RFAs, the Series: Mitch Marner

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.

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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.

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The Player

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.

The Numbers

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.

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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.

The Money


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.

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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
Mitch Marner 8 $9,790,057 1.8% 0.8% 2.2% 0.6% 20.8% 24.4% 6.8% 42.6% $9,130,616 $6,553,333 $7,676,507 $8,393,417 $8,600,202 $9,046,822 $8,408,596 $9,790,057

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.

Educated Guess

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

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Realistic: $10.5M x 6 years

Pessimistic: Traded

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?

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Let me know what you think in the comments!

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  • StubbleJumper

    This is a game of brinksmanship between Dubas and Marner’s agent. Honestly, anyway you slice it, the Leafs can’t afford to pay Marner more than $9.5M per (term negotiable but they have to get through next year at no more than 9.5), unless they are willing to lose Kappy AND Johnsson along with the UFAs already heading out the door. If Marner pushes this beyond July 1st, I think the Leafs are forced into a trade scenario, which is a card they could play and it might bring Marner to that number if he really does not want to leave Toronto. But if they call each other’s bluff, the Leafs can’t wait this out and sign in December like they did with Nylander, and Marner goes on the block. I would hate to see it but the closer this gets to July 1st … Of course a major salary dump of some sort – Marleau gone for example – might save the day. It kind of makes me wish Marner’s deal was settled last year and it was Nylander up for negotiation this year. I want to keep them both… but Dubas’ comment, “we can and we will” seems very far fetched now.

    • Bob Canuck

      Why would you trade Marleau for Phaneuf?

      All figures per CapFriendly.

      If you buy Marleau out, the cash cost is $3,833,333 and the cap hit is $6,250,000; the cap hit would only occur in the 2019-2020 season. If you buy Phaneuf out, the Leafs/Kings share of the cash cost would be $6,875,000; their share of the cap hit would be $8,375,000. Phaneuf’s buy-out cap hit would be as follows: 19/20 – $2,187,500; 20/21 – $4,062,500; 21/22 – $1,062,500; and 22/23 – $1,062,500. (Note that Ottawa retained 25% of Phaneuf’s compensation when he was traded to the Kings).

      I don’t see how a Marleau-Phaneuf trade benefits the Leafs. From a hockey perspective, Phaneuf is barely a bottom-pair D-man; Phanuef is not worth a $7,000,000 cap hit in each of 19/20 and 20/21. Compared to Marleau’s buy-out cap hit, Phaneuf’s approximate $4,000,000 buy-out cap savings in 19/20 is offset by an almost $4,000,000 higher buy-out cap hit in 20/21. Plus there is an additional buy-out cap hit of $1,000,000 in each of 21/22 and 22/23.

      A Marleau-Phanuef trade would benefit the Kings not the Leafs.

  • Stan Smith

    I have been saying for awhile now that I think, when it is all said and done, the Marner deal will look something like $10.5M over 6 years, as you have written. My thinking is, first for a team to offer Marner more, they have to have their 1st round picks over the next 4 years, and second, they have to have the cap space. How many teams get eliminated from the equation because they don’t have one or the other? As for the teams that do have the 4 – 1st round picks, and the cap space, how many GM’s are going to risk a deal that could haunt them for 4 years, if for some reason, be it injury, or whatever, it doesn’t work out? If a team offers less than the 4 -1st picks threshold, they suffer, draft-wise for only 2 seasons, losing 2 – 1sts, a 2nd, and a 3rd. With that being the case, then $10.5 is the maximum number.

    As for term, the Leafs are going to want to go as long as possible to buy as many UFA years as possible. Marner will probably want to go 5 years, similar to Matthews, to buy up his RFA years, but not touch his UFA years. The Leafs are not going to sign a 5 year deal, and have all 3 of MNM come due at the same time, as you wrote. Marner is not going to sign a deal that ends with any RFA years remaining. Conclusion? The deal ends up 6 years. The Leafs benefit by buying one UFA year. Marner benefits because he gets to go last again, and sees what Matthews and Nylander sign for, before his turn comes up.

    • Bob Canuck

      Marner only has four RFA seasons remaining; a 6-year deal would include two UFA years not one. Matthews 5-year deal included one UFA season.

      (An excerpt from the CBA)

      ARTICLE 10


      10.1 Unrestricted Free Agents.

      (a) Group 3 Players and Free Agents.

      (i) Any Player who either has seven (7) Accrued Seasons or is 27 years of age or older as of June 30 of the end of a League Year, shall, if his most recent SPC has expired, with such expiry occurring either as of June 30 of such League Year or June 30 of any prior League Year, become an Unrestricted Free Agent. Such Player shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with any Club, and any Club shall be completely free to negotiate and sign an SPC with such Player, without penalty or restriction, or being subject to any Right of First Refusal, Draft Choice Compensation or any
      other compensation or equalization obligation of any kind.