The Toronto Maple Leafs should not be in this situation.
During the second intermission of last night’s game, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that the Leafs had formally begun asking teams to begin submitting their offers for RFA William Nylander. Friedman followed up the on-air breaking news with this tweet:
There is word tonight TOR has asked teams to indicate what they would offer — and will not trade — for William Nylander. Still think their first choice is to sign him, but we have entered the next stage, with 20 days until the deadline.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) November 11, 2018
While Friedman also noted on-air that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas refused to comment on the matter, what else can we be left to believe?
We are 19 days away from William Nylander’s camp either coming to an agreement with the Leafs on a deal, or the RFA winger being shipped out of town – or at the very least sitting out the remainder of the 2018-19 season. One’s first instinct when examining the current nature of this predicament might be to point fingers at the new Leafs GM who, up until this point, has managed under the absolute promise of retaining the Leafs’ three young stars as the team enters into the window of contention.
Does Kyle Dubas deserve flak for entering into his tenure speaking in absolutes, and coming up empty-handed thus far? Probably, yes. Nylander is the only RFA still holding out, and with seemingly endless comparables having inked deals in recent years, it’s hard to wrap your head around what could be delaying these negotiations well into November.
And yet here we are.
Where Is “Here”?
In order to better understand the current situation, it might be wise to look beyond the scope of what’s happened since Kyle Dubas became Leafs GM. If we look back to the offseason of 2017, the context of this current monetary battle becomes much clearer.
May 2, 2017:
The Leafs signed Nikita Zaitsev to a seven-year contract with an AAV of $4.5M per season. By the Leafs, we mean former Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello.
One of Lou’s parting gifts to the Leafs, Zaitsev has quickly transitioned to a bit of a boat anchor on the Leafs’ cap – and that’s even with his marginal improvements this season. Sure, Mike Babcock loves him, but Nikita Zaitsev caps out as probably a fifth of sixth defenseman, and is currently playing over 20 minutes a night on the second pairing.
Surely you would like to have been able to justify overpaying Nylander by maybe a million dollars worth of that Zaitsev contract, no? Ah, well.
July 2, 2017:
Three years for a 38-year old Patrick Marleau at $6.25M per season is pretty shocking, and is even more so when you consider the Leafs knew they were heading for a cap crunch with their young stars due for their first negotiable deals.
Sure, Marleau put up an impressive 27 goals and 20 assists in his 38-year old season, but how long did the Leafs seriously believe that could keep up? And at his cap hit, is that even enough?
Marleau has been ice cold for the Leafs this season, notching just three goals through 17 games despite consistent top-six minutes. He’s on pace for 14 goals on the season.
Surely you could have overpaid a 22-year old William Nylander with some of that money to get a deal done, no?
October 3, 2018:
Interesting response today from Brendan Shanahan when asked about William Nylander’s contract negotiations: pic.twitter.com/d8VuB8tnES
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) October 3, 2018
With the 2018-19 season about to get underway, Brendan Shanahan delivered this message directed towards William Nylander and the rest of the Leafs’ young core. At the time, the quote was lauded as a show of commitment to fitting the Leafs’ stars under the cap.
On further examination, however, the quote fails to hold up as anywhere relatable to the Leafs’ current situation – or the NHL’s – in 2018.
The Red Wings maintaining their championship cores on “haircuts” is nice, sure, until you stop and consider the implications of contracts and inherent value in a league without a salary cap. Contract negotiations, contract hyperfocus – these were different animals, and Shanahan should damn well know that. In delivering such a manifesto, Shanahan was not drawing a comparison as much as he was seemingly flat-out ignoring the changed nature of the NHL since his playing days. Taking haircuts in a day where rich teams’ infinite wealth is inherently limited simply does not bear the same monetary worth, and is much harder to actually accomplish than it is to dream up under idealism. Looking at the nature of almost every contract negotiation, and the ways by which we ascribe value to hockey players not based on their on-ice performance as much as to some combination of that performance and the perpetually present cap hit, it’s hard to imagine that these valuations are not also engrained in players’ heads. William Nylander grew up in the cap world; now, he plays in it. Or at least, he wants to, and he wants his money’s worth.
And yet today, we look to Kyle Dubas, with our questions and our befuddlement and our furstrations. We wait for news; for travel information; for trade rumors – for anything.
There’s a strong chance we may never know who is most responsible for today’s holdup. Whether Nylander’s camp is truly demanding the sun and the moon, or whether Dubas simply will not budge from a catastrophically low number may never be revealed to us.
What we do know is that the Leafs brass – past and present – is not blameless in creating a less-than-rosy current context in which Kyle Dubas must work. The Toronto Maple Leafs should not be in this situation, and yet they are.
So now, we wait.