After what seemed like an eternity, even though it was only ~16 months, each of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ young stars is signed until the end of the 2024 season. So, please, for the sake of your own sanity (and mine), do not start hollering about Morgan Rielly yet.
For the first time in over a decade, this should be a season in which Leafs fans can comfortably sit back and say, “My team has young stars who are fun to watch, with no looming negotiations.” I guarantee a portion of this fan base will still find something to complain about, but I strongly recommend you avoid that portion, whether on Twitter, or in some underground bar.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, full disclosure: I was preparing to write a “Is it time to discuss whether Ferris is negotiating in bad faith,” article. There were a litany of signs and leaks that this was the case, but holy hallelujah, we have a contract! So, let’s discuss it.
Dom Luszczyszyn and Justin Bourne of the Athletic both had great pieces on the Marner contract, and I highly recommend you read those. Do I think this is a good contract? I do not. I firmly believe Marner was worth no more than 8mill on a bridge, and no more than 9.593 (oh, we will talk about the number thing) on a longer-term deal. However, given the roughly same amount of money, would you rather have Marner/Matthews or Beagle/Sutter/Eriksson/Myers?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. If your team is going to overpay, at least have it be on the superstars, not on depth players.
One caveat is it’s nice to see young players, or players of such value, getting paid. This nonsense of “you play a sport, so just appreciate it,” is crap. It’s so common in sports — especially among off-ice staff — that people aren’t paid what they are worth. So, kudos to every young player who is bucking this trend in hockey. Good on them.
Do fans like Barkov, MacKinnon, Pastrnak deals because it helps their cap? Sure. But take a step back, and ask yourself if you would be happy if your boss decided to only pay you 60% of your worth. I think not.
Overpaying Your Stars
So, where does that leave the Leafs? Well, let’s start with one of the first things that popped into my head.
If I see/hear a single soul discussing William Nylander’s contract as any type of overpayment, it’s an autoblock or the end of an in-person discussion. Nylander has the most valuable contract of Toronto’s Big Four, and it’s not even close.
While he didn’t put the puck in the net last season, Nylander’s play driving, transition and scoring-chance generating stats were all very positive. But alas, Leafs fans just want results, which brings me to the crux of this article: everything is all rainbows and unicorns when you’re (rightly) outperforming your ELC, but once you’re getting paid the big bucks, there are big expectations. Expectations that you are consistently expected to meet or exceed.
Leafs fans are very unforgiving to players who get paid and don’t meet those expectations, as they should be. A sizeable chunk of the fan base wanted to ship Nylander out for half of a bad season. Others were saying the Leafs have cap issues because they signed Tavares, who scored 47 (!) goals for them.
Very rarely do teams have cap issues because their stars are not performing up their contracts. Teams have issues because management overpays — both in dollar and term — to mediocre players who underperform to their value.
Look at Vancouver, for example. Brock Boeser is without a contract at the moment because management decided that signing Tyler Myers to $6 million AAV, and having Roussell and Beagle around were more important. Are the Canucks unable to afford Boeser because he’s asking for more than he’s worth? Of course not.
No, the Canucks can’t afford Boeser because they are paying mediocre players far more than they are worth.
Now that we’ve established that overpaying your stars is better than the inevitable overpayment for mediocre players (Chiarot) or non-stars (Kevin Hayes), let’s focus on what the expectations should be.
As a team, frankly, they should be very high. The Leafs are a top offensive team in the NHL and boast a top-nine that is incredibly loaded with both skill and speed. Without a doubt, the Leafs should be top-three in total goals scored, even-strength goals, and high danger scoring chances, as a team. They shipped out Kadri and turned him into Tyson Barrie, so I’d expect the puck movement out of the defensive end, and in transition, to improve from the top four (Rielly, Barrie, Muzzin, Dermott).
Summed up, the Leafs should be a nightmare for teams to deal with in these 4 areas: transitioning with speed, scoring off the rush, offensive zone play, and especially, on the power play.
How you will know this (other than goals) is that their controlled zone exits and entries should rank highly, and anything less than a top-three finish in high danger scoring chances should be deemed unsatisfactory. Moreover, the power play should be a top-five attack for the duration of the season, too.
Now that we’ve cleared up offensive expectations as a team, let’s chat about how certain players are going to live up to expectations. The clue is in the title: the pressure to perform for the Big Four has arrived, and will be unrelenting.
In my eyes, if you’re a forward and being paid above 10% of the cap (8.15 AAV), you should be scoring at a point per game. When you’re being paid 14% and 13% of the cap, I’m expecting a little bit more — chief among them, you need to be driving your own line. If you aren’t, then the expectations are even higher because you are playing with another superstar.
Now, they are different types of players, so let’s start at the top.
Auston Matthews makes the most of the bunch, therefore, we should expect the most out of him. Namely, he needs to stay healthy. In 82 games, Matthews should be aiming for 45 goals, and certainly no less than 40. He’s a goal scorer. And if you’re making 14% of the cap, you need to be scoring more than 40 on an annual basis, and even coming close to 50.
Further to that, Matthews should be getting at least 90 points, contributing at both ends of the ice, and playing ~16 mins a night at even strength.
