Maple Leafs Marner Strategy: Bring on the Offer Sheets

Perhaps we’re thinking about these Mitch Marner versus the Toronto Maple Leafs negotiations wrong.

So far, we’ve framed the narrative as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ problem with the upcoming salary cap that might not allow them to sign their star player and favorite RFA son Marner.

Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews,
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes)

True, Marner is unsigned and he might actually leave; however, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a team asset. In fact, I think that, rather than something to fear, the seldom-used offer sheet might become a negotiating ploy for the Maple Leafs that would allow the team to increase its own assets if it chooses.

About NHL Offer Sheets

In a bit of history, the last time a player signed an offer sheet was in 2013 when the Calgary Flames signed Ryan O’Reilly for two years and $10 million. The Avalanche matched. A number of players have signed offer sheets (for example, David Backes and Shea Weber), but the last time a team didn’t match an offer sheet was in 2007, when the Edmonton Oilers signed Dustin Penner and the Anaheim Ducks didn’t match.

If an RFA has received a qualifying offer (but hasn’t signed it) or an RFA doesn’t seek arbitration, that RFA may receive an offer sheet from a team other than the one he played with.

Related – Maple Leafs’ Marner Negotiations: Welcome to Uglyville

Teams must submit qualifying offers to their own RFAs to keep their rights. A player who doesn’t receive a qualifying offer becomes a UFA. If a player signs that qualifying offer, that becomes a one-year contract.

If a player signs an offer sheet from an opposing team, the team with that player’s rights has seven days to match. If it chooses to match, the player stays with that team and his new contract becomes the terms of the offer sheet. However, if a team chooses not to match an offer sheet, the signing team must pay draft-pick compensation relative to the new contract’s average annual value (AAV).

The compensation scale is readjusted each year based on the average league salary.

Last year’s scale was:

Offer Sheet (AAV) Draft-Pick Compensation
$1,339,575 or below None
Over $1,339,575 to $2,029,59 3rd
Over $2,029,59 to $4,059,322 2nd
Over $4,059,322 to $6,088,980 1st, 3rd
Over $6,088,980 to $8,118,641 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $8,118,641 to $10,148,302 (2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Over $10,148,302 (4) 1st

If a team submits an offer sheet, it must have all the draft picks in that year to cover the compensation cost. Furthermore, the picks must be their own: they cannot be acquired from another team.

If the compensation demands multiple picks from the same round, the signing team must have the pick in the upcoming draft. If not, additional picks must be covered in subsequent years.

Thinking About the “Problem” Creatively

Here’s my point. Certainly, if everything were perfect in the hockey world, the Maple Leafs would sign Marner and that would be it. The team wants him and he wants to stay with the team. That’s the simple fact.

Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

However, the world isn’t that simple. Rightfully so, there’s plenty of angst over the team’s salary cap structure and Maple Leafs fans are concerned their team won’t be able to sign Marner.

That said, the goal of Maple Leafs management isn’t to sign Marner, nice guy as he is. It’s to win the Stanley Cup.

Related – Maple Leafs News: Korshkov, Rielly, Rosen & Salary Cap Fixes

Given that thought, Dubas might think: “If Marner’s people push for $12 million, I’m going to gamble that the offer sheet isn’t a threat. But, if I’m wrong, I can match that contract and scramble to figure things out or I can accept the compensation that comes from the team extending the offer sheet.”

The Special Case of Marner

What makes Marner’s negotiations so special are the high numbers of his potential contract. If he receives an offer sheet from another team he might actually consider signing, it would be in the neighbourhood of $11 million plus. It’s clear Marner’s team is seeking close to that amount.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

For argument’s sake, say a team offers Marner $11.25 million for five years. Obviously, the Maple Leafs have the right to match this offer and, in NHL history, that’s what usually happens. However, because the contract is at the top end of the compensation ladder, the Maple Leafs could choose four first-round picks.

Now Dubas actually has a consideration. Is that price – four first-round draft picks – worth giving Marner up? That might be a trade Dubas is willing to make.

Likely, however, no team would offer such a contract to Marner. Regardless of what hockey panels suggest, I don’t see it happening. Any team that gave up four first-round draft picks would be mortgaging its future. And Marner, as good as he is, isn’t a generational player. He hasn’t yet produced a body of work powerful enough to warrant such a contract.

Waiting for Offer Sheets Could Be a Creative Strategy

In the hockey panel discussions I have heard, experts suggest that, if the Maple Leafs don’t sign Marner to a contract before July 1, they risk him receiving an offer sheet. In fact, I have heard hockey thinkers say that just the threat of an offer sheet might be worth $1 million to the player in negotiations.

Related – Maple Leafs’ Rumors: Babcock, Johnsson, Marner & Moore

I am not buying it. First, I don’t see that kind of an offer sheet coming to Marner. It isn’t the gentleman’s agreement between teams that stops such an offer sheet – the one Kevin Lowe obviously violated when he offered Penner an offer sheet that infuriated Brian Burke. It’s that an $11.25 million offer sheet is not good business. Successful businesses always balance risk and reward, and in this case the possible risk clearly outweighs the potential reward.

A Mean-Spirited Tactic?

In fact, from the way I see it, the Maple Leafs hold he advantage. And, if Dubas were to use this tactic to squeeze Marner’s people, it would be a bit Machiavellian. And, I have seen no trace of that in his character at all.

Still, he must be willing to let Marner go if the cost is too high, if he’s backed into a corner by Marner’s agents, or if he gets better compensation, which would be four first-round draft picks.

In addition, choosing the compensation option goes a long way towards minimizing the bulk of the Maple Leafs cap difficulties that existed because the team actually wanted to sign Marner. They get a first-round draft pick a year on an entry-level contract – less than $1 million per year for four years. That’s a lot less money.

Marner, on the other hand, is risking giving up his dream of playing for his hometown team and being a Maple Leaf for life. By the way, there’s more. Because Marner plays in Toronto, it’s more than salary.

Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Zach Hyman, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner, and John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

Marner is also the team’s top earner in off-ice income. Obviously, he’s a good-looking hometown lad. The biggest attraction, however, is that he’s a good-looking hometown lad who plays for the Maple Leafs. He knows what happens if he signs an offer sheet with, say, the Carolina Hurricanes. He keeps the salary, but he says good-bye to off-ice income.

The Final Power

In this scenario, who has the power? If you’re Dubas, the offer sheet might not be such a monster after all. In fact, from a business standpoint, Marner has more to lose and Dubas has the hammer. As I say, classic risk vs. reward.

Related: Should the Maple Leafs Trade Marner? Not Even for Crosby

Fortunately, from a Maple Leafs fans point of view, I don’t think Dubas will use a hammer in these negotiations. In fact, as I said before in an earlier post, I believe Marner will sign with the Maple Leafs and will become their next captain. Still, who might those four first-round draft picks have become?