Photo Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

How I learned to love the (rumoured) Muzzin contract

By now we know a couple of things.

  1. The Leafs have a contract ready to go for Jake Muzzin, but do to the collective agreement the Leafs can’t announce it until March 1st.
  2. The contract is likely in the $5.5M range, it’s for four years, and it’s believed to be front loaded.

Via Darren Dreger:

“I believe there’s an agreement in place for Jake Muzzin to extend with the Toronto Maple Leafs [at] four years just over $5.5 million [per year],” Dreger said Thursday on Insider Trading. “I believe it’s a heavily front-loaded contract extension for Jake Muzzin. It will have some variety of forms of trade protection. Now, because of the tagging issues – the salary cap complications the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to wrestle with, I don’t believe that the Maple Leafs will announce are going to announce anything until perhaps later this month or early in March.”

All of these things fall into what should seemingly be considered good news, but given that Muzzin is older and showing some signs of wear and tear, we might need to take the long route to determining why this contract is good.

Before getting too far into this, first we’ll cover off why the contract isn’t happening until March 1st. It’s boring, but I’m sure some of you are mildly curious, and it has to do with tagging payroll for the summer and the upcoming season. The Leafs are presently limited to not exceeding the salary cap of this season for contract expenditures next year, that changes on March 1st, when teams can tag 10% above the current cap limit…

Article 50.5.c.ii.C

For all League Years of this Agreement except the 2012-13 League Year (in which case an Upper Limit of $70.2 million shall be used for the purpose of calculating Tagged Payroll Room as defined in Section 50.5(e)(iv)(C)(2)), beginning on March 1 of a given League Year through June 30 of that League Year, solely for purposes of calculating the amount of Tagged Payroll Room available to each Club, the Upper Limit shall be increased by ten (10) percent.

There. Neat. It makes sense, and once Muzzin is signed that pretty much puts all future re-signings on hold. The interesting thing here might be if the Leafs bring in additional salary at the trade deadline, which could push the Muzzin re-signing to a later date, but the safe bet is on Muzzin being signed on March 1st.

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As for the contract itself, 4 years at $5.5M/yr is right in the heart of what we’ve seen for UFA defensive signings in the past few years. Last summer Anton Stralman signed a 3 year $5.5M/ur deal at the age of 32, and Alex Edler signed a 3 year $6M/yr deal at the age of 33. Going an extra year with Muzzin certainly is a concern, and spending money on any defenseman over the age of 30 comes with a substantial risk, that people are right to point out, but ultimately it’s not a bad deal and the Leafs don’t have a ton of defensemen to fall back on.

Frontloading to the rescue…

The Leafs have the luxury of being owned by two telecommunications monopolies that can print endless money. To their credit, they’ve given the Leafs permission to blindly spend that money. Where this impacts the Muzzin contract is that the Leafs can front load year one and two of Muzzin’s contract, the two years the Leafs will definitely see the value in having him on their roster, and make the back two years affordable to some of the lower payroll teams around the league, where they will have the luxury of a decent defenseman with a high cap hit with significantly less salary attached to the deal.

July 1st signing bonuses will be a big part of this in addition to the front loading, and if Muzzin is dealt after a signing bonus is paid it’s possible the Leafs would even be able to get out from the contract in year two if necessary. It seems crazy to be already planning on dumping a player, who has been pretty darn good for the Leafs, but thinking two or three steps ahead and mitigating risk in contracts has to be part of the GM’s consideration.

Ideally the final couple years of the contract will also be set up to be buyout friendly as well, but we’ll have to wait and see what the deal actually looks like. My best guess is the Leafs go with a $9.25M year one, $6.2M year two, $4.15M year three, and $2.78M year four, with signing bonuses being the bulk of the contract in years 1-3.

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Options are limited

Looking to replace Muzzin seems like an uphill battle, and while I touched on the Stralman and Edler contracts, here are some other recent comparable UFA defensemen that have been signed…

JOSI 29 NAS 8 9.059 29-OCT-19
FAULK 27 STL 7 6.5 24-SEP-19
SPURGEON 29 MIN 7 7.575 14-SEP-19
GARDINER 29 CAR 4 4.05 6-SEP-19
MYERS 29 VAN 6 6 1-JUL-19
STRALMAN 32 FLA 3 5.5 1-JUL-19
EDLER 33 VAN 3 6 20-JUN-19
KARLSSON 29 SJ 8 11.5 17-JUN-19
SCHMIDT 27 VEG 6 5.95 25-OCT-18
ELLIS 27 NAS 8 6.25 14-AUG-18
JOHNSON 31 PIT 5 3.25 1-JUL-18
GREEN 32 DET 2 5.375 30-JUN-18
VLASIC 30 SJ 8 7 1-JUL-17

It’s safe to say that Vlasic contract is a stern warning for the Leafs, but also when you look at the recent signings of Faulk and Myers, it’s clear that unrestricted free agent defensemen are likely to be priced out of Toronto, unless you look at Jake Gardiner, who should have been retained somehow.

Looking at who may be available this summer that could possibly be considered an upgrade or at least similar talent level wise to Muzzin, the options are seemingly limited to Alex Pietrangelo, Torey Krug, Sami Vatanen, T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, and if we really want to stretch the options, Radko Gudas. Other than Radko Gudas, who I mainly just mention because I love Radko Gudas, all of these players are likely to get significant paydays if they hit free agency, and in the cases of Pietrangelo, Krug, and possibly Vatanen (depending on where he is traded to), they are likely to re-sign with their current clubs.

Muzzin is “blocking” Leafs youth

One of the arguments I’ve been hearing of late is that the Leafs shouldn’t re-sign Muzzin because he’s standing in the way of all the talent on the left side of the Leafs blueline. I think it’s important we take a moment to pause and chuckle at the idea of the Leafs defense being too talented.

While the Leaf side currently consists of Muzzin, Rielly, Dermott, and Sandin, which obviously pushes one of them either onto the Marlies, pressbox, right side, or out the door via trade, and there is some hope that Teemu Kivihalme could be a capable option next season as well, it’s a bit premature to assume that either Sandin or Dermott need top four minutes next season. It’s premature to assume that Rielly or Dermott can’t thrive on the right side, and it’s premature to assume that Rielly or Dermott’s contract will fit in with the direction the Leafs want to go. Muzzin is a safety net, and one that can allow for him to support the Leafs as much as they need over the next two years, and potentially be shown the door after that.

Muzzin’s first two years help run out the Sandin and Liljegren entry level deals. So if you want to look at it another way, the Leafs will be spending $7.36M on three defensemen over that time. That goes to $9.36M when you add in Justin Holl, and next season it’s $14.36M when you factor in Rielly, so that’s 5 out of 6 of your defensemen at less than 18% of your cap space. Given that’s 25% of your lineup card, that’s not bad and they can afford Muzzin at least for the short term.

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In short, bringing Muzzin back is good. His contract is fine, and it appears it will have the necessary outs the Leafs will require. I’m sure it will include no trade or no movement clauses for Muzzin as well, but that’s all manageable. The Leafs aren’t in a situation where they can walk away from a player who has improved their blueline, even if his age is beginning to show. Replacement options are limited, and the Leafs have gone out of their way over the past half decade to show how difficult it is to acquire a good defensemen. Moving on from the one true success story they’ve had seems like a bad idea.