Mitch Marner‘s next contract is a hot topic for debate among Toronto Maple Leafs fans.
The 22-year-old winger is completing his entry-level contract. Based on his numbers since his NHL debut in 2016-17, he’s due for a hefty pay raise.
Marner was the Leafs’ leading scorer in each of the last two seasons. That has some Leafs followers suggesting he deserves as much per season as John Tavares and Auston Matthews. Tavares’s annual average value is $11 million while Matthews’ is $11.634 million.
Others, however, feel the youngster isn’t worth as much as those two. Despite his number, they argue he’s not an impact player like Tavares and Matthews. They’d prefer he accept a “hometown discount” of between $7-$8 million per season.
The Leafs’ salary-cap situation provides additional intrigue. With over $74.2-million committed to 17 players for 2019-20, they have no room to re-sign Marner and fellow RFA forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Meanwhile, defensemen Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey are unrestricted free agents who must be re-signed or replaced.
Time is also a factor. At noon ET on July 1, Marner becomes eligible to receive offer sheets from rival clubs. Because of the Leafs’ cap crunch, there’s media conjecture suggesting he could become an attractive offer-sheet target.
Unless the Leafs make a significant contract offer, TSN’s Darren Dreger believes Marner’s representatives could carry contract negotiations past July 1. Dreger also speculated the Marner camp could talk to rival clubs starting on Jun. 26, when the interview period for free agents begins.
That would explain the recent news indicating Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev could be trade candidates. Marleau, 39, has a full no-movement clause. However, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reports the left winger’s family is returning to San Jose and he’d like to be closer to them. He suggested the Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, and Los Angeles Kings as possible trade partners.
Zaitsev, meanwhile, requested a trade last week for “personal reasons.” Kypreos’ colleague Elliotte Friedman reported Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas confirmed he’s working with the 27-year-old defenseman to “find him a fresh start.”
Marleau has a year remaining on his contract with an annual salary-cap hit of $6.25 million. Zaitsev is completing the second year of a seven-year deal with a $4.25 million annual cap hit. Moving both would free up $10.5 million of much-needed cap room for Toronto.
Doing so, however, won’t be easy. Marleau is coming to the end of his playing career and his performance noticeably declined this season. Zaitsev struggled the past two seasons, making his lengthy contract a potentially difficult sell on the trade market.
Dealing those guys could involve packaging each with a sweetener, such as a decent draft pick, a promising prospect, or a young NHL-ready player, to make them more enticing. That’s assuming interested clubs won’t insist the Leafs absorb part of their annual cap hits.
If the Leafs free up the cap space, will it be enough to keep Marner from going the offer-sheet route?
On the one hand, he’s a Toronto native living the dream of starring with his hometown club. He’s also aware of the Leafs’ cap constraints. He could do Dubas a favor by agreeing to an affordable short-term bridge deal with the promise of a more lucrative deal down the road.
Then again, the possibility to earn big bucks is tempting. Marner became the first Leaf in 22 years to reach the 90-point plateau. He’s established himself as a skilled scoring winger and an invaluable part of the Leafs’ core. If the Leafs won’t pony up over $10 million annually, another club could.
Ryan O’Reilly was the last NHL player to sign an offer sheet. A Colorado Avalanche restricted free agent in 2013, he inked a multi-year deal with the Calgary Flames. The Avs quickly matched the offer.
Pundits have since engaged in annual offseason speculation over potential offer-sheet candidates. Despite the chatter, they’ve never materialized.
This summer, however, could be different. With several bright young stars like Marner on teams lacking salary-cap room, there’s a growing belief that one of them could sign with a rival club next month.
It takes two to tango. Just because Marner will be eligible to receive an offer sheet doesn’t mean he’ll sign one. His agents could be using the threat of an offer sheet to squeeze Dubas into signing their client to a richer contract.
While several clubs carry lots of cap room, not all of them will attempt to sign Marner to an offer sheet. Some of those teams could also be in markets he’s not interested in.
Then again, one of those teams could make an offer too irresistible to turn down. Maybe a five-year deal worth $13 million annually might tempt Marner? While Dubas is reportedly confident he can match any offer, something of that magnitude could give him pause.
Dubas is hopeful he can get Marner signed before July 1. He doesn’t want to repeat the lengthy contract standoff he faced last year with William Nylander. To avoid that, however, could mean paying a lot more than he planned.
Marner will get a substantial raise on his next contract. The coming weeks will determine how much, for how long, and with which team.