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A Marner bridge deal to make us all happy

The restricted free agent dominoes haven’t quite started to fall just yet, but with the signing of Blue Jackets’ defenceman Zach Werenski this morning, the talk of comparable value is sure to take off again for the next couple days, especially with training camps opening this week. Given Werenski is a blue-liner, his signing doesn’t do much to move the needle on Mitch Marner and other big name forwards like Point, Rantanen, and Tkachuk, but the structure – a three year bridge that averages out to $5-million annually – can give us some inspiration for a Marner deal if he chooses to go short term.

Werenski’s contract shakes out like this: $4-million in year one, $4-million in year two, and a jump to $7-million in year three. Now at first glance this goes against what we’re used to seeing with front-loaded contracts where as much money is dished out early as possible. But in a bridge contract where Werenski will still be an RFA in three years, it makes sense to go this route. Remember when the Senators had to tender a qualifying offer to Cody Ceci worth $4.3-million and the Leafs had to honour it? That offer is based on real salary, not AAV, so in three years when Werenski is up for another negotiation, the Jackets will have to qualify him at $7-million. That’s a nice starting point if nothing is worked out beforehand.

If the Toronto Maple Leafs go the bridge route with Marner, I think we can probably expect something similar. But don’t get your hopes up too much, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that Marner settles for $5-million AAV. It’s been known he’s shooting for huge money, in the area of Auston Matthews’ $11.634-million on a long term deal. For that reason we’ve seen bridge options usually in the realm of $8.7 to 9.5-million annually.

Starting there is a bit too high, so let’s try this instead: Mitch Marner signs with the Leafs for three years for $22.5-million. That comes out to a cap hit of $7.5-million AAV, but can be structured as follows: $6-million in year one, $6-million in year two, and $10.5-million in year three.

This gives the Leafs some good flexibility, doesn’t align his next negotiation with other stars on the team, and brings that qualifying offer to a point of already being in the stratosphere of Tavares and Matthews on the next go-round. There is a level of risk on the Leafs’ end here of course, given that if they haven’t worked out a new contract in that final summer Marner could just accept his qualifying offer and go to free agency a year later. But I don’t think this whole thing has ever been about Marner getting out of Toronto as soon as possible, nor will it ever be. It’s just about being paid in line with Tavares and Matthews in a time the Leafs really can’t afford to…yet.

Of course, even though this would be the richest bridge deal in history, it might still not be enough given what we’ve heard about Marner’s contract demands to this point. So let’s plug this same idea in to the bottom end of “doesn’t make us all happy” territory and aim for $8.7-million AAV. On a three year that’s obviously a $26.1-million dollar contract, which we can split off the payments like this: $7-million in year one, $8.1-million in year two, and $11-million in year three. Precedent-busting, not team friendly, but that probably gets the deal done, with Marner up for a huge qualifying offer in three years where the Leafs would probably be forced to give him Matthews money anyway if he keeps up his production. We can also assume in the opening two years the team ponies up with significant signing bonuses. It’d be tough to be happy about this one as someone who wants the team to avoid being cap-strapped, but as I’ve pointed out this week, we might have to start resigning ourselves to the bridge deal anyway. It just depends now on how true the reports have been about what Marner is shooting for, or if the Leafs can keep this whole thing rooted in reality. As we keep learning, they certainly have a lot of options and there are a lot of structural elements to consider and reconsider.