Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
According to a report from the Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby, Toronto Marlies defenceman TJ Brennan has been offered a contract by a mystery team in the Kontinental Hockey League for next season. Hearing such news isn’t incredibly shocking, given his success, but it’s still something that the team will have to address in some way, shape, or form.
It’s generally accepted that competing with the KHL’s big chequebooks for “AAAA Talent” is a losing battle. But it doesn’t have to be if the team does it properly.
First off, we’ll get the obvious out of the way; the big chequebook theory definitely applies to Brennan’s deal. According to friend of the blog Aivis Kalnins, Brennan’s offer at hand is a 1-Year, $1.5 Million contract. This would be a steep raise from his $675,000 one-way deal with the Leafs this season; over double, as a matter of fact.
I understand that when you hear “sign a regular AHL player to something close to a $1.5 million deal”, you immediately sprint over to your PDF of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and point out that such a contract would require the Leafs to pay a penalty of $550,000 in Salary Cap Burial. This would indeed be the case, assuming that the Leafs organisation was competing against another NHL team here.
But they aren’t. They’re competing with a KHL team. Once he’s there, he’s there for the year. Short of a mutual termination, that’s how the transfer agreements line up. With that in mind, what’s stopping them from offering him a large AHL deal?
The truth is, not very much. The American Hockey League doesn’t have a maximum salary, meaning that if the Leafs organisation sees him as a positive value to the developmental progress of the Marlies, but doesn’t see him playing with the Leafs, then they could absolutely make a competitive offer.
Certainly, he brings value to the team. Despite being a defenceman, Brennan has led the team in goals and points in both of his full seasons with the team (13/14 and 15/16). While his stick went cold in the playoffs, Brennan paired up with Justin Holl to create one of the league’s best pairings. Oh, and in both of those full seasons, he won the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s best defenceman.
There is the issue of him being a bit older than the rest of the group; he turned 27 in April. But that also works to his favour; he’s considered by many to be a positive presence in the locker room and is well liked in the community. Leadership skills earn the eye rolls of many new-schoolers when they’re the sole selling point of a player, but when that player is also an elite talent at your level, that’s not something you want to lose.
To give an idea of how important Brennan is to the team offensively, he took 7% of all of Toronto’s shots this year. This is coming from a defenceman, on a team that included forwards like William Nylander, Josh Leivo, Mark Arcobello, Matt Frattin, Brendan Leipsic and Nikita Soshnikov; all volume shooters at this level. His production typically stays stable, occasionally spiking from nights where he takes over and really only dipping in the final games of the year.
Many will point to his defensive shortcomings, which are definitely noticeable at times, but they are grossly outweighed by the pros. AHL data is obviously about as easy to find as Stephane Robidas’ current location, but the visuals imply that he’s arguably the Marlies’ most dominant neutral-zone player, due to his ability to exit the defensive zone with control and get all the way across the ice to set up the play. The limited NHL data we do have on him shows a player that, though sheltered, has fewer shots given up than most thanks to his ability to keep the puck moving towards the opposing goalie. We can debate whether he should be an NHLer until the cows come home, but there’s no argument against him being a noticeable reason that the Toronto Marlies have been so good with him around in the past two and a half years.
As much as the team should primarily be focused on developing their youth, avoiding total emptiness is key too. This is something they learned last season when the team cratered to start the year and clawed back up on the backs of the signing of Bryon Froese and the trade-driven return of… the very same TJ Brennan. The Marlies will earn a few 20-year-olds and project signings next year, no doubt, but with Arcobello heading to Europe and the likes of Nylander, Soshnikov, Zach Hyman, and maybe others graduating to the Leafs full time, they’re going to need a few people to stick around and move the puck around like they’ve been there before.
That very well could be worth seven digits to the organization. At the end of the day, the Marlies aren’t exactly cash cows, and the Leafs would probably spend more on their roster if there wasn’t a salary cap. Signing a few of their veterans to deals that teams in other leagues, above or below, next door or across the pond wouldn’t be a bad thing; such an idea might (on a lower pricetag) fit the bill for fellow upcoming UFA Rich Clune as well. Sure, the AHL might not be too happy with setting a precedent of high-cost players, but if it’s one or two guys as a matter of retention and it means the Marlies can continue a precedent of getting playoff games on TSN, their concerns will probably fade pretty quickly.
It might also make more sense for Brennan to stay, even if the money is a bit less. As you all know by my constant screaming about a few particular players, I appreciate the KHL as a competitive, somewhat near-the-top league where a lot of overlooked, young European talent might be hiding in plain sight. But for a mid-20’s man from New Jersey who has spent most of the past three years of his life in Toronto, there’s a lot to learn by moving to Russia / Croatia / Latvia / Belarus / Finland / Kazakhstan / Slovakia (it’s a big league and we have no idea what team it is). Similarly, there’s a lot of costs involved in moving, well, halfway across the world, that might offset the slightly improved salary.
That’s if he gets his salary at all. North American players have historically had trouble getting these supposedly higher paycheques, particularly those on smaller clubs. Eight teams are considered to be in serious financial trouble and three others put their participation on hold this season. Unfortunately, not everyone is SKA, CSA, Magnitogorsk, or Jokerit, and that’s a huge plunge to take when your biggest incentive is money. This has been amplified in recent years with the crash of the ruble, which is part of the reason why even big names like Vadim Shipachev and former NHL star Alexander Radulov have tested the waters this summer.
Some may argue that the other incentive would be the success that some North Americans have had there. I suppose it depends on what you want out of your stay; if you’re there to prove yourself and come back, there isn’t much of a history of that working out. If Brennan is in it for the long haul, however, a career similar to Nick Bailen, Kevin Dallman, or Cam Barker might be attainable.
With all of that considered, I feel that a substantial AHL offer might be the best option for both worlds. Toronto signs a loss-leader contract, but in return gets to keep a player who has made the Marlies undeniably better in three consecutive seasons both on and off the ice. By making it an AHL deal, Toronto avoids burial cap penalties and also doesn’t use an SPC, though they’d have to sign him again to call him up if needed. As for Brennan, even $1 million would be a substantial raise with minimal financial risk and gets to stay somewhere where he genuinely enjoys his time and knows he’s able to succeed. In fact, by signing an AHL deal, he continues to make himself available to 30 NHL teams without having to beg for a mutual termination.
Certainly, a seven-figure minor league deal is a rarely exploited grey area that might raise some eyebrows across the hockey world. But since when has that stopped this rendition of Leafs management from doing something to flex their financial muscles?