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Should the Leafs plan for a year without Marner?

Yesterday I decided to float one of my hastily thrown together thoughts on twitter:

To my surprise it wasn’t met with immediate disgust, and threats on my life so perhaps it is something that warrants at least a little exploration.

At this point let’s look at what we know to be true.

  1. The Leafs have $68M committed to salary next season. That’s accounting for Nathan Horton being moved onto the Long Term Injured Reserve.
  2. The salary cap is expected to be around $83M. Of course it could go in the Leafs favour and be $85M or we could see it lower as well, but $83M seems to be the number everyone is comfortable with.
  3. In addition to Marner the Leafs need to sign Johnsson, Kapanen, and fill two more defense positions and one forward position. This is assuming that Justin Holl will be the only one sitting in the press box every night, and in reality there will probably be an additional forward sitting with him. Assuming that those 3 or 4 positions are filled by Marlies, you are still at a minimum out $2.8M.
  4. The Leafs didn’t get far this year and probably want to upgrade. Or we could just hope that promoting Rosen, Sandin, Korshkov, and Mikheyev get it done.
  5. Mitch Marner isn’t going to be cheap. It seems like a lot of people have at least made their piece with Marner making around $9.5M, even if that is also pretty damned high, but rumours of $11.5M being floated, the Leafs could really be hooped.

So basically with a $9.5M Marner on a $83M cap, the Leafs will have spent $81M before they have signed Kapanen and Johnsson. They will also have replaced Gardiner and Hainsey with Marlies, and yes, Garret Sparks is still the backup. Something has to give.

The options…

Let’s assume you want to float one of the many other options that involve Patrick Marleau waiving his complete No Movement Clause and the Leafs being freed from the burden of his $6.25M cap hit. Cool. I’d like to pretend that can happen too, but it’s crazy to be counting on it. The odds of finding a willing team, and Marleau being willing to go there is slim to none. He could retire and it would just be a matter of trading his cap space, but given that he’s said he’ll be back next year with a brand new stick, I wouldn’t count on Marleau movement being the answer.

Zaitsev movement. This is probably just as unlikely, at least not without taking back something undesired in return. A Zaitsev move is to get Zaitsev off the books, not to completely answer the Marner cap space issue. Again, I would be thrilled to be wrong on this but I am unwilling to count on it.

Trading Nylander means selling low on Nylander. Also trading Nylander before getting Marner’s deal done is handing over a lot of leverage to Mitch in his negotiations. That’s a big no from me. Oddly enough the rough season from Nylander means keeping him makes even more sense.

Any deals involving Kapanen, Kadri, Johnsson. Sure and they are likely to happen no matter what, but wouldn’t it be better if the deals were done to upgrade the Leafs instead of dump cap hits? The reality is that this will be the way the organization goes and at minimum one of these players will likely have a new team next year.

Playing hardball with Mitch

We haven’t exactly seen hardball from Kyle Dubas so far. What we have seen is paying players what they want, and a shift towards the core of the team being happily compensated and the rest of the roster will likely be filled with entry level contracts, market inequities, last chance veterans, and Patrick Marleau. All signs point to Kyle Dubas not lowballing Marner and focusing on the speed of getting the contract done so he can plan his next steps out. I’m always going to assume that Dubas is a planner, I respect that. Planning is in the title of my day job so I better like it, and his philosophy makes a lot of sense, but there is no denying that he’s hampered by a couple of contracts that he doesn’t want and he’s likely to be confronted with contract demands so absurd that hardball is the only option.

Here’s the thing when you look at the top 20 scorers around the league, you can immediately see that Mitch Marner was the top scorer who currently doesn’t have a contract for next season. That’s going to give him some leverage. Secondary to that, While we see that Nikita Kucherov has set the bar for the 2019-20 contacts, it’s likely to be dismissed by the no tax state factor, the chance to play on a top team factor. The problem is, it shouldn’t be and should likely be viewed as the ceiling for a potential deal for Marner.

People are going to want to point to that Draisaitl deal as a reasonable deal for Marner, especially since it was viewed as an absolutely ridiculous deal at the time it was signed. Draisaitl was coming off a 77 point season playing almost exclusively with Connor McDavid as a 21 year old. Marner has 94 points playing almost exclusively with John Tavares as a 21 year old. I love me some John Tavares, but it is safe to say that a case can be made for paying Marner more than Draisaitl, even if Draisaitl’s deal included the factor of him being moved to center.

Pretty much every contract signed in 2016-17 looks ridiculously favourable, and probably needs to be excluded from the conversation, unfortunately. The only explanation is that every NHL agent took the summer off. Since that time we’ve seen a steady upward trend of top players being paid top dollars, and it’s a hard case to say that Mitch Marner doesn’t deserve Jack Eichel money when Mitch Marner has been better than Jack Eichel. The only catch is that Eichel is a center.

While hardball looks well… hard, the great equalizer probably comes in the form of endorsements. Mitch Marner loves endorsements. There’s a good chance that one of the ads on the side of this page includes Mitch Marner right now.

The hardball comes into play when you realize that national ads dry up when you’re not a Maple Leaf. Local ads in other Canadian markets don’t pay what they do in Toronto. And Americans generally don’t want hockey players selling them things outside of a hockey broadcast, and if you’re not in New York or Chicago you’re probably not getting anything national. Mitch would be leaving a ton of money on the table if he challenges Toronto. Mitch also isn’t going to draw in a whole lot of new ad opportunities when his future in Toronto is uncertain. He should be motivated to make Toronto work.

