The RFA interview window has now opened, and after a few weeks of reported intentions to hear from other teams, the question becomes just how seriously Mitch Marner’s camp will court interest from other franchises around the league as a potential July offer sheet looms.
If Marner actually goes ahead and partakes in a visitation tour with other teams as an RFA coming off of his entry-level deal, it would be an unprecedented move. Shea Weber did it back in late July of 2012, but he was a six-year veteran of the league who had been through contentious contract talks beforehand, including an arbitration hearing — ending in a record-setting one-year, $7.5 million settlement — the summer previous.
More likely, to avoid a public reaction that would play out quite a bit differently in the Toronto market compared to the Weber situation in Nashville, the Marner camp will take a few calls and superficially entertain some interest from other teams as they wait for the Leafs to cede to their demands.
Best we can ascertain, this is a rough approximation of the stances of the Leafs and the Marner camp. Keep in mind this comes from piecing together reports and reading between the lines.
- The Leafs are willing to go to $10 million (perhaps with some wiggle room) but only if they get the eight years in term — not an unreasonable stance and about as much as they can stomach cap-wise. Naturally, the shorter the length of term and fewer UFA years bought, the more the AAV of their offer drops.
- The Marner camp wants something closer to the Matthews deal, where they’re getting north of $10 million and only giving up five years in term. This is an unreasonable stance by any objective measure, but it is a significant difference — that is, betting on yourself (and growing league revenues) and setting the stage for a re-up well before the age of 30 under a higher cap ceiling as opposed to selling three additional UFA years at $10 million per.
Obviously, the two sides are negotiating with no resolution mechanism in place in the form of arbitration. The wider league context and closest comparables are irrelevant to Marner’s camp. They have their own feelings about how he should be treated/compensated and where he should slot in within the Leafs’ salary structure relative to the other players on the team. There are emotions and a relationship history at play here. But that doesn’t mean the Leafs should accommodate the Marner’s camp wishes and blow their cap apart to satisfy their feeling on what’s fair. You’ll never win in a hard-cap system managing that way, particularly when those demands are so clearly out of step with league-wide precedence and the team’s own cap reality.
Calling the bluff is a good bet if you’re the Leafs for a multitude of reasons:
- The system is built very much in the favour of an offer sheet not happening at the price point it’d take for Marner to sign. Anything below $10.568 million is basically an automatic match by the Leafs (compensation being two firsts, second, third), so all you accomplish there is burning a bridge, making yourself more vulnerable down the line, and driving up prices on yourself and your fellow GMs. Over $10.568 million is a massive jump to four first round picks, in addition to potentially significantly overpaying the player, which has all kinds of implications for your own cap and salary structure. Marner is an amazing player and a top-10 player at his position. He’s not $11+ million (making him the highest-paid winger in the league off entry-level), four-first-round picks amazing. Obvious leaks in the media from the Marner camp aside — or even if some team executive happened to talk tough to a reporter about it — it’s a relatively safe bet that no team would follow through with that kind of offer.
- Even if a team has the cap space and gumption to submit one (huge ifs), Marner has to actually sign one. The agent taking some calls as a negotiation ploy is one thing, but it doesn’t seem likely — and it seems probable that Leafs management doesn’t think it is either — that Marner is even going to consider leaving for anything but a grand-slam home run overpay of an offer.
Here is what Marner knows about Toronto: He runs the top power play here. He’s centered by John Tavares. His friends and family are here and he’s playing at home (a world-class city). His coach trusts him in all manner of situations (PP, PK, start of games, end of games, in top matchup situations). He’s benefitting from (and clearly taking full advantage of, if you scroll through his Instagram feed for a minute) sponsorship opportunities that wouldn’t be available to the same degree elsewhere. He’s made the playoffs all three years he’s been a Leaf and is on a contending top 5-6 team in the league.
There is risk and uncertainty involved in leaving Toronto and joining a new team in a new market with a new coach and a new group of teammates. If he talks with other teams, they’ll attempt to sell him on a lot of those things, but you don’t know until you get there.
- There is a large list of teams who, in order to submit an offer sheet that Marner might actually sign, would have to immediately start subtracting from their roster to accommodate Marner’s cap hit after already giving up four first-round picks. It’s an all-in move reserved only for teams that have both a reasonable chance of contending now and can fit in a huge cap hit without needing to make significant subtractions elsewhere on the roster.
St. Louis’ run from last in the league to Cup champs inside six months may inspire some teams to do some silly things this offseason, but this reality really narrows down the field of candidates. In theory, Columbus, Florida, New York, and Colorado come to mind as teams with the cap space and potentially an appetite to try something crazy, but it’s a very short list. You could start narrowing the odds down further if you factor in team needs, desirability of the destination, which teams are exposed to a potential offer sheet themselves with a key RFA, other free agent talent those teams are pursuing (there is an equally gifted winger available for nothing but cash in Artemi Panarin), and so on. It’s a hugely expensive move, especially if you’re not getting a franchise center or defenseman out of it and instead a highly productive — albeit uniquely versatile in Marner’s case — winger.
Conventional thinking from most of the insiders covering the game is that we might actually see an offer sheet this summer because of the quality and quantity of RFA talent available, the lower-than-anticipated cap ceiling, and the growing sense that offers sheets are a tool available to GMs within the rules of the CBA that have gone under-utilized over the years (basically, “if not now, when?”). But most in the know are doubting the probability of a Marner sheet happening, and there are some clear reasons why.
Kyle Dubas will also know this and should stand his ground accordingly.