No matter what’s going on behind the scenes, it appears the next couple months are going to be a tumultuous time for the Leafs as far as media coverage goes. With questions about Babcock’s return and the pending restricted free agents that will have an enormous impact on the team’s cap situation, it’s no wonder every day we’re treated to a quote through one of the big sports outlets like Sportsnet or TSN about how important (or potentially devastating) this offseason will be. It’s Toronto, it’s expected.
But to zero in on the Mitch Marner contract negotiation, easily most dominant story to this point, it’s interesting how this one in particular is playing out over the airwaves. To put it bluntly, I think Marner’s “camp” is putting on a clinic on how negotiating through the media in the largest hockey media market can actually work and be effective. I mean, whoever is driving this whole thing – his agent, family, Marner himself – has been knocking this thing out of the park in terms of getting that side’s message out there. Credit where it’s due.
Think about it: Since about February or even earlier, we’ve heard almost-weekly that Mitch Marner is looking to get Auston Matthews money — according to a number of sources, Marner firmly believes he’s worth every bit as much to the Leafs. That reached a tipping point when MM’s agent went public to trash the Leafs for Matthews’ new contract, on the day it was signed no less. It was ugly. And now, with the Leafs’ season over and the focus shifted to the summer, that’s evolved into a daily occurrence – Marner’s most obvious water carrier being Darren Dreger of TSN, but everyone’s willing to pass along this information.
And consider what it’s done. By repeating it every day to anyone who’ll listen, Marner’s influence on the media has brought us into a world where a meaningful portion of the fanbase believes that he is worth around $11.6-million annually, the same as Matthews. But perhaps even more importantly, it’s shifted an even larger part of the base to look at, say, $10-million AAV or so like it’s reasonable. It isn’t. None of this is. But the whole negotiation, or at least the way it’s being perceived by the masses, has shifted into this new framework. It’s a masterclass in using the biggest media megaphone there is to move the conversation.
Marner is a great player, an absolute fan favourite in Toronto for good reason, but at the end of the day he is a high-scoring winger with obvious comparables coming out of this first contract. Players like Mikko Rantanen in Colorado, Sebastian Aho in Carolina, Brayden Point in Tampa (though he’s a C), and Matthew Tkachuk in Calgary are all part of an impressive RFA group that will be looking to get paid this summer. They’re all more-or-less as good as Marner, and have the counting stats to show for it, but we don’t hear anything about them looking for $11.6-million a year. Because frankly, that’s absurd. Given Marner’s track record there isn’t much to truly separate him from this group, and John Tavares’ impact on his recent numbers have to be factored in. But both get conveniently overlooked when insiders weigh in on where this negotiation with the Leafs is going. There’s also the fact that Kane and Kucherov get dropped as high-priced comparables when both are on their third contracts that buy up far more (or exclusively) UFA years. Seems like an important point to overlook.
It makes you wonder whether or not the Leafs’ management group, namely Kyle Dubas, should try to get this thing in hand and put their own message out there. Maybe the Leafs aren’t supposed to engage in this back-and-forth, but what if Dubas just went on the radio or television and said, when asked about this difficult negotiation that “There’s a big crop of good RFA comparables coming up this summer, so we’ll have to look at how things work out” or something along those lines. Perhaps a quick explainer on how buying UFA versus RFA years works. I think this would in some way take away from the bubble of “$11.6-million” talk that Marner’s camp has created, and quiet some of this nonsense about Kane and Kucherov.
By repeatedly being able to leak this talking point over and over, Marner’s side has drummed up a substantial amount of anchoring bias to that huge number Matthews will be taking in starting next season. People are pinned to it, and anything less now will appear as a bit of a discount. It might frustrating to watch from a fan perspective, but in terms of playing this media game, it really is impressive. And maybe it could only work in a place like Toronto.