The ink has now dried on Mitch Marner’s new six-year, $10.893 million AAV contract.
The common reaction to the news: Relieved it’s over, widespread agreement this is a considerable overpayment.
Looking back on the last nine months, it seems Kyle Dubas had accepted — sometime after the William Nylander ordeal and before the Auston Matthews contract — that he was going to live with overpaying his stars relative to “fair market value” based on historical comparables.
You’ll hear a lot of people point out in the aftermath of this Marner contract that it’s better to overpay star players than non-core players — true given the two choices, but it’s also a false dilemma. The goal of any GM should be not to overpay any player, and that certainly applies to your most important RFA second-contract negotiations, where clubs have traditionally held all the leverage.
The jury is out on whether the Leafs are patient zero in a major league-wide shift — the Brayden Point, Patrik Laine, and Mikko Rantanen contracts are going to be fascinating to watch — but the fact is that rival GMs at the helm of contending teams, up until this point, have managed to avoid spending lavishly on the second contracts of their star talent to the extent the Leafs have with theirs.
Time will tell if the Leafs’ core five — Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Rielly — can prove they’re as good or better than any core five in the league. The exciting part for the Leafs, in addition to the 2018-19 performances of Rielly and Tavares, is that they’ve only scratched the surface on the potential of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander. There is legitimate potential for that to be the case.
That doesn’t make the Marner contract look any better today, though. Everyone wants a deal, and the Leafs didn’t get one here — not even close.
We have no idea what went on in the communications between the two parties, but from the outside looking in, it’s possible Kyle Dubas was not aggressive enough early enough or too easily let the other side dictate the terms and public framing of the negotiation.
Whatever the case, Dubas seemed to accept he was not going to receive anything in the way of a discount and he was not going to be able to grind Marner down to even fair market value; he clearly wasn’t interested in using all the leverage at his disposal to strong-arm this player. He certainly preferred overpaying Marner by $1.5-2 million over trading him (with no chance the return would yield commensurate value), making him sit out (probably ruining the upcoming season), or forcing him onto a short-term contract that would have set the table for another difficult, potentially relationship-destroying negotiation in a year or two.
Dubas also couldn’t allow another contention year to be undermined by a major contractual holdout, particularly in a media environment that thrives on the drama and chaos. Due to his cap predicament, he didn’t have the option of extending this into the regular season even if he wanted to. So he went ahead and bit the bullet.
Dubas spoke on Saturday about his hope that his star players will play at a level that matches and outpaces their pay grade by the time it comes to re-sign again. The difficulty for Marner is that it is going to require a soaring cap ceiling and a collection of new market-setting winger contracts over the course of the next several years to make this look like objectively reasonable value. The Art Ross winner last season, Nikita Kucherov (41 goals and 128 points), was making $9.5 million on an eight-year contract that bought seven UFA seasons, one that was signed just one year prior under a barely-lower cap ceiling following two 40-goal years.
The good news is that Marner is a superb talent and a uniquely versatile winger. Even allowing for some possible regression from a high on-ice shooting percentage 2018-19 season, if he’s producing at around a point-per-game, making meaningful contributions on both sides of special teams, and proving a difference-maker in critical late-game situations whether trailing or leading — i.e. doing the things that add up to winning hockey games and hopefully, playoff series — it will be easy enough to stomach.
Additionally, overpaying your top two stars to this degree could be fine if, A) they’re good bets to produce at elite rates offensively while improving as 200-foot players, B) you are hitting often enough on your draft/development and the rest of your asset and cap management so that you’re gleaning surplus value out of your supporting cast of players. Dubas’ plan here is that he’s going to pay a premium for his stars compared to his peers but he’s also going to make fewer mistakes within the secondary and tertiary tiers of his roster while outmatching his rivals in his drafting and developing of young talent (the challenge here is they’ve got no first-round pick for the second year in a row, but they do have 10 draft picks in 2020).
Dubas’ “we can and we will” promise has been invoked regularly by the fan base as each of the second contracts for holy trinity has been announced, but he has not really answered this question simply by signing his stars to above-market contracts. Inferred by the question (asked by Elliotte Friedman last summer on the 31 Thoughts podcast) that Dubas was originally responding to: Can you actually win this way? In a parity-filled league, can you give yourself enough kicks at the can? Can you sustain a long window of contention? If the Leafs cap themselves out of consistent contention and fail to get the job done, no one will sit back and go, “Remember how we kept the Big Three, though?”
