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The Nathan MacKinnon contract and how it affects the Leafs

You had to know this post was coming right? And it probably doesn’t take much effort to guess at how this affects the Leafs. So let’s jump right into the inevitable discussion of how Nathan MacKinnon’s contract will impact not only Auston Matthews’ next contract, but likely Mitch Marner’s next contract as well.

Here’s the contract:

$12.8 AAV for 8 years with a full no-movement clause throughout. The deal was signed when Nathan MacKinnon is 27 years old, the deal is front-loaded and pays him a $16.5M combined salary and signing bonus in year one, transitions in year 4 (2026-27) to $12.15M and drops to $9.9M in year 5 and stays at that until the end of his contract. MacKinnon’s contract is largely paid in signing bonuses and has an escalated salary to reflect the minimum salary being likely to rise. The signing bonus structure means it would be a gigantic pain in the ass to buy out. The one year (year 4, 2026-27) where the majority of MacKinnon’s contract is paid as salary instead of signing bonus coincides with the expiration of the current CBA. Based on the current salary cap of $82.5M, MacKinnon’s contract takes up 15.27% of the salary cap. That’s the important number to remember when looking at the next contracts for Matthews and Marner.

Here’s how it impacts the Leafs:

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MacKinnon was an absolute bargain the first go around and he was certainly under pressure to cash in this time around, coming off a Stanley Cup win certainly helps that. The Leafs find themselves in a situation where unfortunately they have been nowhere near a Stanley Cup but do need to contend with the fact that Auston Matthews just won the Hart, Lindsay, and Rocket for his past season, and anything remotely close to that success again is going to drive the price up. While Matthews and Marner were by no means bargains in their last go around, Matthews took up 14.64% of the Leafs cap space at the time his contract was signed, and Marner took up 13.38%. The percentage of the cap increase is a precedent that MacKinnon has set and agents are going to look to cash in on it.

The fact that Matthews can be considered a better player than MacKinnon could give him a case for 16%, and it’s very likely that he’ll initially be negotiating at a time the salary cap will be established at around $83.5M and there will be expectations that the year the Leafs will actually start paying Auston the salary cap could be even higher. No one ever thought he’d come cheap, but the floor for a deal seems like it would be around $13.36M AAV. (I’m sure he’d take the discount to make it $13.34 AAV.)

As far as Marner goes, his numbers very closely mirror those of MacKinnon, even exceed them to some extent. The MacKinnon contract could very well be an easy dollar precedent or even worse his cap percentage will be the precedent. With the opportunity to negotiate his next deal after Matthews sets the Leafs precedent, it’s very likely that Marner will be looking for a contract almost identical to what Auston Matthews receives. In short, the deals won’t be cheap and the two players will eat up more initial cap space at the start of their contracts than they did on the last one.

Perhaps it’s naive to think that economic drivers like global pandemics will be behind us in a few years and it will be nothing but smooth sailing financially for the NHL. The Leafs didn’t get the benefit of a spiking salary cap after their last mega deals and I’d hope that would make them a bit more cautious on counting on the salary cap to bail them out this time.

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While to some degree it makes sense to pay Auston what he wants to stay a Leaf, the waters get muddied a bit when it comes to the rest of the supporting cast. Even if Marner is still in the picture, the Leafs at least initially would be seeing more of the salary cap eaten up on two players. And it would no longer be seeing that salary cap spent on players entering their prime, it would now be on players exciting it.

The MacKinnon deal is a good reminder that the salary cap going up isn’t likely to provide a ton of relief for the Leafs, as the money is already spent if the plan is still to keep the band together.

Data sourced from PuckPedia

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