPA lawyers in 2012 is one of the great mysteries of our time.

But the Corona virus Cap of $81.5 million — $2.5- to $6.7-million less than what deputy commissioner Bill Daly had forecast just the week before the NHL shut down on March 12 – could remain flat for a while and exacerbates what was already going to be a serious budgeting problem for the Canucks.

Before we explain again how the cap threatens to flatten the Canucks’ curve upwards, let’s make two things clear: a lot of NHL teams are in the same leaky boat, and Vancouver didn’t get there because of COVID-19 but because of Loui Eriksson’s $36-million contract (and others).

Still, the Canucks were planning their cap gymnastics next season based on a modest increase in the salary cap for 2020-21 and the promise of greater escalation the season after. Instead, with a roster of 15 players under contract next season (16 if you include Sven Baertschi in the minors) at a cost of $65.2 million, including the bonus overage carried over from this season, the Canucks have only $16.3 million available for another seven or eight players. And at least two-thirds of that money could be spent on retaining unrestricted free agents Jacob Markstrom and Tyler Toffoli.

At least general manager Jim Benning saw this coming during the NHL shutdown.

“Of course, it’s going to be different,” he told Sportsnet in June. “So many things have changed. You have to be prepared and adapt to different changes that happen. There’s going to be some stuff that happens that teams are going to be mad at, but they don’t have a choice. This is just the way it is. I don’t know if it’s going to be any different in society.”

The NHL opens training camps on Monday and hopes to stage a Stanley Cup tournament this summer.

If it happens, it will be the only one the Canucks ever play with Pettersson and Hughes, J.T. Miller and Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Toffoli, Markstrom, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher and Jake Virtanen.

Unless Benning convinces Eriksson, who projects to be a healthy scratch in the preliminary-round series against the Minnesota Wild, to terminate his contract in the off-season and walk away from $5 million, it looks plain impossible for Vancouver to keep all its important players.

Markstrom, Toffoli, Tanev and Josh Leivo are unrestricted free agents, and the RFAs include Stecher, Virtanen, Adam Gaudette and Tyler Motte.

Anchored by “dead money” in the Luongo penalty ($3.03 million), last summer’s buyout of Ryan Spooner ($1.03 million) and Baertschi’s NHL cap hit from Utica ($2.29 million) – all figures in this story are from CapFriendly.com – the Canucks could get some long-term injury relief if Micheal Ferland ($3.5 million) is unable to play next season due to concussion.

But Ferland, who missed 55 of the Canucks’ final 57 games, is in Vancouver for summer camp and will try again to come back.

The NHL’s financial landscape makes it almost impossible for the Canucks to offload contracts like Eriksson’s or Brandon Sutter’s ($4.375 million), although Benning may find a taker for depth defenceman Jordie Benn ($2 million).

Most of the realistic options to ease the cap crisis are difficult ones: choosing Markstrom or Toffoli, allowing veteran warrior Tanev to walk, making Stecher a UFA by not qualifying him at $2.35 million, or trading the 23-year-old Virtanen rather than nearly tripling his expiring salary of $1.25 million. The nuclear option would be to trade Brock Boeser and his $5.875-million salary, although thank goodness talk radio doesn’t possess the launch codes.

Pettersson and Hughes are due huge new contracts next summer. Boeser needs a new deal in 2022, Horvat and Miller the year after. Everyone can see there is a problem.

“You’ve definitely got to think about that,” Horvat said this week when asked about the looming cap crunch. “I wouldn’t want to have a head office job right now with the way the cap is. I think we’re going to do whatever we can to keep our core group together and our young guys. How we’re going to do it, I’m not sure, because we do have such great young talent. Hopefully, we can do something to keep us all together because we definitely have a bright future.”

Meanwhile, in Toronto …

For all the ways the mighty Toronto Maple Leafs can flex their financial muscle in a league of varying franchise wealth, they too are staring at an immovable object: an $81.5-million salary cap that isn’t going anywhere for at least two seasons beyond this crazy one.

Upon the ratification of the NHL and its Players’ Association’s pandemic-salving collective bargaining agreement, GM Kyle Dubas will be forced to strangle his budget after signing his big four offence-drivers — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander — to gaudy, long-term contracts that he expected to look more palatable under normal cap inflation. Heck, it was only a little more than four months ago that NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly projected that 2020-21’s cap ceiling could stretch as high as $88.2 million.

