Here at TLN we’re still very much pissed off following the outcome of the qualifying round. And while there is a strong case to be made about the Leafs having an incredibly talented roster, and a forward group that should make Toronto one of the top teams in the league, the fact that they were handled quite easily by an underwhelming Columbus lineup speaks to a need for a change of direction.
Toronto sports fans are naturally going to cite the trading of DeMar DeRozan as a necessary step in putting the Raptors over the top. It certainly worked. And it also hasn’t really held the Raptors back now that DeRozan and Leonard aren’t around. While hockey certainly works differently than basketball, it has made Leafs fans more open to not necessarily treating the top four group as untouchable.
On this site that has meant exploring the idea of trading Mitch Marner, both in the form of ditching Marner, and the argument for keeping him (and essentially the core) around for another year. The results on Marner were again pretty divided when the TLN crew examined who should be on the chopping block. For what it’s worth, I fall into agreement with the case made by Mark Norman, that Marner is an incredible talent, one of the best players in the league, but one that has too much money committed to him. Moving on from Marner (a player with the potential to have a Hall of Fame calibre career) is a necessary step to improve in the areas the Leafs need to. Moving Marner allows the Leafs to regain some cap flexibility, and add to the blueline, while excepting the downgrade on the wing, but also allowing for potentially adding some physicality to their top six group as well. Anyway, we’re supposed to be talking about Nylander, but it seems impossible to discuss the idea of trading Nylander without talking Marner.
So why trade Nylander?
It seems foolish to not start with the most frequent criticism of Nylander, and that is that he doesn’t always show up and doesn’t try every night.
Well, unless you’re talking about a rough seven game stretch in the beginning of December (conveniently a time when the rest of the Leafs time was clicking) Nylander has been a remarkably consistent contributor.
(stats from hockey-reference.com and are at a per game rate)
After being slow to produce in the early days of Sheldon Keefe as head coach, Nylander followed that up with some of his most productive hockey as a Leaf. Nylander was a point per game player, or just under for the November-February stretch, and only his slow October start, and 2 goals in 4 games in March fall outside of that strong performance.
You can criticize Nylander for lacking physical play, but I’m not sure how you use that as a case for other forwards like Mitch Marner, as even though Nylander’s 9 hits is mind boggling low, Marner’s 24 brushes against the opposition doesn’t imply he’s some great intimidator. If you want to attack Nylander for his seven game goalless streak, it’s worth noting that Marner had two 7 game goalless streaks, and 2 other times went six games without scoring. Marner also played nine few games.
The Marner/Nylander Differences
Acknowledging the size of the sample here, we’re seeing the potential of Nylander to not only show better in offensive zone situations, both shooting and setting up shots, but he has been much more dependable in moving the puck up ice in controlled possessions. Whether or not you choose to believe in advanced stats doesn’t change the fact that having control of the puck is important, and Nylander has always been better at that than Marner.
That’s not to undersell the near impossible passes that Marner pulls off that warm all of our hearts, nor his ability to quarterback an offensive possession within the opposition’s zone, but Nylander has shown to be the stronger transition player.
On the other side of that, Marner is a player that both Babcock and Keefe trusted on the penalty kill. Acknowledging that Marner’s primary responsibility is to be a power kill player, making himself an offensive threat high in the zone, Nylander has not received trust from his coaches to fill this role in the past, and in fact in all situations Marner has received more ice time from coaches than Nylander, with Nylander seeing less than a minute of penalty kill time total last season.
Nylander’s bonus comes in the fact that he can reliably line up at center as needed. Outside the five main centers on the Leafs last season, Nylander took the most faceoffs, and in the deciding Game Five against Columbus he was trusted with anchoring the second line, but that’s probably not the example you want to be reminded of.
This season seemed to make the case that of the two players, Nylander has the greater goal scoring potential, despite the two being fairly equal in previous years. Marner will always be the more elite setup guy, and even more than Matthews or Tavares, he seems likely to be the player most likely to break the 100 point mark. Both are incredible offensive talents, and it’s certainly okay to like both players a lot.
The biggest difference comes down to money. While the case that Marner is the better player can easily be made, the fact that he’s $4,000,000 better than Nylander seems like a stretch and in a salary cap world there is a time and place for considering salary as part of the player evaluation criteria, and when your considering how to overhaul your roster, performance compared to cost matters and the better deal today seems to be Nylander.
The case for keeping Nylander is the same as the case for trading him
Nylander’s contract is more beneficial to the Leafs, but also to their trade partners. Teams may want to trade for Marner, but there aren’t many teams out there that can easily add $10.893M to their roster without asking the Leafs to take some salary back. That can be pretty limiting for finding a trading partner. Nylander’s $6.9M cap hit, and $6M of actual salary (minus the $3.5M of signing bonus that has already been paid this year) will have a lot of appeal to most teams around the league.
Trading Nylander instead of Marner might net a smaller return, but is less dependent on finding a deal for a specific player the Leafs need. Toronto would have the flexibility to make a deal for futures, which they can also use, and benefit from the cap space that trading Nylander provides to upgrade the defense or other areas through free agency or other trades.
If it’s strictly about cash Marner could have his suitors as well. He’s had $14.3M of his contract paid for 2020-21 via his signing bonus, and a team would only be on the hook for league minimum salary to pay Marner this season, as well as his salary/bonus payments are below his cap hit throughout the rest of his contract. Essentially a team acquiring him is paying him an average of just over $7M annually for the next five years. In comparison teams would be paying $5.125M annually over the next four years for Nylander. Either one would be a bargain dollars wise, but only Nylander has the manageable cap hit.
That’s still not really making the case for trading Nylander, nor is anything here really a case for trading Marner either. It’s at best saying that teams would be more interested in Nylander because he could potentially be a center and his cap hit is better. The case for trading Nylander is that the Leafs need some cap flexibility in order to allow the Leafs to make the other improvements they need to make, and how Nylander fits into that is, the Leafs should never want to trade Auston Matthews, unless it’s the last year of his deal and he has no intention of re-signing. The Leafs can’t move Tavares because he has a no movement clause, and honestly it makes sense to keep a talented center over a talented winger, even if that center is older. And while moving Marner would make the sense, and be my personal preference, trading Nylander is the next best option if the Leafs require a significant amount of cap space, and honestly cap space this offseason could be game changer for the Leafs if they want to chase a player like Pietrangelo, or even if they want to unload Nylander for worthwhile futures and immediately dump that money back into Taylor Hall on the wing.
While I can appreciate the case for keeping this group together for another season, we have two coaches worth of evidence that changes are probably required, and losing another year to the status quo doesn’t have a lot of appeal. The Leafs are fortunate enough to have some entry level help coming up on the wing in the form of Robertson and Barabanov, and while the temptation is there to go four lines deep on skilled wingers, it’s the area the Leafs can afford to give up players from. Unloading players like Kapanen, Johnsson, Mikheyev, Kerfoot, etc. would keep the top six much more skilled, but at some point the return starts to matter too, and the Leafs would get a decidedly better return with Nylander or Marner than dealing multiple pieces from the middle or bottom of the roster.
So essentially the case for trading Nylander for me personally is as a Plan B to there not being a market for Mitch Marner. Understandably this is my preference and I can appreciate that others would prefer to keep Marner and move on from Nylander. While the benefit to keep Nylander instead and having the increased cap flexibility and a part time center is appealing, the main purpose here is that regardless of which one it is, the Leafs need to strongly consider moving on from one of them to improve the roster elsewhere.