NHL teams officially hit the ice today for the first time in preparation for ’19-’20. Mitch Marner and the Maple Leafs seem as far apart as ever – but that doesn’t change the fact that this relationship is meant to be
TSN’s Bob McKenzie forayed into the Marner-Toronto saga yesterday, offering Maple Leafs fans information they weren’t keen on hearing on the eve of training camp, and just 4 days from their first on-ice tune up in London, Ontario.
TOR has made seven and eight year offers in the $11M AAV universe but because it’s a lower AAV and longer term than Auston Matthews, it hasn’t been palatable to Marner.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) September 11, 2019
Chapter 1: I don’t know if you’re ready for a serious commitment
It has become increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention that Marner’s focus is on a short term deal – structuring his time as a player in order to hit free agency well before he turns 30. Financially, that makes perfect sense: a player will receive a much higher payday as a top free agent winger as a 27 year old, as opposed to being 30 years old. All across sports, we’ve seen the hesitance of franchises to go long term with any player over the age of 30. He and agent Darren Ferris are diligently working to increase Marner’s career earning potential, which is well within their rights.
As perfectly laid out by @jeffveillette and reported by Elliotte Friedman, Marner’s camp is seeking a deal in the neighborhood of 3 years – backloaded, in order to ensure a massive qualifying offer (that must match the 3rd year’s money) at the expiration of that deal. That essentially turns the contract in to a 3 year deal with a team option for a fourth year. That would see Marner hit free agency as a 27 year old. Or, if the Leafs decline the qualifying offer after the 3rd season, would see him hit free agency as a 26 year old. That would be a massive concession for a franchise that is supposed to have most of the leverage in negotiations with their restricted free agents.
Chapter 2: The world is trying to tear us apart
Twitter lit up after Bob McKenzie’s tweets. Toronto is a city that continues to suffer from a widening wealth gap, an increasing housing crisis accentuated by only the top 10% income group being able to afford a home, and 66% of the average household income being required to cover ownership costs. So, understandably, the city’s residents unleashed their anger on the restricted free agent for reportedly turning down $88 million (plus Schedule B bonuses) over 8 years because the AAV/term of the contract are lower and longer, respectively, than the contract tendered to Auston Matthews.
Over the course of this summer, we’ve heard quiet rumblings from fans on social media exhausted by last year’s dealings with William Nylander that Toronto should simply trade Marner and rid themselves of these negotiations. Yesterday turned those rumblings in to deafening screams from many on social media. It single-handedly shifted the paradigm from a player attempting to extract maximum value – to a selfish, self-interested player unwilling to make a small concession to help out the team in a cap world.
Kyle Dubas has said himself that trading Marner has never even been discussed. Perhaps not what some fans want to hear today, but logical nonetheless. For all that the Maple Leafs may free themselves of by shipping out their #1 winger, it makes zero sense for the two sides to part ways – even if they wanted to.
Chapter 3: I need you now more than ever
The NHL’s player market is in the midst of a massive reorganization. Paying for potential has become the norm. After just two years in the league, Jack Eichel was given $80 million over 8 years. Clayton Keller was recently given over $57 million for the next 8 years by Arizona after posting a P/60 that was 0.4 less than Jake DeBrusk over the last two seasons – and yet, pundits seem to think the Bruins forward is currently only worth about half of what Keller is set to start making this year.
These “potential contracts” have highlighted the importance of bridge deals because they artificially inflate salaries by giving players comparables to draw on during negotiations. A slippery slope to continue down, and one that has created a situation which will force the Maple Leafs and Marner to either meet in the middle, or sit the star winger for the year.
A breakup by trade is simply next to impossible as it stands. The NHL’s franchises have stretched their caps to thin to accommodate demands as rich as Mitch’s. As it stands, there are currently only 5 teams who could swallow a $10+ million contract without having to commit to a massive roster reshuffling. Columbus, Ottawa, Philadelphia, Colorado and Winnipeg.