There is no use dwelling in alternate realities, however. Tight circumstances demand tough decisions.

But Dubas, holding court with reporters over Zoom on Sunday afternoon, doubled down on his commitment to his talented nucleus and suggested the real roster pain could be delayed until the 2021 off-season, when important pieces Zach Hyman and Frederik Andersen will both coming knocking for raises.

“If we were facing a situation where some of our core players were up at the end of this year and were unrestricted, or they had a large amount of leverage as some of our past [RFA] players have had, I would maybe feel differently and say that we’re going to have to make a major move and delete from our core,” Dubas said.

“But with everybody signed going into this off season, I think we’re gonna have some space to take care of our restricted free agents that we have and potentially look at some of our own UFAs.”

This should come as welcome news to faithful concerned about the future of impending RFA defenceman Travis Dermott, who might be best served navigating the crunch with a bridge deal and had begun to find his stride before the pause. And to those worried that enticing KHL import Ilya Mikheyev (also RFA) might have priced himself out of town after over delivering on his one-year, $925,000 foray on this side of the Atlantic.

While UFA defencemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci are long shots to re-sign, particularly with entry-level talents Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren pushing for ice time, there is mutual interest in contract extensions with UFA depth forwards Jason Spezza and Kyle Clifford. Slight hometown discounts may be in order, however.

Foreseeing a tightening of the cap, which won’t rise until league revenue exceeds $4.8 billion, Dubas shrewdly signed a pair of coveted KHL free agents, winger Alexander Barabanov and defenceman Mikko Lehtonen, to inexpensive deals during quarantine.

And while a middle-class forward ( Kasperi KapanenAlexander KerfootAndreas Johnsson) might be expended the way Nazem Kadri or Connor Brown was last off-season, Dubas is not threatening to break up the Fab Four if they can’t shoot their way past Columbus in August’s best-of-five qualification round.

“I don’t feel that this season there should be any added pressure,” said Dubas, encouraged by the commitment and conditioning he’s witnessed in Phase 2’s voluntary practices.

“The players have an expectation — and we have an expectation — that we’re going to be competitive and that we’re, of course, trying to contend to win the Stanley Cup.

“I don’t look at the situation and say, because the cap is going to be flat, this is our only chance to do so. If we didn’t have our core guys locked up for this year and next, I would maybe feel a little bit differently, quite honestly. But I don’t. We got everybody set for ’19-20 to finish and then ’20-21.”

That’s when Hyman and Andersen are due.

That’s when Sandin (RFA 2022) and Morgan Rielly (UFA 2022) will be eligible to start negotiating extensions.

That’s when the pain is coming.

Fingers crossed, Dubas & Co. will have two playoff runs to sort out who must be kept under the fixed ceiling no one imagined being so stubborn.

Until then, let ’em skate.

“Then we’ll have to continue to see how different things progress and develop over that time,” Dubas said. “We have time right now to just continue to see this group develop and grow and get us where we need to get to — and we’re excited about that.”

One-Timers

• “Auston is fit to play,” Dubas assured. Breathe a sigh of relief, Leafs Nation.

• Dubas does not expect any of Toronto’s Phase 3 invitees to opt out of a return to play but would be “fully understanding” if that were the case.

• Peterborough Petes standout Nick Robertson, 18, has been training with the Maple Leafs throughout Phase 2 and will be given “every shot” to make his NHL debut in 2019-20. “If he can force his way into the mix and onto the roster, that’d be great,” Dubas said. “There’s going to be a degree of latitude given to the players that have proven they can contribute to our team and be pieces that can help our team win and they have in the past. But if Nick or Kenny Agostino or Adam Brooks or any of the players (that) have been with the Marlies step up and are beating down the door throughout training camp, we’re going to give them opportunity.”

• Because forward Nic Petan was recently deemed fit to play, he will join the club’s Phase 3 training camp Monday, replacing defence prospect Mac Hollowell on the originally announced roster.

• There is hope left wing Andreas Johnsson (knee) could be rehabilitated in time for the start of the second round of the playoffs, should the Maple Leafs make it that far.

• The 28- or 29-man group the Maple Leafs plan to bring into the bubble will include 15 or 16 forwards, nine or 10 defencemen, and three or four goalies. Dubas and club president Brendan Shanahan will join the team’s coaching staff inside the hub.