Which brings us to what if he’s not signed on July 1st

Kyle Dubas has stated that signing Mitch Marner is his priority. He’s not interested in a long ongoing battle like he went through with Nylander. We also learned from the Nylander situation that a player missing training camp plus the first two months of the season can yield some less than stellar production. The Leafs sat through free agency and the first two months of the season with essentially dead cap space that was earmarked for William Nylander and when they got him, well, it looked liked they should have dealt him at the draft and re-signed van Riemsdyk (the long game should redeem Nylander, but this is reality at this point.)

Kyle Dubas seems to be a guy who learns from his mistakes, and I’m also willing to concede that he’s smarter than me. He knows the price he’s comfortable with on Mitch Marner. He’s done the risk analysis on overpaying him, trading him, letting him sign an offer-sheet and likely what I’m suggesting, keeping Marner out for a year. He has said never again to the Nylander situation, but that doesn’t mean that Marner and his camp aren’t going to force his hand on that.

This risk on overpaying Marner is that likely a good player will have to be dealt, and the Leafs loading up their roster for a cup run this season will be compromised, and swinging for the fences on young players, European signings, and redemption stories will have to replace chasing bona fide talents.

The risk on trading Marner is that you’ve just traded Mitch Marner. You’ve probably got back at best a lesser talent at a position of need and a few lottery tickets. The cap space issue is gone, but it’s going to suck seeing Mitch Marner in the top ten for scoring for the next decade knowing that you’ve probably picked up only a second pairing defenseman, hit or miss prospect, and late 1st round pick.

Given that Mitch Marner really seems to like making money I don’t think it’s absurd to at least give some consideration to him signing an offer-sheet. Odds are if it falls in the range of the 2 1sts, a 2nd, and a 3rd as the draft pick compensation for him, you match on Marner. If you stand to pick up 4 1st round picks for Marner, you roll the dice and accept the risk. You’ve now picked up 4 somewhat decent lottery tickets and a ton of cap space to chase a couple of the guys I’m mentioning below…

The pros and cons of letting Mitch Marner sit

So let’s say Mitch Marner isn’t signed heading into the draft. You’re Kyle Dubas and you’re listening to ridiculous low ball trade offers on him all weekend, and at the same time are dealing with an agent who keeps shouting “AUSTON MATTHEWS MONEY” and that is willfully parroted by every hockey “insider” within earshot. There are no deals to be had either by signing Marner to deal that would halt the improvement of your roster, or by trading him for assets that could be found at a fraction of the price a couple days later in free agency. It’s time to consider the nuclear option of holding Mitch out of the NHL for a season.

The Pros to doing this:

  • You eventually still have Mitch Marner, just not until 2020-21
  • You also don’t need to trade Andreas Johnsson, William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, or Kasperi Kapanen to clear cap space
  • You now have money to spend in a free agent pool that currently includes Erik Karlsson, Jeff Skinner, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and a few other interesting options like Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Kevin Hayes, and yes, Jake Gardiner (I acknowledge this is very much a con for a large portion of readership, and I myself am on the fence here.)
  • You’re really playing hardball now and you get a deal signed at something that doesn’t make him the highest paid winger of all-time.

The Cons to doing this:

  • No Mitch Marner for this season.
  • You’ve possibly torched this bridge so badly he’s not coming back to the Leafs and you’ll spend the next year hunting for the best trade option.
  • The year out of the NHL puts a significant dent in his future production.
  • You took the money earmarked for Marner and spent a good chunk of it on Tyler Myers.

To call all of this an oversimplification is an understatement and I’ve left out a lot of other options and contingencies, one of which is a one year deal that sells Marner short this season, but makes things right for the next eight. Additionally, if you’re the Leafs do you keep some money available to do this one year bridge for Marner on December 1st?

The moral of the story is that there is a lot that goes into a contract negotiation and consideration needs to be given to the person, the player, and the salary cap hit. So far the story that is being told is that Mitch Marner is going to take the Leafs to the cleaners, and given the Nylander and Matthews contracts, there is no reason to assume there will be any favourable discount occurring for a team owned by two of Canada’s richest telecommunications companies.

The other side of the story being told is that the Leafs hold a lot more cards going into these negotiations than the player and the agent do. The Leafs control what contract gets put in front of Marner, they have control over if they want to match an offersheet, they have the power to trade him, and if a deal isn’t done, they still hold the rights to Marner in the NHL as long as they qualify him. Additionally delays to the process are going to impact Marner’s endorsement opportunities.

While not playing Marner may seem harsh, if after two months of intense negotiations done in earnest don’t yield a workable a result, why wouldn’t this at least be considered?

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    • Alan

      The article is right. Signing Marner to a ridiculous contract is going to kill the team. If he loves the Leafs as much as he says he should sign a manageable deal, take the endorsements which he won’t get anywhere else and keep the Leafs competitive for next season. Otherwise Dubas is going to lose a load of players, Johnsson, Kappy, Kadri, just to accommodate him. It’s too much. Signing Marner could kill the Leafs and the team is more important than any individual.

  • Foximus

    I think Marner has proven he deserves to be compensated along with the top players in the game. I understand everyone saying he should take a team friendly deal but I disagree. The guys that should take team friendly deals are the guys in their 30’s who have already had 10+ yrs of great pay days. Dubas created this situation- we all saw it coming – it’s up to him to figure it out. Marner should be getting at least 10 million per season – it will look a bargain in a few years. Marner is a local boy who loves the team and the endorsement deals are great – but he gets those because of his performance and personality. Marner deserves to be paid. Management needs to figure it out.