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Zach Hyman’s 4-year deal could make life harder for Maple Leafs down the road

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Why go to four years when you know your stars need to get paid soon?

Detroit Red Wings v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top priority over the next few years is to make sure they can keep together the impressive foundation of talent they’ve built. In an era of hard caps and massive second contracts for young stars, the key to making that happen will be maintaining as much cap flexibility as possible.

That means avoiding long-term deals for depth players who are not pivotal to the cause. It means making sure not to sign contracts like the four-year, $9 million pact the Leafs just handed to Zach Hyman.

In a vacuum, the Hyman signing isn’t that egregious. He’s a 25-year-old coming off a solid 10-goal, 28-point rookie season for the Maple Leafs where he had an unusually low shooting percentage. A $2.25 million cap hit doesn’t break the bank, and the deal will be done before he’s 30 years old. Many teams have signed deals like this and come away happy with the results. There’s upside here. He also writes children’s books, which is adorable.

But in the case of the Maple Leafs, who will need to sign Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Jake Gardiner to extensions by 2019, it’s fair to question whether Hyman’s signing could create problems down the road. As we’ve learned from teams like the Blackhawks and Capitals, you need every dollar you can get when star players start getting what they’re worth.

Hyman is the kind of player who be found elsewhere at an affordable price. He put up solid scoring numbers, yes, but he also got a heavy dose of offensive zone starts (which makes it curious that he finished 25th in Selke Trophy voting) and lots of minutes next to Matthews. Re-signing him was the right move, but it’s not clear why the Leafs felt compelled to go to four years.

For now, the Maple Leafs have cap space for the 2019-20 season, when the four aforementioned big names will be making a lot more than their combined $6.76 million cap hit for next season. Cap Friendly says they have $35.3 million committed for that season with Nathan Horton, so there’s at least $45 million in cap space to get deals done assuming he stays on long-term injured reserve.

It’ll likely take the vast majority of that cap space just to lock up Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Gardiner for 2019-20. Connor McDavid just reset the market for elite young players with his $100 million deal; expect Matthews to command similar terms. The other three won’t come cheap, either.

At that time, the Leafs will also have $11 million on the books for Hyman, Patrick Marleau, and Matt Martin, three useful players who are nowhere near as important as the young guns.

These are the kinds of minor moves that could cost the Maple Leafs down the road. Presumably there’s some “strike while the iron is hot” attitude to these signings, where Toronto will take a hit down the road if it can win a Stanley Cup now with Matthews, Nylander, and Marner on their entry-level deals. But if those wins don’t come soon, it’ll be harder to get them down the road with signings like Hyman. The goal should’ve been to structure these deals to expire after the next two seasons.

Maybe the Leafs will be able to dump these contracts without giving up much, but we’ve also seen that NHL teams don’t feel so generous when they know a team’s back is against the wall. This is how the Hurricanes extracted Teuvo Teravainen, Scott Darling, and Marcus Kruger from the Blackhawks over the past two years while giving up just a few non-first-round picks.

At a $2.25 million cap hit, Hyman won’t be some brutal albatross contract, but there’s also a decent chance he’s not worth what he’s being paid by 2019-20, when the Leafs will be desperate for every dollar of cap space they can get. It begs the question of why GM Lou Lamoriello went to a four-year term on a restricted free agent who surely wasn’t going to get an offer sheet like that. Toronto held most of the leverage, yet it ended up agreeing to a deal that’s awfully generous to a fourth-liner with one full season under his belt.

The Maple Leafs need to make sure they’re planning for the next few years as their most important players start to eat up increasingly large portions of the salary cap. Committing to four years on a bottom-sixer isn’t a great way to do that.