Kicking off this year’s RFA contracts series with a bang, it seems most prudent to talk about the star forward on the Maple Leafs who needs a new contract.
All indications point to the Leafs and Marner being pretty far apart at this point in their negotiations, but that gap could close at any point and become a signed contract, or could collapse wider and become a trade. As such, Mitch Marner will be this year’s first RFA contract.
For anyone who hasn’t read this series in the past, the purpose is to discuss the player and their performance, along with their contract comparables, and then use that information to make educated guesses about what their new contract may be. I like to do this with RFAs only, because the team has a lot more control, and are much more likely to stay with the team. Also there’s just not as many of them.
In last year’s series, I began with William Nylander’s pending contract negotiations in a similar concern for prudence. Obviously, that was a misestimation, as it wasn’t until December 1st of that year when he finally signed. Before we get into Marner as a player, it’s important to note that the Leafs simply can’t afford to let that happen with Marner. When Nylander signed, his cap hit for that season became pro-rated to $10.2M for that season, and just under $7M for the next 5 years, instead of the straight average of $7.5M. With Marner, that would be impossible for the Leafs to manage, since they’re going to be a lot tighter to the salary cap in the coming season.
As such, there’s definitely going to be more pressure for the Leafs to sign early, and more leverage for Marner to push for more from the Leafs in hopes that they crack under said pressure.
Another significant factor in this negotiation is the potential for an offer sheet. Despite Marner being a restricted free agent, meaning that Toronto controls his contract rights, other teams are able to make offers to Marner after July 1st. If Marner accepts their offer, the Leafs have the opportunity to match that amount and keep Marner on their team. Or, they can choose to let Marner go, and that team would be forced to pay Toronto compensation, based on the amount of money he signs for. Here is the table showing compensation amounts:
|Cap Hit / Annual Average Value||Compensation|
|Less than $1,395,053||No Compensation|
|$1,395,054 to $2,113,716||Third-round pick|
|$2,113,717 to $4,227,437||Second-round pick|
|$4,226,438 to $6,341,152||First and third-round picks|
|$6,341,153 to $8,454,871||First, second and third-round picks|
|$8,454,872 to $10,568,589||Two firsts, a second and third-round picks|
|$10,568,590 or greater||Four first-round picks|
Another team would have to offer more than the amount that requires four first-round picks in order for Toronto to consider letting Marner go. They both cannot afford to keep Marner on a contract that expensive, and the compensation is enough of a return that the loss will be mitigated. For this reason, I believe that if Marner is given an offer sheet for more than $10,568,590 in annual average value, that the Leafs will be forced to accept. I also believe that, for these reasons, Toronto will not sign Marner for more than $10,568,590, because it would be better for them to either take the four firsts, or trade Marner to a team willing to pay a package better than that.
With this all in mind, let’s look at Marner’s role on the Leafs.
It may be obvious to say that Mitch Marner is the best winger on the Leafs, and one of the best players on the team overall.
Marner’s role has steadily grown since he joined Toronto’s NHL club, from 3rd line duty with Bozak, to 2nd line duty with Kadri, to 1st line minutes with John Tavares. He also took on penalty killing duties in this recent season, utilizing his speed and hockey IQ to close down the opposing powerplay better than the typical bottom-six PK specialist could.
His role on the top line will certainly be reflected in his paycheque. Other clear-cut first line wingers are definitely where we will be setting our eyes on when it comes to comparables.
Playing on the first line with an elite scoring talent like that is both a privilege and a responsibility, and Marner has certainly been up to the challenge offensively. He led the team for the second straight season in points, with 94 points, helping Tavares to score 47 goals.
To try to isolate Marner’s ability from Tavares’ ability to help him would be very difficult, and likely won’t make its way too significantly into this contract negotiation. However, it’s important to remember that while playing on the top line you earn the hardest competition, you also get the best teammates to play with, and over the course of a long season, the quality of your teamates is going to have more consistent positive effect than the quality of your competition will have in negative effects.
I would argue that they each make each other better, the way two star players on the same line should.
On the penalty kill, Marner was far and away the best penalty killer on the Leafs this year. While he was on the ice, they allowed the fewest goals per minute, and the fewest unblocked shots per minute.
Collectively, Mitch Marner has been a very solid performer for Toronto, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Here’s where things get a little bit tricky.
One of the most recently signed comparables is Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov recently signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning for 8 years at $9.5M. He has established himself as perhaps the best winger in the NHL. This is a tier that Marner is not on, but is close to. It’s also important to note that, as this article from Puck 77 by Chris Faria astutely points out, there are two reasons Marner and Kucherov are in pretty different situations.
1. While Marner may score 100 points himself, the difference is that Kucherov was a 25-year old with five seasons under his belt, moving onto his third contract, and had arbitration rights. Marner is 21, has a smaller body of work, is moving onto his second deal, and has no arbitration rights.
2. State tax in Florida is also much lower than Toronto, giving the Lightning the ability to pay players less: according to gavingroup.ca , Kucherov takes home $1.5 million more per year compared to if he played in Toronto.
A third point is the insane number of endorsements that Marner is able to earn being a star player in Toronto.
These things should all add up to Marner making less than Kucherov, but things don’t always work out the way they should.
Another way to do estimate a contract is by using a statistical model approach. The twins of Evolving Hockey developed a salary projection model that could be of great use. This takes all relevant statistics for a player, and some of the relevant factors in their negotiation (arbitration rights, restricted/unrestricted years) and figures out what the most likely contract will be, both in dollars and years.
For Mitch Marner, here’s what the model found:
|Player||Projected Term||Projected Cap Hit||1 yr prob||2 yr prob||3 yr prob||4 yr prob||5 yr prob||6 yr prob||7 yr prob||8 yr prob||1 yr||2 yr||3 yr||4 yr||5 yr||6 yr||7 yr||8 yr|
Once again, this model is calculating what should happen, or what is most likely to happen based solely on historical contract data, but that’s not all that factors in to a negotiation. There are other factors at play, such as state tax, endorsements, league sentiment, player personality, agent quality, and GM quality, that all collectively affect what the real number will be.
Knowing all of what we know from above, here’s what I would guess that Marner’s contract will work out to:
Optimistic: $9.75M x 7 years
Realistic: $10.5M x 6 years
As mentioned above, I think that if Marner and Toronto can’t come to a deal that puts his contract below $10,568,590 annually, the team will start a trading war that sells him to the highest bidder. They can set the minimum trade return at four first-round picks, or equivalent value, due to the offer sheet compensation. Any team can have him for four firsts, assuming Marner signs a deal with them. To win the auction for Marner, you could either pay him the most money on the offer sheet, crippling yourself financially, or offer a trade better than the four first-round picks to gain his contract rights, and then sign him for something more reasonable once you have that control.
I also believe that they will not accept a deal for less than 6 years. A deal for 5 years would have Nylander, Matthews and Marner all due for re-signing in the same year. That would be a nearly impossible portfolio for him to manage.
All in all, this is going to be a very difficult task for Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs to complete. What do you think he will sign for? Am I too low? Too high? Is trading him more likely than I think? Less likely?
Let me know what you think in the comments!