UPDATE (Aug. 25): Mitch Marner and the Leafs could be discussing a three–year bridge contract. Looking at $24–$28 million.
TORONTO (Aug. 24) — For some reason, the contract dance between Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs is being misinterpreted by many of the top players in the hockey media industry. In my view, it’s as simple and straightforward as a modern negotiation can be. The Leafs have offered their best player, a restricted free agent, maximum term (eight years) and likely close to maximum dollars (probably $9 million per season). As such, a vast majority of observers (fans and media) cannot figure why Marner and his handlers — led by agent Darren Ferris — haven’t jumped at the overture. “He clearly would like to stay in Toronto and the Leafs would like him back… so what’s the issue here?” is an abiding and parochial question.
But, the answer is so easy: Marner doesn’t want maximum term. An eight–year contract would take him into his 30’s and past his peak earning potential. Instead, he is seeking an arrangement similar to that which Auston Matthews signed last February: five years and more than $11 million per season. That way, Marner can become an unrestricted free agent at 27 and procure a second mega–contract while still in his prime. As did teammate John Tavares a year ago this summer. He would then seek a max deal and pull in top–dollar over a 13–year period, rather than eight. At 35, Marner could pursue a third, less–lucrative contract that would take him to the end of his career. Which is clearly the way of doing business among the NHL elite.
The Leafs are playing cat–and–mouse with Marner because they wish to avoid the potential of a third star forward bolting the organization in his mid–to–late–20’s. As of now, Matthews and William Nylander can become unrestricted free agents after the 2023–24 season. Matthews would still be 26; Nylander, 28. Marner wants the same privilege at 27. If a rival NHL club is willing to tender Marvelous Mitch, say, a five–year, $55 million offer–sheet just prior to the regular–season, Toronto would almost–certainly match the contract, thereby rendering the current stalemate a colossal waste of time. It’s also the reason a rival club would not tender a max offer–sheet; Marner could already have signed such an agreement with the Leafs.
Which brings us to alternatives for the hockey club. There are four: a) match an offer–sheet; b) decline to match and obtain four first–round draft picks; c) attempt to trade Marner’s rights to a club that will accept his contract demands; d) make him sit beyond the Dec. 1 deadline for suiting up this season and hope he cries “uncle!!” before 2020–21. None of these options are particularly desirable for general manager Kyle Dubas, which translates to the Maple Leafs being hog–tied by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. To let Marner go now simply because they don’t want to risk losing him at 27 would be ridiculous… unless another NHL team is prepared to offer, in a trade, a player of commensurate ability, age and potential. As we know, there are few–such commodities in the league. Refusing to match an offer–sheet would potentially help the Leafs down the line (with the draft–pick compensation), but weaken the club, perhaps severely, in the short–term and waste years of service for Tavares and Matthews. However “open” the club’s Stanley Cup window may be — and opinions vary — would instantly narrow. With the Shanaplan continuing to evolve. Infinitely.
The Leafs, therefore, have little choice but to award Marner his term and salary. They can waste more time by posturing through training camp, but with no apparent upside. Marner and Ferris will not accept a seven or eight–year deal. This conflict is all about term… and Marner positioning himself for a pair of enormous contracts while still in his prime NHL years. You or I would do the same. It really isn’t complicated.
THE PREDICTION GAME — 2019–20
The NHL preview magazines are in lock–step on two eventualities — that Tampa Bay’s shocking playoff sweep by Columbus last spring was a mere bump in the road… and that the Vegas Golden Knights will rebound to win the Western Conference title for the second time. As you can see, above, The Hockey News selects the Lightning to defeat Vegas for the 2020 Stanley Cup. T–Bay will knock off Washington in the Eastern Conference final; the Golden Knights surging Colorado out west. THN also picks the Maple Leafs to finish second in the Atlantic Division, ahead of Boston, and to finally eliminate the Bruins in the opening–round of the playoffs. Toronto will then lose to Tampa Bay. The Leafs, according to THN, possessed 10–1 Stanley Cup odds prior to last season. That number has lengthened to 13–1 for the coming year.
The Forecaster magazine looks for Vegas to win the Stanley Cup… over the Carolina Hurricanes, who surprised countless hockey people by appearing, last spring, in the Eastern Conference final. As with the THN volume, The Forecaster likes Toronto to finish second in the Atlantic, behind Tampa Bay.
Whoever wrote the Toronto preview for The Forecaster is a Zen spirit. I have preached, all summer, that the Leafs are flawlessly–composed for the regular season; much less–flawlessly for the playoffs. Which is detailed, above and below. The same principle applies to the start of the Tampa Bay preview (bottom–right).
The annual Poolers’ Hockey Guide believes Florida will supplant Boston and finish third in the Atlantic Division, behind the Leafs. Which may be a reasonable notion, with Joel Quenneville behind the Panthers’ bench and Sergei Bobrovsky in goal after leaving Columbus as an unrestricted free agent. The magazine also picks Tampa Bay to defeat Vegas for the Stanley Cup.