There’s a plethora of reasons why these teams are still unrealistic landing spots. Colorado still has to sign Mikko Rantanen who is due a massive pay increase himself. The only way they could take on both RFA’s contracts would be by getting Toronto to accept a package surrounding a player like Erik Johnson who has a cap hit of $6 million – not exactly a swap that a team with Cup hopes would be looking to make.
Aside from the fact that Toronto would never trade a star player to their provincial rivals, Ottawa has been busy shedding salary all summer. After forking over their #1 draft pick to Colorado this past summer, there is no chance they come in with an offer sheet for Mitch Marner, especially considering the draft class of 2020.
Philadelphia still has to sign Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, but could theoretically have the space to sign Marner if a trade was made. To make the room, the Flyers would be forced to part with not only a serviceable player, but picks and prospects as well. Would Toronto really take on Jakub Voracek’s contract? Perhaps a deal surrounding Shayne Gostisbehere? Let’s not forget that Toronto already has 0 cap space until Nathan Horton and David Clarkson can be placed on LTIR officially – even if one was packaged to the Flyers for them to avoid their own cap troubles, it is highly unlikely the Leafs would move a 90-point winger to a conference rival that they could end up facing in the playoffs.
Earlier this summer I mused a possible Marner-Laine swap. While Laine doesn’t drive play like Marner does, he would be a lethal outlet on Tavares’ wing and his cap hit would be considerably less than Marner’s. The deal would never be 1-for-1, and as a Cup contending team themselves, would Winnipeg really be willing to part with the assets that would be necessary to satisfy a team who is also in win-now mode? Let’s not forget they also still have to sign Kyle Connor who is due a big raise as well. Signing Marner becomes that much more unrealistic without giving up another big piece of your current roster.
And so we arrive at Columbus. The Blue Jackets have one singular player that Toronto may be interested in taking on at the expense of their star winger: Seth Jones. Columbus could make the deal and have plenty of space to sign Marner, and the Leafs get a premier defenseman on a cap friendly deal that they have more than enough room for with their LTIR abilities. Given that Marner isn’t willing to sign a long term deal with his hometown team, however, would he really sign one with Columbus? Is it worth giving up an all-star blueliner on a team-friendly deal for a player who has made it clear he wants to hit free agency as quickly as possible? Would you rather have Seth Jones for around $5 million or Mitch Marner for $10+ million for the next 3 years? Given Columbus’ depth on right wing, it doesn’t make much sense to severely weaken your blueline to pad the only area your roster has depth at.
Chapter 4: It’s you and me, babe
An offersheet is not logical, as I have preached on Twitter all summer. There has only been 4 offersheets made in the past 9 years, and all of those were matched. Only 2 have been made in the past 22 years that resulted in the player actually switching teams.
This is by design – the NHL doesn’t want teams losing key, young pieces of their roster – but players can’t be seen as hostages during the first 7 years of their careers with virtually zero leverage, either. So we have the RFA system we see today. It gives a small incentive for teams to pay their young players “fairly” (or someone else will), but in reality the costs are too much to bare. Not only from an asset standpoint, but from a market perspective. You can give a big overpay to steal someone’s young star, but have to be cognizant of how that will not only affect future contract negotiations with your players, but free agents as well. Comparables play significant factors in negotiations, as we’ve seen with the Marner/Matthews situation. If Columbus gave a $12+ million offer to Marner that Toronto could not match, how much more are they going to be forced to shell out to Pierre-Luc Dubois next year when he becomes a restricted free agent? It throws everything off balance, and is why we almost never see them.
Toronto gave themselves the ability to sign Marner with room created by the LTIR, but it hamstrings the roster given that it can’t be used as trade bait. Anyone the Leafs would take back as compensation in a deal will be earning high dollars, and thus require them to hold on to Horton and Clarkson. But virtually any other team interested in taking on the Leafs winger would need that LTIR flexibility in order to satisfy Marner’s demands themselves.
That means, for better or worse, the two sides need each other. There is only 2 options left: he signs or he sits out. There is no trade coming, and there’s certainly no offer sheet coming. So buckle up, Leafs fans. This love story is just beginning.
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