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Photo Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Leafs Ditch Marner?

It felt like a match made in heaven.

The Leafs then-Assistant GM Mark Hunter walked up to the podium at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and clumsily said “I’m proud to announce, from the London Knights, Mitch Marner.”

To many the pick was no surprise, both due to Hunter’s familiarity with Marner from his time with the Knights, and also due to Marner being a kid from the Toronto area who grew up a Leafs fan. Marner had just finished toying with the Ontario Hockey League to the tune of 126 points in 63 games in the regular season, followed up by 16 points in 7 games in the playoffs. Those who watched the highlights from Marner’s draft and draft+1 year in the OHL saw a player with hockey IQ pouring out of his ears, who was clearly playing at a level far ahead of anyone else at his age.

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Marner made the NHL as a 19-year-old, the same year 18-year-old Auston Matthews and 20-year-old William Nylander became full-time Leafs. That first year was magical: powered in huge part by their young stars, the Leafs went from last place overall the prior season to making the playoffs as an eighth seed, pushing the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals to six games in the first round. Marner broke the Leafs rookie record for assists, which had stood since the 1940’s. It was a heck of a debut for all the team’s young stars, and Marner had come as advertised: an absolute puck wizard.

Over the span of his entry level contract, Marner put together one of the most impressive performances of any forward in the cap era. He places eleventh on this list of point-per-game performances by forwards over the span of their entry-level contract, and fourth among wingers.

As a person, Marner was instantly beloved by fans, who took to his bubbly, exuberant, kid-like personality. To many, he was living our wildest dreams: playing in the NHL for the team he grew up loving. He is the type of talent that makes your eyes widen when he picks up the puck, who does things the viewer (and most opponents) never could have anticipated, usually with great success.

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The Negotiation

You’ll notice the tone of this article up to this point is very positive towards Marner, which is not what you may have expected based on the title. I’m not here to bury Mitch Marner or take anything away from him, I’m here to talk about the reality of the situation the Leafs find themselves in.

Before the Marner negotiations kicked off in the summer of 2019, the Leafs had already gone through an extended negotiation with William Nylander the year prior that went deep into the fall. GM Kyle Dubas held firm on where he believed Nylander needed to slot within the team’s salary cap structure, with the end result being a literal last-minute agreement that saved Nylander from having to sit out the entire 2018-19 season. Nylander struggled after joining the season two months into it and never really found his game. It was a lost season, and both Dubas and Nylander took considerable heat for the contract that was signed. Flash forward one season later and the deal is looking like one of the best value contracts on the Leafs, all at the expense of roughly two months of service.

One of the interesting things about the Nylander negotiations was that they were mostly a quiet affair. Sure, fans and media got whipped up in the “will they or won’t they” nature of those talks, but details stayed within the boardroom, portraying the sense it was an amicable disagreement between parties committed to eventually come to a reasonable agreement.

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Flash forward to the summer of 2019: the Marner negotiations were polar opposite to the Nylander ones.

Things got ugly quickly. The Marner camp litigated their case through the media, attempting to put pressure on Dubas and company to get a deal done on their terms. Fans were shocked to hear the Marner camp was actively conspiring with other NHL teams to source offer sheets that would tie the Leafs’ hands. Leafs fans were aghast at the reported numbers that were being turned down by the player, including long-term (7 and 8-year) deals at $11M per year. The Marner camp allegedly wanted retroactive compensation for ELC bonuses not tendered to the player three years prior by then-Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who had a personal rule about rookie bonuses. Marner threatened to sign with a team in Switzerland if they couldn’t come to an agreement (a Darren Ferris Special). He reportedly wanted Auston Matthews money, which had many fans scratching their heads: Marner was a great talent but he wasn’t a 40-goal-scoring franchise centerman!

To fans, it was startling and bewildering behaviour from someone they had adopted as their hockey son. The adorable, smiling, happy-go-lucky Markham kid was gone: replaced by someone they thought they knew, but whose actions clashed with their earlier perceptions. It was a summer-long masterclass in self-inflicted reputation damage.

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Eventually, Marner got a great deal for himself at (arguably) great cost to the Leafs. For some reason, it appears the Nylander saga softened Dubas’ previously-established hardline approach to negotiating RFA deals. Perhaps it was the fear of having the talks extend into the season once again, resulting in another lost season from one of the Leafs’ stars. Both parties struck a deal on the second day of training camp in September, giving Marner a 6-year, $10.893M per year contract that was considered by many to be a substantial overpayment when looking at comparable players on similar term lengths.

From the moment that deal was signed, the expectations for and pressure on Mitch Marner skyrocketed. He was being paid well above what was projected by analysts, and to make matters worse other players from his free agency class were signing much more palatable deals with their teams in the direct aftermath of his deal. Fans wondered how the Leafs could compete against these other teams when our similar player costs so much more than theirs. With any contract comes the pressure to live up to it: with Marner and his outsized deal, many felt it would be difficult to meet those expectations.

The Current Reality

GM Kyle Dubas once famously said “we can and we will” when asked about how he was going to fit the contracts of Matthews, Marner and Nylander on the roster after signing John Tavares. Perhaps what he should have said was “we could, but should we?”

