After the William Nylander contract was signed, fans barely had time to breathe before the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner contract talk sparked up.

GM Kyle Dubas addressed negotiations briefly this week, noting:

We are having discussions with the representatives from both. There has been, certainly, the inclination that everyone wants to be patient and everyone wants to take their time, but we are wide open on those. Everyone realizes these are paramount discussions. Both Mitch and Auston bring leadership. They are obviously excellent young players and they are key, key parts of our franchise — not only on the ice but off the ice. Our goal is to get those done as soon as we can and continue to work and keep an open dialogue with their representatives.

While I don’t plan on dissecting how the dollars might work or breaking down what each should expect to make at this point in time, one popular belief I find interesting is the near-universal opinion that Matthews is absolutely worth more than Marner.

Matthews has been slightly more productive as a point-per-game player so far in his career compared to .925 for Marner, but after that, the argument is actually quite lopsided in favour of Marner.

First and foremost, Marner has stayed healthy, missing only five games so far in his career; Matthews missed 20 last season and 14 already this season. Matthews also missed time due to injury in his draft season (at some point, we might have to acknowledge this is a legitimate concern). There’s value in staying healthy, and Marner is well on his way to leading the team in scoring for the second straight season because of it.

In terms of role, Marner is playing more difficult minutes for the second straight season. Last year, he lined up alongside Nazem Kadri in a tough head-to-head assignment. This season, he is doing the same next to John Tavares.  Matthews, meanwhile, has been protected within his matchups and also has the second highest zone start ratio on the team (William Nylander is first).

So far in 2018-19, Marner leads all forwards on the team in ice time and plays over a minute and a half more per night than Matthews. Last season, Matthews played more on a per-game basis, but down the stretch of the schedule (from February 1 onward), it was Marner that led all Leaf forwards in ice time per game.

In a limited playoff sample, Marner is at a point per game, while Matthews has seven in 13 and saw his ice time reduced last Spring, with media storyline subsequently unfolding as a result.

On special teams, the team’s top-ranked power play runs through Marner yet again. He is now seeing regular penalty killing time as well.

To sum up, Marner plays more, in a more difficult role, has more special teams responsibility, and has managed to stay healthier than Matthews so far.

Of course, Matthews is the franchise center. He is the big 1C that every organization dreams of and he has been extremely productive: A career point-per-game player with a 40-goal season under his belt already, he was on pace for 40+ last season as well, if not for injury, and is on pace for 50 this season. That alone gets a player paid, and Matthews will get paid.

The Toronto Maple Leafs certainly don’t have to pick one over the other — nor will they — but if anyone thought the Nylander negotiations were difficult, just wait for these two to play out.

At some point, the parameters of the discussion and the approach from Leafs management might have to be similar to what the Chicago Blackhawks did with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane: Sign them both to identical long-term deals.


Notes

  • The Maple Leafs and penalties seem to draw quite a bit of attention. They have the lowest number of power plays of any team in the league and take the fewest penalties of any team, and while some of that is not surprising – the team is not physical — it seems like a club as offensively dangerous as the Leafs should be able to draw more than they do. Many of the other teams in the top five for fewest power play opportunities play a similar brand, though – the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Minnesota Wild. They also are not a dominant possession team that controls the vast majority of play and wears the opposition down. In fact, all five of those teams are outside the top ten in terms of possession.
  • Viewing the Vancouver Canucks game from above, I gained another perspective on the team this week. We talk a lot about the Leafs blowing the zone and shooting up ice for stretch passes, which is obviously apparent live, but one thing that stood out is that some of the Leafs icings are basically the defense thinking they have no other options. They basically do it on purpose. Ron Hainsey iced it on the first shift of the game after looking up, seeing nothing, and almost having a “screw it” type of attitude. It’s a bit of a “live by the sword, die by the sword” structure. I know we blame the Leafs defense often for the icings, but it’s not all them. When you are getting pressured and three forwards are lined up across the far blue line, you genuinely have no other choice. You can try to rip the puck at them for a tip dump-in, but if it’s intercepted, you’re caught flat-footed on a counterattack. The Leafs are third in the league in total icings this season.
  • It’s hard to complain about the overall strategy when they are second in the East, but we’ll see how it holds up in the playoffs again. If it’s a third straight one-and-done, well…
  • I’ve mentioned this in previous years, but when Babcock first got to Toronto, at one point he was asked who the top teams in the league were and he pointed to the ones with the best goal differential. The Leafs currently have the second-best goal differential in the league (Tampa Bay is first).
  • Against Vancouver, Kasperi Kapanen had two 2v1s where the defenseman sold out on the pass and he tried to get it across anyway only for it to be blocked. He is going to get a lot of odd-man rush scoring opportunities in his career due to his speed, and based on how he’s already adapted his game to be more dangerous when driving the net/curling up (instead of skating into a corner and getting angled off), I’m hopeful that he can take that next step in his game by making those reads. In his last 12 games, he has four points and 24 shots on net.
  • Halfway through the season, the East has lots of playoff seeding yet to be decided, but the teams in the playoffs look almost set. The Islanders and Sabres have the final two wildcard spots at the moment with the Habs one point behind. It looks like it will be between those three teams, as the Canes are next and are seven points behind the final wildcard spot (they have also been propped up by an active four-game winning streak). Playing any of the Bruins, Sabres or Habs is still clearly on the table (heck, the Leafs could technically falter and fall into a wildcard spot of their own), but the general playoff field appears more-or-less clear already.

