While the Toronto Maple Leafs were taking on the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night, news broke that the team and Jake Muzzin were not engaging in any discussions regarding a contract extension for the veteran defenseman.
Muzzin, 30, will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at season’s end after playing out the final year of the five-year, $20 million contract he signed with the Kings in 2014 – a deal that turned out to be a big-time bargain on one of the more reliable two-way defenders in the game.
It didn’t take long for the mainstream media to bring up a potential contract negotiation after general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas just finished signing the last piece of their long-term core in Mitch Marner the second day into the training camp. However, the truth is the Maple Leafs have questions all over the blueline from both a performance and a contract standpoint. Given Muzzin’s stellar play so far in 2019-20, it stands to reason that the Maple Leafs would be interested in retaining his services beyond this season.
All that being said, let’s look at why the Maple Leafs and Muzzin aren’t currently discussing a contract extension to keep him and blue and white beyond this season.
Contract Uncertainty on the Blue Line
You may have heard that Muzzin isn’t the only Maple Leafs defender set for UFA status at seasons end. In fact, only Morgan Rielly from their top four is under contract beyond 2019-20 with Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie both headed for the open market at this juncture.
It’s not just the top four, either. Every defenseman on the team’s NHL roster at the moment is a UFA after the season. If you don’t believe me, a simple screenshot of the Maple Leafs’ CapFriendly page tells the story.
So, why not engage in contract talks with Muzzin yet? Because the team currently has five other NHL defensemen in the exact same situation he is in at the moment. They don’t know what they have in Ceci or Barrie yet through only eight games this season and whether or not there’s a long-term fit there. Ceci is working out some kinks with Rielly on the top pair right now and Barrie has looked awfully good alongside Muzzin on the second pair. Both are younger than Muzzin, substantially in Ceci’s case.
In other words, as of right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be back on the Maple Leafs’ blue line in 2020-21. Right now there are two locks in Rielly and the currently-injured Travis Dermott who is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Beyond that, it makes sense for Dubas and his staff to evaluate the team’s defense as the season moves along and save potential contract extensions for the New Year once the pieces of the puzzle become clearer.
Age, Skill Set and Demand
At just 30 years old, Muzzin is the oldest member of the Maple Leafs’ roster this side of Jason Spezza who can’t seem to carve out a full-time role under Mike Babcock in his 17th NHL season. Thirty isn’t old by any standards, including the young man’s NHL, however, given the age trend in the league and the speed of the game, 30 is probably the new 33.
Look, Muzzin is one heck of a defenseman. In fact, from an all-around standpoint, he’s been the best defenseman the Maple Leafs have had this season. He ranks second on the team in ice time behind Rielly at 23:17 per game, is a valued penalty killer, has notched three points in seven games, recorded 13 shots on goal and blocked another 12. He’s also loaded with postseason experience, having played in 57 career playoff games with a Stanley Cup championship under his belt from 2014 with the Kings.
Add it all up and the Maple Leafs are fortunate to have Muzzin. In fact, every single team in this league would love to have a player of Muzzin’s caliber on their team. Defensemen who can approach 40 points a season while playing stout defense at the other end don’t come around everyday.
However, there’s little doubt that Muzzin’s current contract is indeed a bargain. In other words, he is deservedly due a raise on the $4 million he’s costing the team this season. The question then becomes: can the Maple Leafs afford to pay a notable raise – likely in excess of $5 million annually on a minimum four-year term – to Muzzin with potential big-money contract extensions coming up for both Rielly and goaltender Frederik Andersen in the near future? They’re paying more than $40 million to their top four forwards at the moment and would also have to re-sign Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Alexander Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier and others during the term the Muzzin contract would cost them.
Furthermore, do they want to give a substantial contract with a notable annual cap hit and term to a player now on the wrong side of 30 with his skating ability being his least attractive asset? In a league where the average age continues to drop and the footspeed continues to rise, it could be a dangerous game dishing out big bucks to a player who is only getting older and slower. His experience is a valuable asset and for what he lacks in speed Muzzin makes up elsewhere. His lack of speed doesn’t exactly cost him at this point in time, but it very well could over the duration of a fairly lucrative potential extension.
For now, Muzzin is exactly what the Leafs need. However, for a team pinned against the cap ceiling, they need to be very wary about how a Muzzin extension would look down the road.
Remember, this isn’t only on the Maple Leafs. When TSN Hockey analyst Pierre LeBrun broached the subject on Tuesday’s edition of Insider Trading, he didn’t mention what party isn’t reaching out, but rather that there are simply no discussions taking place at this time. This means that Muzzin’s camp likely hasn’t approached Dubas about an extension, either.
And that makes sense, too. While all signs point towards Muzzin enjoying himself in Toronto, he knows darn well he’s playing out a bargain deal and is, in all likelihood, very intrigued by the idea of having 30 other NHL clubs potentially vying for his services during what has been an excellent walk season, so far.
Muzzin and his representatives are aware of the Maple Leafs’ cap situation. They know that Dubas won’t be able to give him what he wants while also retaining the services of Ceci and Barrie, especially the latter whose reported demands on his next deal may very well price him out of Toronto all together.
Put yourself in Muzzin’s shoes. On one hand you could tell your agent to approach Dubas about what’s available in a potential extension early in what has been a productive month of October to this point. Or, you could play your butt off for the remainder of the season, put your excellent two-way game on display and perhaps go deep into the playoffs all while showing the other 30 GMs in this league that you would be worth every penny of the raise you deserve after outplaying your previous contract.
For Muzzin, this next contract is where he makes his generational money. The $20 million he’s earned over his current contract could also be considered generational, but this next deal is going to be his last opportunity to cash in big on an NHL contract. This all but eliminates the far-too-widely-used “hometown discount”. From his perspective, it should mean getting paid what you believe you’re worth, and most of the time that happens when more than one team is offering a contract.
What to Expect Moving Forward
Personally, I’d be shocked if Muzzin wanted to talk extension unless he felt overwhelmed by an offer slipped to him by Dubas. I’d also be surprised if Dubas approached Muzzin’s camp about an extension any time soon, even perhaps at all this season.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Maple Leafs need to be careful about every single dollar they spend thanks to the lucrative deals handed out to John Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner over the last year and change, in that order. In fact, Marner, Tavares and Matthews are getting paid the most actual dollars in the NHL this season. This means scouting overseas, looking at the waiver wire, offering professional tryouts and signing veterans to league-minimum deals. It means finding ways to complement your expensive core with cost-efficient value players that have a real good chance of outperforming their contracts.
What it might not mean is dishing out an over-30 Muzzin substantial dollars and term of an extension that will take him to his mid-30s. Again, he’s one heck of a defenseman and the best the team has from an all-around perspective at this point in time. However, the NHL roster is about dollars now more than ever before, and there aren’t enough of them to go around to everyone. At the end of the day, I would be surprised to see the Maple Leafs and Muzzin agree to an extension this season, opening the door for him to take his talents to the open market come the first of July.