It is important to note that all of the Big 4 deals were signed under the impression that the salary cap ceiling would continue to go up as it naturally does, but with additional cash injections due to the addition of an expansion franchise and a new US TV broadcasting deal. In other words, making these significant investments in their best players would make things tight at first, but the Leafs would quickly find relief as the rising cap provided more room to breathe.

The Coronavirus pandemic changed everything. With a flattened or near-flat cap for at least the next 1-3 seasons, help is not coming in the form of free cap space. This may force Leafs management to re-evaluate their tactics to rebalance their roster.

I wrote about optimal roster construction a few months ago, but here are the basic findings of my research:

  • The Leafs currently have 49.7% of their cap tied up in their four highest-paid players.
  • The next closest foursome is San Jose at 42.3%, which represents a $6M difference between the Leafs and second place. That difference is an excellent top-4 defender’s salary!
  • When examining the final four teams in each of the last six playoffs, the average team spent 35.7% of their cap on their four highest-paid players, while Stanley Cup winners averaged 39.8%.

Simply put, a team as top-heavy as the Leafs has never done much damage in the playoffs. If the Leafs as they are currently constructed were ever to go on a deep run, they would be doing so as massive outliers.

Bang for your Buck

Because cap space is finite, it is paramount that teams try to extract as much value (or bang for their buck) from their existing contracts. This becomes exponentially more important for teams in cap binds like Toronto. The Leafs have done well to unearth value deals from free agency for Tyler Ennis and Jason Spezza in recent summers, and also punched above their draft position with the slam dunk picks of Rasmus Sandin and Nick Robertson in 2018 and 2019. Productive players on league minimum deals or entry-level contracts are incredibly valuable to an organization due to their cap hit-to-production ratio.

On the flip side, teams should minimize situations where players are going to be hard-pressed to put up production that justifies their contracts, which brings me to the main point of this article: the Leafs should explore the trade market for Mitch Marner. The reasons to do so are not because of this year’s inconsistent playoffs; not because of the sour taste from his contract negotiations; and not because he had a weird regular season, but because two things can be simultaneously true: Mitch Marner can be both an incredible hockey asset and also a salary cap liability.

To illustrate this, the below graph is a comparison of ELC points-per-game production and second contract cap hit % for 6-year deals signed by 20-23 year old forwards in the salary cap era:

The relationship between cap hit % and points-per-game for second contracts isn’t perfectly linear, but the trend lines above have r-squared values of >98% indicating strong correlation between the two variables. This means we can loosely ballpark what cap hit % a player should have been allocated on a 6-year deal by tracing their points-per-game north or south to meet the trend line for that position (centers in blue, wingers in orange). If you find Marner’s puck icon in the very top right of this graph and trace his 0.93 ELC points-per-game directly south, the break-even point is around an 11.5% cap hit, which equates to an annual average value of ~$9.4 million on an $81.5 million cap. This represents an overpayment of 1.9% of the cap, or ~$1.5M annually for six years.

Marner’s actual deal, signed for 13.4% of the cap, was the highest salary cap allocation given to a winger in RFA contract history. As you can see from the illustration, his icon places well above the orange trend line when compared to other similar players who signed 6-year contracts, indicating a considerable overpay relative to what many expected.

While it’s important to acknowledge that Marner’s penalty killing abilities add an extra dimension to his game that many of his comparables lack, it is not enough to bridge the gap. You may say that $1.5M is not going to break the Leafs, and that’s a fair argument to make. But what we know about contender cap structures is that half of your cap is too much to be spending on four forwards: you need a better positional balance. Of the Big 4, Marner seems to make the most sense if the team is to reduce its top-heaviness. It’s a game of elimination: Matthews and Tavares are not going anywhere for obvious reasons. Frequent trade target William Nylander may have the best value contract of the Big 4, and we just spoke about the importance of hanging onto those. That leaves Marner.

Despite his contact, Marner still retains tremendous trade value as a young, point-per-game, gamebreaking winger. Many have said the flat cap may take potential suitors for Marner out of the mix, but a quick look at the 2020-21 cap situation for some offensively-starved teams reveals a handful of franchises who could afford Marner’s contract. Add in the fact that he was already paid this year’s signing bonus on July 1 and his contract becomes even more palatable to potential trade partners.

If the Leafs have an opportunity to leverage Marner’s trade value to patch up areas of their roster that need addressing while also saving salary cap space to add elsewhere, it is an idea worth at least exploring. But by no means is this an “at all costs” proposition: merely a suggestion of one way the Leafs could redistribute some wealth to put together a deeper, more well-balanced roster. Toronto would obviously be very happy to have a player of Marner’s calibre on their roster for the next five seasons, but would need to find elsewhere to trim salary.

The Leafs are at a crossroads between forging onward as salary cap unicorns or rebalancing their roster to more closely mirror what a traditional contender looks like. While there is no perfect recipe for contender construction, the nature of a hard cap system, especially one that will not see considerable growth over the next few seasons, may force teams like Toronto into tough decisions like moving a player as talented as Mitch Marner. Almost nothing should be off the table.