Leafs’ Game 7 loss could change approach to free agency

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The Maple Leafs face a long summer of uncertainty with their roster, and how much it might cost to bring back players destined for free agency.

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The off-season has started early once again for the Leafs, after losing Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena.

With a sixth consecutive first-round playoff exit in the books, attention will turn to the financial books and the future of many Leafs who played key roles in an otherwise record-setting season.

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Will they try to run it back with four core forwards: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander? While they’d almost certainly want to, the salary cap will be a significant factor with nine regulars heading for unrestricted or restricted free agency.

There’s also the question of how much they can afford to offer soon-to-be free-agent goalie Jack Campbell.

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They have $77.451 million (US) already committed to next season’s roster — $40.5 million to those core forwards. With the NHL cap rising to $82.5 million, that leaves just over $5 million to work with.

The Leafs got career years from Matthews, a Hart Trophy contender, as well as Marner and Nylander. Campbell, meanwhile, set career highs with 31 wins and 49 starts, and has proved to be a bargain since a 2020 trade with the Los Angeles Kings. At 30, he proved he could handle the No. 1 workload after Frederik Andersen left for Carolina via free agency.

Coming off the final year of a contract with a $1.65-million cap hit, he’ll be looking for a big increase — maybe $12 million over three years. With injury-prone Petr Mrázek also under contract at $3.8 million per, that would mean almost $8 million committed to goalies, making other important moves difficult.

Other Leafs UFAs are Ilya Mikheyev, Jason Spezza, Colin Blackwell, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin. RFAs include Ondrej Kaše, Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.

Time — to win a Cup, and to play another year in the NHL — is running out for Spezza.

“Jason gives us everything he has all the time,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s a guy who doesn’t have time on his side. He worked and commits every day of his life to win a Cup … I feel for him every time.”

Mark Zwolinski is a Toronto-based sports reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @markzwol

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