Next up is John Tavares. Tavares is coming off a career-high season, just got his running mate back, and therefore, another 40 goals is a fair expectation. If the 1st PP unit plays ~90 secs (which it should), I’d expect Tavares to have ~25 points on the PP. Defensively, he needs to be a penalty killer, and should be the centre that Babcock depends on to shut games down. Tavares did a terrific job in the playoffs when tasked with exactly that, and giving him the hard assignments while putting up points is exactly how he will earn his money.
The last of the 10%+ club is Mitch Marner, and he’s going to get his own paragraph. But, let’s qualify it first: goal scoring is more valuable than assists. Primary assists are an indication of repeatable offence and are very valuable, but still not as valuable as a goal. Playing centre is objectively harder than playing the wing.
Justin Bourne did an entire breakdown on this exact topic and if you disagree, well, you are wrong. There’s no opinion, it is fact. This is why premier centres should make the most; a la McDavid, Matthews, and Crosby (when he signed). It is also why, with the exception of Mark Stone, centres should (and do) win the Selke.
Now, Matthews signed with his number in the cap hit and all I could hear about the past eight months was that the Marner camp believes he’s just as good as Matthews. Mitch Marner is an exceptionally talented hockey player, and arguably the most entertaining on the entire Leafs roster, but he’s a winger and he doesn’t score, which makes it a little less valuable. Even still, all this hoopla about needing 11 million, and not getting consideration for the captaincy (which he shouldn’t), and having to sign a contract with #93 — his favourite number — in it, is just a little ridiculous.
So Mitch, you want to be like Auston? Well, then you get the same level of expectations.
If you’re not scoring goals, you need a ton of assists, which likely means he will have the most points on the team. There are two assists for every goal. Marner should be aiming for 70 assists, primarily because it is attainable, but 65 assists are baseline the expectation.
At 5v5, Marner should be hitting 2.5 PRIMARY points per 60 minutes. On the power play, 23 points should be the minimum, with him aiming for closer to 28. All things considered, anything less than 90 points when you factor in that he’s responsible for less as a winger, is below expectations.
We haven’t even mentioned that Marner also has the luxury of not having to drive his own line because he plays with Tavares…which is a luxury that Matthews does not have (Nylander is still great). But, if you’re going to have almost 30% of your cap on the same line, both of them had better produce more than anyone else. While he’s still continuing to develop, Marner is capable of hitting 100 points during the duration of his contract, probably even multiple times. That is not a fair expectation right now, but it should be what he’s aiming toward.
If he hits 100 points, he will be outperforming the value of the contract and Leafs fans will be singing his praises.
The last of the bunch is William Nylander, and that 6.9 AAV seems like a bargain now. He’s making nearly $4 million less per season than Marner, and he’s almost certainly going to have close to 70 points annually from here on out. At a minimum, Nylander needs to be rattling off 60-point seasons.
While Nylander is a transition darling, he doesn’t have the same expectations as the guys making double digits. Marner and Tavares are expected to do more than Matthews and Nylander (not much) because both of those players should be driving their own line. However, the combo of Matthews and Nylander has worked and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue. Nylander is better defensively than fans give him credit for, and he’s an incredible transition player. That is valuable, and if Matthews meets his expectations, it will probably mean Nylander is meeting or exceeding his.
Now we’ve gone over the regular season, let’s, in one short paragraph go over the playoffs.
If the Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup, Matthews and Marner need to be putting up a point per game, at least. Tavares will need to be the shutdown guy, just as he was against Boston (and mighty effective), as well as producing about 0.8 points per game.
All of the Leafs Big Four need to be strong defensively to shut down other opponents, they all need to be playing key situations, and with their talent, shouldn’t be outplayed offensively by anyone. If the Leafs are going to succeed, it will be on the shoulder of those four, Morgan Rielly and Freddy Andersen.
Outlook For the Future
To end this, three players are making 40% of the Leafs’ cap, and rightly, they have significantly higher expectations than the other 60% of the roster. There is a different standard Matthews, Tavares and Marner should and will be held to. William Nylander and Morgan Rielly are NOT in that category. If you want to be paid like a superstar, you need to perform like a superstar.
Now, the Leafs are cap-strapped, but it’s because they are paying their superstars. This means the Leafs are going to need to fill out the rest of forwards spots with ELCs (Bracco, Robertson) and value contracts (Spezza/Ennis from last year) over the foreseeable future. To be fair, teams that win the Stanley Cup have young players over-performing their ELCs. The Leafs, with their stars, will be able to put the players on ELCs in a position to over-perform, especially if they are playing in the top-six. I would not be remotely surprised if Kapanen and Johnsson outperform their contracts, either.
Make no mistake, it is much better business to potentially overpay your most valuable assets than to definitely overpay for mediocre assets. You can be upset that the Leafs paid 40% of the cap to three guys, and specifically with Mitch. But, I can guarantee that Mitch Marner is going to provide more value than the combo of Marleau/Zaitsev for roughly the same AAV.
Toronto’s window is as wide open as it’s ever going to be right now. Larry Tanenbaum is writing some big cheques and has won before with the other jewels of MLSE (Raptors, Toronto FC, Marlies). Now he, and everyone else, is rightly expecting the crown jewel of Toronto sports to compete for the championship.
It isn’t fair to expect the Leafs to win, but it is absolutely fair to expect the Toronto Maple Leafs to be playing hockey in May, with the 40% club leading the way.