The first weekend of training camp is over. The Leafs have left Niagara. The first preseason game is tomorrow. Nylander still isn’t signed.
The rational part of our brains are probably saying whether he signs today, tomorrow, or 10 games into the season, it’s not going to change the fact that the Leafs will be a playoff team, they’ll do just fine, there’s probably no really reason to worry.
The less rational part of my brain tells me that Nylander is one of my favourite players on this team and I’m happiest when I get to watch him as part of it, and I don’t want to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing when he’ll be back.
What’s Been Said Lately?
Let’s look at some cases: The gap between Toronto and William Nylander sounds wide. The player doesn’t want a bridge deal. Neither Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas nor agent Lewis Gross are talking, but the rumour is the player ask is near Leon Draisaitl territory ($8.5 million AAV). I can see that being true for three reasons.
First, a player/agent ask is always high – Draisaitl’s contract is a bit of an outlier compared to his peers, with Aleksander Barkov, Nik Ehlers and Nathan MacKinnon all in the $6 million range. Second, in the two years before he signed, Draisaitl had 128 points. Nylander had 122. (Draisaitl also had an awesome 2017 playoffs with 16 points in 13 games.) Third, Connor McDavid’s (deserved) contract pushed Draisaitl’s number to a higher level.
You can see how Nylander’s camp would strive to stay close to Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares. The surest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour and Gross has not been afraid to sit clients (Johnny Gaudreau, Torey Krug). I suspect Toronto will point out that Tavares, Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly have all taken less to make it work. Because Dubas is new to his position, it’s harder to judge his reaction. But, he’s not afraid to stand up for himself and is a different thinker. You should not expect him to follow conventional wisdom, whatever that might be.
From The Leafs Perspective
The not talking part is the scariest aspect of this, since this is what is going to keep one of the team’s best players out of the lineup longer than needed. You would hope that the game playing would have run its course over the summer and we wouldn’t still be hearing inflated numbers like $8.5M a season in September. That’s July talk, cleaning up the last couple of hundred grand, and the limits of the future NMC are where we should hope to be by now.
Dubas is in the unfortunate situation of having a lot of eyes on him and having to deal with being judged by a lot of people for how this plays out, and that’s unfortunate, because it’s probably causing some heels to be dug in a bit further than they need to be on the Leafs side. There is also the matter of this contract having a huge future impact on the contracts for Marner and Matthews. If Nylander gets a preferential outcome, they’ll push harder as well. Those outcomes might start pricing players out of the Leafs lineup, even if it’s not Matthews or Marner, it could lead to the departure of someone like Gardiner, if that isn’t in the cards already.
I can’t imagine the Leafs are too upset about the bridge deal not being on the table. The potential short term savings on Nylander could have been nice over the next couple of very tight cap seasons, but the reality is the Leafs are always going to be in that situation when it comes to money, and longer term deal would ultimately be in the best interest both from a reasonable cap hit perspective, and from the perspective of Nylander being a more movable asset, if that situation were to arise.
For the Leafs it has to be incredibly hard to get past two particular contracts when looking at Nylander.
David Pastrnak had a 34 goal season, with 70 points in 75 games before signing a 6 year deal with a $6.66M annual cap hit. Since he’s the same age, from the same draft, and producing more, it’s easy to point to that as a “best you’re going to get” type deal.
Nik Ehlers also fits the nearly identical in every way to Nylander situation. He was drafted one pick after William, and has produced nearly identical numbers with 64 points in 2016-17, and 60 in 2017-18 compared to Nylander putting up 61 points in both. Ehlers being signed on a 6 yr x $6M AAV deal is a pretty strong argument against that $8.5M ask from Willie, and one that I think I struggle with.
There’s also the fact that Nylander is winger, and overpaying on the wing is a kiss of death for teams.
From Nylander’s Perspective
There are two main factors that I assume have to be considered with Nylander that I think will ultimately be how concessions are made to paying him more than players like Pastrnak and Ehlers, and those are…
Leon Draisaitl: If I’m going to point to the 2014 draft with team favourable examples, we’ll have to point to Nylander’s favourable example from that year too. Draisaitl pulling in $8.5M x 8 years for going 5 spots ahead of Willie is a lot of extra coin. However, Draisaitl has transitioned to playing center, Nylander has not, and given the current center depth of the Leafs, he may never get the opportunity to move off the wing. There’s also the fact that Draisaitl’s numbers were very good in 2016-17, but that largely came from playing with Connor McDavid. From Nylander’s perspective there also needs to be consideration that Draisaitl benefits from a more freewheeling offensive system compared to the more conservative style of Mike Babcock. Could Nylander be Draisaitl if he was given similar opportunities? Probably, but there’s still the very popular belief that Draisaitl is overpaid that needs to be reconciled, but that’s not going to stop Nylander from trying to get his. If Nylander wants to be a center, that could also be a future hurdle.
Mitch Marner: This has to be a looming thought for Nylander the same way it is for the organization. Nylander is immediately going to be the Leafs favourite comparison on Mitch’s deal, and Marner will absolutely try for more. No matter what Nylander signs at, it’s probably safe to say that Marner will try for more. That being said, does Nylander want to come in at $6.5M/yr. based on Ehlers comps, only to have Marner pull in millions more a year next season because someone like Rantanen will set a new bar for contracts? I can get where that would suck for Nylander. I’d want assurances that he and Marner are going to come in at or near the same price, and if anything that issue can explain a lot of the hold up.
All of this is important to consider before starting the nonsense about blaming Nylander for not being in training camp.
At the End of All This…
As much as I love Nylander, I want to the cheapest deal possible, the same as what I want for Marner and Matthews because keeping this band together is important. At this point it’s probably time to make peace with the fact that the Ehlers and Pastrnak comps are out the window, and we’re dealing with something new. The hangup for me is that $7.5M is a threshold of something I don’t want to see spent on the wing, especially knowing that Marner would be another $7.5M+ winger a year from now.
For all the ridicule about trade rumours involving Nylander and believe me, it’s still my preference to keep him, I’ve been a bit more understanding of them. Committing that money long term always has risk associated with it, and you need it be allocated where you need it the most.
The lesson of the day is that this is exactly what we know it is: frustrating, complicated, and not likely to end the way we want it to.