“I think you go through those experiences, and like any team that’s won before, you go through a lot of stuff you wish that maybe you wouldn’t have.” — Leafs star Auston Matthews after Game 5 elimination, round 2
“It feels like every team that wins and goes on a stretch of winning kind of experiences this (first). Obviously, this is not what we wanted to do.” — Oilers star Connor McDavid, after Game 6 elimination, round 2
The Toronto Oilers. The Edmonton Maple Leafs. The Maple Oilers.
Throughout the summer, hockey fan bases in Toronto and in Edmonton will mock each other. They’ll laugh at each other’s teams, and how, once again, despite having so much top-end talent, they each crashed out of the playoffs before the middle of May.
But, really, it’s like the Spider-Man memes, with identical superheroes, all pointing at each other.
Toronto and Edmonton. Our problems are the same. Two teams that have high-priced talent at the top ends of their rosters, and then have to fill in the blanks when it comes to depth positions. Both are in cap jail going into next season, with very little in terms of flexibility — so they need to be creative in order to get just that much better for 2023-24..
(Or trade the superstars that have defined their teams for the better of the last decade.)
The Leafs have Auston Matthews and John Tavares scheduled to earn more than $21.6 million combined next season. Forward Mitch Marner clocks in at a salary of just under $11 million.
The Oilers have over $30 million tied up in Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse this year, and don’t have any major expiring contracts (as in, guys making north of $2 million a year). They have to figure out what to do with role players like Derek Ryan, Mattias Janmark and Nick Bjugstad, who will all hit the open market in July. And, defenceman Evan Bouchard is in line for a significant raise from his $863,333 cap hit this past season.
For the past two seasons, we’ve heard Oilers’ General Manager Ken Holland say that it’s “dollar in, dollar out” when it comes to any transactions he has to make. That won’t change.
“The players share the disappointment I have and the sense it was a missed opportunity. There was a lot of excitement around our team.” — Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe
“Our group is very disappointed for coming up short of our goal, which was to push this series to seven games.” — Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft
But, really, the Oilers and Leafs represent a grand experiment in the NHL’s salary cap era. The teams we generally see succeed in the playoffs are teams that stress depth. While the Colorado Avalanche of 2021-22 won the Cup with one player (Mikko Rantanen) breaking the $10-million cap-hit barrier, they still weren’t spending as much on their top end as the Leafs and Oilers do.
The Leafs and Oilers are trying to show that you can run an NHL team like an NBA team; load up with two or three stars, and plug in the holes along the way, at value prices. And they have yet to prove to the NHL that… it works. As more and more superstars graduate into the $10M-plus salary range, more teams will either have to build rosters like the Leafs and Oilers have chosen to do, our hold regular fire sales when high-end players come up for big extensions. But, this year, none of the NHL’s top-five regular season scorers are still playing. Teams that have balance, that can beat you with multiple lines, they are the ones that have, year after year, won the Cup in the cap era. If the Oilers or Leafs finally get to the promised land, without major changes in philosophy, it would represent a major sea change for the NHL.
Edmonton is now 33 years removed from the Cup. The modern NHL has 32 teams, so, all things being equal, a fan base can officially call it a “drought” when the length of time between Cups exceeds 32 years (until that point, it’s just the law of averages playing out). This now means that other fan bases can have as much fun laughing at the Oilers fan base’s 1980s nostalgia as they do mocking the Leafs fans for mythologizing 1967, their most recent Cup year.
We are both in cap jail, we are both locked in nostalgia, we are pretty sure that someone, somewhere has it in for us. Leafs fans and Oilers fans aren’t enemies — we’re drinking buddies.
Savvy AF. Blunt AF. Edmonton AF.