Two and a half months ago, when sports held greater consequence, the Toronto Maple Leafs allowed the NHL trade deadline to pass without making any splashy moves.
One thing the Maple Leafs did on that late-February day, though, was sign impending free agent Jake Muzzin to a four-year extension worth $22.5 million. And as much as that deal meant to the 31-year-old defenseman then, it likely means a whole lot more now.
Not a month after Muzzin put pen to paper, the NHL shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the rest of the season is in flux, as well as the upcoming salary cap and the earning potential of free agents.
“I was talking after all of this happened and it clicked in like a week into this (stoppage),” Muzzin said last week on Sportsnet’s 31 Thoughts podcast. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m lucky that we got this done.’”
Muzzin, speaking to 31 Thoughts hosts Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek, said he believed all along that both sides wanted to get the deal done.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, though, is how the timing of the deal would work out so well in his favor.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with the market and where it’s gonna be,” Muzzin said. “And the cap issues, or if there’s gonna be any. As far as that goes, I’m very excited that the deal’s done.
“I wanted to be here anyways. But having it done before all of this, it’s allowed me to not worry about that aspect of my life going forward.”
Some of the bigger free agent fish, like Taylor Hall and Torey Krug (and even Tyson Barrie), are left to worry. Where will the salary cap, currently positioned at $81.5 million, be heading for the 2020-21 season?
On March 4 — before the COVID-19 craziness — NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly informed general managers at their annual meeting that the 2020-21 salary cap was projected to be between $84 million to $88.2 million.
That seems impossible now, as the league has been on pause for nearly two months and is facing substantial revenue losses.
Shortly after the league stoppage took effect, Friedman laid out how drastically things could change.
“I think they’re going to work to try to keep it as close to $81.5 (million) as they can,” the NHL insider said.
Later, he added, “If (the season) gets cancelled, they’ll do what they can to keep it as close to this year instead of going down. The number they floated on the conference call last week was, if they don’t play, they lose a billion (dollars) in revenues. Which is 20 percent of last year’s revenues…That’s huge.”
Making a definitive statement on the status of the 2020-21 salary cap would be futile. But the safe assumption is that it won’t climb to its initially projected height — and that a slight dip is not at all off limits.
So if NHL teams are asked to tighten their purse strings, who’s really getting squeezed? It’d be the free agents searching for a raise that might not exist.
That’s why, for Muzzin, signing in February was so fortunate. Clearly he and the Maple Leafs found terms that worked for both sides and decided not to wait. There was no pressure for either side to make that commitment in the winter, but clearly Muzzin wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“There’s no question,” Muzzin said. “I’m very happy that we worked things out and we came together and we got a deal done.”
The Maple Leafs should be happy too, since they locked down arguably their most valuable defender. At 5-on-5, Muzzin ranked first among Toronto defensemen in Corsi for percentage (53.58), which placed him 16th among 139 NHL defensemen with 850-plus minutes skated.
Muzzin also ranked first for Toronto in 5-on-5 shot share (54.61 percent), goals for per 60 minutes (3.29) and scoring chance share (54.07 percent).
How might his contract situation differ this offseason if he hadn’t signed an extension in February? For all parties involved, it might be best that we’ll never know.