Even in the short term, the Leafs are by no means out of the woods here. They’re likely going to have to carry a smaller roster this season due to their current cap reality and could feasibly lose some of their useful NHL depth to waivers. They’re a capped-out team with two very good defensemen on cheap, expiring contracts ($4 million and $2.25 million in cap dollars on Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, respectively), making 2019-20 a huge opportunity — a year to push some chips in, to be sure — and yet they would need to execute dollar-in, dollar-out hockey trades to improve the roster during the season.
There are question marks down the middle beyond the top two — can Alexander Kerfoot stick at center, can Jason Spezza play center full time at his age, is Nick Shore a player? — and they’re potentially thin at the right defense position, depending on what emerges in camp and exhibition, in addition to some holes that need filling on the penalty kill.
Longer term, the balance of their roster commitments is eye-opening — they’ve got one defenseman signed past this season and 50% of their current cap tied up in four forwards.
Make no mistake, though, with Marner in the fold, this team is really, really good and has as good of a chance this year as anyone — Matthews, Marner, Nylander are just now entering their prime production window, Tavares is at the peak of his powers, and the prime-aged Rielly, Barrie and Muzzin form the best top three the Leafs have had on their blue line since the pre-lockout days with McCabe, Kaberle and Leetch. In net, they’ve got a goaltender that needs to prove he can peak at the right time of year but is a top-10 talent at his position in Frederik Andersen.
Within the second tier of the roster, based on what we know about these players and their history of production in their short time in the league, Kerfoot, Johnsson and Kapanen are set up well to deliver surplus value on their current contracts.
It’s also clear what Dubas is attempting to do with some of the tertiary pieces of his roster: It seemed a little unorthodox to sign players like Kenny Agostino and Nic Petan to multi-year deals at around the league minimum (Dubas did the same with Justin Holl previously). It’s no sure thing either is going to become a permanent fixture in Mike Babcock’s lineup, but the philosophy here is clear: If Dubas can hit on some of these low-risk bets, he’s able to chip away at making up the ground that’s been lost cap-wise at the top end of the roster. This will require constant iterating around the edges of the lineup and successful scouring of the market in order to derive hidden value from the flotsam around the league.
Continuing to scour the European leagues as the Leafs have done in hopes of hitting on cheap, above-replacement-level talent is another part of this (the Leafs should remain aggressive on this front, even though it’s led to fairly limited success so far). Ensuring the likes of Timothy Liljegren, Rasmus Sandin, and Jeremy Bracco matriculate successfully to the big-club level, while keeping the Marlies’ program rolling apace is going to be absolutely vital (as Dubas said recently, “get players in, develop the shit out of them”). It’s also going to require real discipline in the UFA market and some ruthless calls on the right time to sell high on (or walk away from, with some tough calls coming up on the blue line as soon as this summer) productive non-core assets.
The other challenge is that Dubas has arguably now shown himself to be “player-friendly” in his contract talks — critics might say he’s revealed himself as susceptible to implacable agents — and these recent important contracts aren’t the last he’s going to negotiate as Leafs GM. Paying your stars handsomely and being frugal elsewhere is a noble ideal, but to contend consistently over a long period of time in a hard-cap league, you do at some point have to win a few high-stakes contract negotiations.
Dubas didn’t accomplish that with Marner, but he’s in the fold for the next six years, and that last part was critical for the Leafs GM. With the contracts handed out to other high-end RFA talents so far — Meier, Boeser, Werenski — teams are taking their second-contract savings on bridge deals; the tradeoff is the big final-year salary. These teams are going to pay up in three or four years time when these players will have the leverage of a major qualifying offer that could bridge them straight to UFA under a higher (potentially much higher) cap ceiling. No doubt, this was the Marner camp’s preference as well.
The Leafs did not look at the three-year option as viable on their end. Dubas has looked at this and said: “If I know I have Matthews, Marner and Tavares signed at least until 2024, I’ve given myself a real chance to deliver within that window.”
It’s hard to disagree there.