The Leafs can’t let Mitch Marner put them in salary cap hell

Mitch Marner wants to get paid. And what’s becoming more apparent by the day is that he wants to get paid as much as Auston Matthews, who just yesterday inked a $58.1-million deal stretched over the next five years – a cap hit of $11.634-million AAV.

In the simplest terms possible, the Leafs cannot and will not do that.

Marner is not as valuable to the Toronto Maple Leafs as Auston Matthews is, no matter how much some want to believe it. No doubt the former is phenomenal player, among the NHL’s best wingers with the likes of Sebastian Aho, Johnny Gaudreau, and David Pastrnak. The elite comparables for Marner are fairly easy to reel off, but that’s the key difference between #16 and #34; Matthews is a generational, his list of comparables is far different and quite slim. It basically goes like this: Who’s better? McDavid. Who’s near him? Probably Mackinnon and Eichel. That’s about it. They’re centers, and with that comes an entirely different conversation about value to the team and their hopes of winning a championship.

To have Matthews and Tavares locked in for the next six years is far more important to this team than having Marner and Tavares, if you had to choose between the two scenarios. Luckily Toronto doesn’t have to, they can get all three. But if Marner’s camp is adamant about getting him paid in double digits, Kyle Dubas has some major problems on his hands cap-wise. As the attention turns to this last hurdle in getting the team’s core locked up, it’s becoming clearer just how difficult it’ll be to make it all work.

How difficult?

That isn’t workable, even for a front office that knows the salary cap as inside and out as the Leafs’ evidently does. Toronto absolutely has to squeeze Marner into the $9.0-million range at worst, and even then that doesn’t alleviate everything. Factor in that Toronto still wants to make a play at keeping Jake Gardiner and, well, the numbers just can’t jive. That would be entirely impossible.

But they’ll just shed salary! Marleau and Zaitsev are as good as gone.

From the tiny amount of info I’ve gathered, the Leafs have been trying to move on from Zaitsev since last summer, ramping up efforts as we get closer to the deadline. There aren’t many suitors for a 6-point defenceman on an albatross of a long term contract apparently. Go figure. And secondly, Marleau has a no-movement clause through next season. He came to Toronto to contend, he isn’t going to waive and leave in 2019 when the team is peaking. That’s absurd. The assumption right now has to be that those guys aren’t going anywhere, and the best you can hope for is 1 for 2.

So Toronto has some incredible maneuvering to do, and you can see now why giving Matthews $12-13 million annually became out of the question. But with that comes the realization now that they can’t pay Marner whatever his “camp” keeps telling any media person who will listen.

Don’t get me wrong, Marner does deserve plenty of money; he is a star in the making and even a potential Art Ross contender. It’s just cresting that double digit AAV is too rich for this team as it’s going to be assembled. His case for a monster payday is strong, but with two 11-million dollar players already on the roster, Toronto’s case for having to grind him down is now far stronger. Perhaps (or most certainly) it’s Lou Lamoriello that helped put Toronto in this cap hell, with those aforementioned Zaitsev and Marleau contracts, but that’s what the front office is left to work with now. And that could make for some extremely difficult decisions around Marner this summer if he really thinks his group really believes he’s on the same plane as Matthews.

I didn’t quite believe it at first, but over the last 24-hours it’s become more evident that is the way they see things.

And as the Toronto Star reports, Marner’s agent took to a more pointed attack on the team last night. Regarding Matthews’ contract: “That’s probably the best contract in the NHL. There’s no team-friendly discount there.” And on why negotiations haven’t progressed this season and are on hold until this summer: “They’ve been trying to lowball (Marner). That’s the reason we’ve come to this point.” This seems like run-of-the-mill stuff for a contract negotiation, but to me it’s become a little surprising how strong the language has become already, and how the Marner side has been willing to dish to the media almost-daily.

When you take a second to look at how this can all shake out in the coming months, it probably isn’t an overstatement to say that Marner’s contract is and has always been the most important of all for this iteration of the team and where it can go. And every sense now points to, as far as the Leafs’ core goes, this last big negotiation certainly producing the most fireworks.

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  • Brandon

    At this point, it looks like it might go late with Marner. I don’t imagine we’ll see the offer sheet everyone is talking about, but if we do, Dubas will simply have to look at it and ask Mitch whether he wants to play in Toronto with good players, or to some small market team with money but little chance of winner, to get more cash. I feel for him. He is an amazing player and there’s an argument to be made that he’s as valuable as Matthews. But centres are a rarer commodity.

  • mst

    There are many ways this works out. But it’s not Marner putting the Leafs in Cap Hell. Marner is not the problem he’s the solution!

    I dont believe Marleau has any plans of playing an 82 game season for 1 million which is all that he’ll earn after July 1. That alone solves all salary cap problems. But if you need more cap space get rid of Nylander first.

  • FlareKnight

    That will be the challenge. And the Leafs may have to push on Marner harder than they’ve pushed anyone. Things could get messy. It might reach the wild position where the Leafs say “take a solid deal or we’ll take the first round picks if you sign the offer sheet.” They can’t put Marner in the 11 range. And if he/his agent/his father think differently…it might not lead to a fun conclusion.

    Hopefully it doesn’t. Be great to just work it out and keep Marner long term.