In case you’re wondering, the title of this piece roughly translates as “So long” or “sayonara” in Swedish (thank you, Kristian Blom). It may be early, but watching the play of Mitch Marner since the beginning of this year, along with the early dominating start of Auston Matthews (until his injury), and it’s becoming increasingly hard to believe Kyle Dubas’s confident assertion of last summer to the effect that he could and would sign all of Toronto’s “Big Three”. The market has changed, and William (and his father, Michael, who has been unfairly made the bad guy in this negotiation) have likely recognized this reality earlier than most. In the words of player agent, Anton Thun: “Younger players have significantly upset the balance in the National Hockey League. They are now the dominant players, rather than the 31-year-olds.”
24 is the new 28 and 28 is the new 32.
The Leafs can’t survive the loss of either Marner or Matthews. At a bare minimum, both players will be given offer sheets if it gets that far. By contrast, the team’s success during Nylander’s long holdout demonstrates that Willie is more of a luxury than a need on the Leafs.
I believe that Michael Nylander saw this situation immediately and has been driving it the whole time. He knows that no matter what the Leafs say or do they will eventually put themselves in a position where they have to trade his son, so the two of them (plus their agent, Lewis Gross) might as well have a role in THAT process. If this is the case, to me this is where the Nylanders become immovable. Because they can’t trust the Leafs and they know it – Shanahan made it abundantly clear in his press conference a few months ago. When the Leafs’ President suggested that all 3 players would have to take less to make this work, what he really meant was that Willie would have to bear the lion’s share of that cut. The Leafs don’t even think about starting the Marner negotiations for less than the figure that Nylander is now reportedly asking from Toronto.
And I’d think watching the season is just showing them how expendable Willie is. Sure they’d be better with him, but missing him isn’t their problem. So the whole “sign with a winner” thing doesn’t make a ton of sense when he could end up being the piece traded for a need before they win the Cup.
It’s a mess, and even though I had profound sympathy with Jonas Siegel’s excellent argument in favour of letting Willie sit for a year, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that this simply kicks the can down the road. There will be a number of people available in the off-season, but right now it’s a small field.
Recent HOF inductee, Larry Brooks of the NY Post outlined exactly the kind of trade that makes sense for Nylander here. The key component is Chris Kreider, who has skill, but also some needed toughness and grit to complement it. He’d be a tremendous asset for the Leafs in the playoffs (especially in a series vs a team like Boston or Washington). His contract doesn’t expire for another 18 months, by which point Toronto will be rid of both the Hainsey and Marleau contracts, and therefore will likely be able to accommodate his anticipated demand for a 5 year $6m a year deal.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Lou Lamoriello was wrong when he said, “If you have time, use it.”. Sometimes, the better approach is, “If you have time, don’t waste it.” As Mark Hunter recently suggested, the window to sign all of Nylander, Marner and Matthews has probably closed. It’s a painful situation for Dubas, mitigated somewhat by his signing of Tavares last summer (which probably has saved the team’s bacon during this period where there’s been neither Matthews, nor Nylander). I hope I’m wrong, but Kyle Dubas probably will get his best price just before the end of this month. At that time, he can basically rip off the band aid and get assets to position the team for a good playoff run.
Postscript: William Nylander is the Curt Flood for the NHL’s new breed of restricted free agents. He is taking the flack for a trend likely to become much more pronounced in future negotiations. This, not escrow, will likely be the biggest change in the next CBA. Perhaps 5 year entry level deals such as the NBA’s new agreement, followed by unrestricted free agency? If it happens, it’s because of what Nylander is doing today. He represents the likely new paradigm.