Quotes

It wasn’t just an incident like that. It was slowly. Something I played with through in December a little bit and tried to manage. The Christmas break didn’t respond the way we hoped and we figured it was time to shut it down.

– Frederik Andersen on his groin injury

I don’t have any specifics, nor do I want to ring any alarm bells, but this does not sound good. Groin injuries linger and can be extremely tricky. They should take all the time they need and get it right.

Ideally, what it is going to do is get him to compete harder and skate harder and take a load off of him so he can get going. I thought he was going to get the winner here tonight. I thought one wasn’t going to be enough. In the end, that’s all he got. We need him to help our team and be a productive Leaf. We think he can be and we think it is just a matter of time.

– Mike Babcock on what William Nylander scoring might do for his game

I thought it was interesting how the first things Babcock mentioned were to compete harder and skate harder. I completely understand the drought and the struggles to start, but it was disappointing to watch Nylander become discouraged instead of digging in harder. Hopefully, this is a good learning experience for him.

I didn’t know he was that fast. His speed has really stood out to me. I think every single game he gets more and more confident as he goes. His goal tonight was unbelievable,” Auston Matthews said. “Every game he’s gotten better and better, and I think everyone’s took notice how dangerous of a player he is.

– Auston Matthews on Trevor Moore

We have talked about the fourth line for a few years now, and the thought is usually that it needs more toughness and physicality (which would still be nice, to be clear). But it is possible to be effective in that role in other ways, and Trevor Moore does it with his speed and forechecking. Moore has been a real shot in the arm for the team and a nice change of pace at times for a group that can often play too much of a skill game that is lacking in other dimensions. Coupled with Gauthier and Lindholm, they are providing a bit of a different style of game. It’s a welcome addition.


5 Things I Think I’d Do

  1. When the Leafs pull the goalie, I think I’d have William Nylander on instead of Jake Gardiner. He has a better shot and is overall better offensively. The Wild collapsed on the Leafs and sold out on not getting beat by a Mitch Marner play off the half-wall. Nylander has a bomb and can make teams pay if they elect to play the Leafs the way the Wild did (and right now, there’s no reason not to).
  2. I think it’s interesting that Andreas Johnsson played more on the penalty kill in the playoffs last year than he has all of this season so far. I’d be interested in taking another look at him there. With Zach Hyman out, the team is going to Mitch Marner more, and he does a really nice job on the PK, so this isn’t a knock on him. When it’s the playoffs, though, I think you will have to manage the grind in terms of ice time and situations. Johnsson’s speed makes an impact there as he covers a lot of ice and lanes and can forecheck up the ice. Beyond Hyman and Marner, the Leafs have been using Brown, Lindholm, and Kapanen on the penalty kill, so it’s just another potential option.
  3. I think the forward lines make sense right now and I’d keep them as is. However, a tough decision is looming once Hyman returns (there’s no use debating it until he is actually going to return, though).
  4. When Babcock said they’d like to bring in another goalie so that Kasimir Kaskisuo can play in the AHL instead of holding a clipboard, I think that makes sense. Plus, if we are being honest, there is zero evidence that the Leafs should have any faith in Kasimir Kaskisuo at the NHL level. He has a .871 save percentage in the AHL this season.
  5. I think Connor Brown is showing well on the left wing and it’s nice to know the team might have that in their bag if they need it. Of course, he’s playing with two elite players — that makes life easy — but he’s been able to drive lanes to help open up the ice (like on both of the Marner goals against the Wild), and he’s not struggling on breakouts playing his off-wing. Alongside Tavares at even strength, they have yet to give up a goal against and are controlling over 51% of the shot attempts.