It’s starting. Within a single day after the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Nick Kypreos joined the Sportsnet Hockey Central panel and outlined the tough decisions coming this off-season regarding Mitch Marner’s contract.
As Kypreos suggests, he “feels sorry for the kid” because he’s in a “no win situation.” If he asks for the money he “knows” he deserves, he looks selfish and willing to hurt the team by “breaking” the salary cap: if he doesn’t ask for it, he’ll have to look at himself in the mirror wondering why he didn’t.
What We Know About Marner
From what I’ve seen this season, I know Marner is the leader. During the 2017-18 season, as a 20-year-old, Marner led the Maple Leafs in points (22 goals, 47 assists). During the 2018-19 season, he again led his team in points (26 goals, 68 assists). He’s above a point-per-game.
We also know that Marner hasn’t missed a game in two seasons. He’s tough. He cares. He’ll block a shot with his face if he has to.
We also know that Marner makes anyone who plays with him better – and that’s true of a star like John Tavares who had a career season of 47 goals, 41 assists. Tavares had never had a 40-goal season previously.
I also know that Marner is the key for the Leafs going forward. Sure, it’s frustrating not getting out of round one of the playoffs – yet again – for Maple Leaf fans, but most of the team’s core was made up of entry-level contracts. The Leafs are young, and they’ll get better. Marner is the key.
All this adds up to the fact that general manager Kyle Dubas shouldn’t seek a hometown discount. The team would be dysfunctional if its policy were to treat its favorite sons poorly. Dubas is smart enough to know that, as are Marner’s agents. In a way, that will make negotiations more difficult.
Flashback: Matthews Signs, and the Marner Drama Begins
On Feb. 5, Auston Matthews signed his new contract with the Maple Leafs at an annual salary cap hit of just under $12 million. It didn’t take long for Marner’s agent to respond that Matthews’ contract wasn’t “team-friendly” and that it came after Maple Leaf management had low-balled Marner in early negotiations. In effect, Marner’s agent said that one teammate (Matthews) was basically stealing from another (Marner) by signing such a large contract.
Someone must have talked to someone. As quickly as the anger hit the fan, within a day it subsided into the recesses of everyone’s thoughts. There was a Stanley Cup to win, and such negotiations would simply get in the way of the single-minded focus needed for playoff success.
Now, there’s no Stanley Cup to win. And, Marner’s contact conversations will emerge from where they’ve been hiding for just over two months.
Negotiating the Maple Leafs’ Big 4
As far as contracts go, the Maple Leafs first brought in Tavares. It was obviously a good signing, and Tavares proved his value. Then, Dubas had three RFA contracts to negotiate. William Nylander’s was signed early in the 2018-19 season, although not without stubborn posturing.
In some ways, that negative experience had to weigh on Dubas’ attempts to negotiate early with both Matthews and Marner. Matthews’ camp listened, and he signed. Marner’s camp decided to wait until the off-season. No doubt it was a negotiating tactic because, with the Maple Leafs’ quick start, a successful season for Marner and a Stanley Cup victory wouldn’t hurt Marner’s negotiating when the season was over.
Nothing went totally right for either side and, quiet as they were since Matthews’ signing, the racket might begin anew. After an unsuccessful season, there’s no reason for Marner’s camp to recant its initial position.
In fact, quite the opposite will be true. Although Dubas seems willing to sign his players to market-level contracts, there’s a salary-cap roadblock ahead. Dubas’ willingness to spend must be stopped by that looming cap. Trying to sign Marner might get ugly.
Why the Negotiations Might Get Ugly
The negotiations won’t be rancorous because the two sides don’t like each other. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. However, if Marner signs for a market-value contract (as he should), the limbo bar under the salary cap for paying the rest of the team will be held really low.
Once, in order of signing, Tavares, Nylander, Matthews, and Marner are safely under contract, the Maple Leafs will have four players (on a team of 20) whose $40 million salaries are almost half of next season’s projected $84.5 million salary cap.
And, although Dubas’ way is to negotiate behind closed doors, already Marner’s agent has used the media. That’s a good news day but a bad day for the team. Given Marner’s agent’s comments after the Matthews signing, I’m guessing the sides weren’t close when we tabled this conversation on Feb. 6.
Others Have Weighed In
Already, and early, hockey pundits have weighed in. Wasting no time, on Feb. 5, Bob McKenzie tweeted: “Next up: Mitch Marner. It will be fascinating. No doubt in my mind that Marner’s camp will be looking to get close to what Matthews got. That is $11M+ AAV. No doubt in my mind that TOR will be looking to get Marner on a single digit AAV, in the 9’s. Big gap.”
Waiting a couple of days, Lyle Richardson of Spector’s Hockey, on Feb. 10 noted, “Maybe Marner might accept an annual cap hit of between $10 million to $10.5 million on a front-loaded eight-year deal whereby, like Matthews, the bulk of his salary is paid as a signing bonus every July 1. However, I don’t believe he’ll accept less than $10 million per.”
What Will Dubas Do?
I am a fan of Dubas. I like his vision for how he wants the Maple Leafs to play. I don’t think it aligns with coach Mike Babcock’s vision, but that’s another story. I will be interested to see if the salary negotiations will be done quickly and quietly. I’m also interested to see if the salary cap limitations might allow Dubas to increase his control of the team in what might be a power struggle with his coach.
I really hope the acrimony from the Nylander negotiations isn’t repeated with Marner. It would be imprudent for either side to drive into Uglyville.