A Bigfoot sighting and a Mitch Marner offer sheet: equally likely

Crafting an offer sheet that appeals to Marner and doesn't bury a team with financial and draft-pick compensation is extremely complicated. Don't bet on it.
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Yawn. Another day, another offer-sheet rumor.

The latest concerns Toronto Maple Leafs right winger and pending 2019 RFA Mitch Marner, currently on track to top 100 points in his third NHL season and clearly owed a gargantuan pay hike.

As TSN’s Darren Dreger reported yesterday, “I can tell you, with certainty, teams are 100 percent preparing an offer sheet for Mitch Marner.”

First, a quick disclaimer: I don’t doubt the validity of what Dreger’s reporting for a second. He’s just the messenger in this situation, and the idea that GMs are floating offer-sheet plans doesn’t surprise me.

But let’s stop for a second and ask a few questions. First: what does a GM have to gain by leaking Marner offer-sheet plans to a reporter? If the team is actually wanting to offer-sheet Marner, then telegraphing it, leaking it to the press so that Leafs GM Kyle Dubas finds out, does not increase the odds of this other team landing Marner. It creates more urgency for the Leafs to get Marner signed to his long-term extension before the qualifying-offer window closes on June 25 or the first Monday after the 2019 draft. Teams can begin negotiating an offer sheet with a player as of 5:00 p.m. on the Tuesday, and a player can sign one from July 1 onward.

Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, has indicated no contract talks will take place until after the season ends, but the season could end as early as April should the Leafs get bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Even the deepest possible post-season run, getting Toronto to the Stanley Cup final, would give the team a couple weeks to negotiate with Marner. So, to me, any leaking of offer-sheet plans can only be seen as strategic, intended to drive Marner’s price up on his extension with Toronto and not to improve another team’s chances of actually landing him.

Even if the Leafs don’t strike a long-term deal by the end of June and have to extend Marner his one-year qualifying offer, the odds of an offer sheet still seem absurdly low to me. I ain’t buyin’ the rumors. Why? Let’s resume with questions.

Question No. 2: are we convinced Marner would sign an offer for a term less than the eight he’d get from the Leafs? His new team could not offer a term longer than seven years.

Question No. 3: Can we say for certain any team can and will actually pay Marner what he deserves? Given the year he’s having, he’s pricing himself easily north of a $10-million AAV. A huge second half could put him into contention for some individual hardware. A strong playoff performance would spike his value even more.

As far as offer-sheet compensation goes, any deal with an AAV higher than $10,148,303 would require sending four first-round picks to the Leafs. Even if this new team gets cute and inks Marner for $10,148,302 a year, the compensation would be two first-rounders, a second-rounder and a third. And getting under the four-first-rounder threshold isn't as simple as it looks. An AAV inflator is used for draft-pick compensation rulings. It pays the player the total compensation divided by the “lesser number of the years of the offer sheet or five years.” It would be the latter since Marner is in long-term extension territory and highly unlikely to sign a contract for five years or fewer. So if he signed a seven-year, $70-million deal, he’d earn a $14-million AAV on the new team in terms of the draft-pick-compensation threshold. It would be extremely tricky for any offer-sheeting team to get below the four-first-rounder line. Even, for instance, a six-year offer at a $9-million AAV would divide the $54 million by five to give Marner a $10.8-million AAV. Boom, four first-rounders to the Leafs. You could try to offer sheet him for just two or three years at a huge cap number, but why would Marner sign in that case?

To get below the four-draft-pick threshold on a seven-year contract, a team would have to offer-sheet Marner for no more than $50,741,510, which would carry an actual cap hit slightly below $7.25 million (showing my work: 10,148,302 x 5 = 50,741,510, / 7 = 7,248,787). If Marner signed it, the Leafs would laugh and immediately match it. Dubas has been preparing all year to make room for Marner and Auston Matthews. Acquiring defenseman Jake Muzzin’s extra year at a $4-million AAV all but ensures Jake Gardiner walks as a UFA. He would’ve cost a lot more than Muzzin’s 2019-20 cap hit to retain, so Dubas has essentially freed up money.

See the catch-22 here? Offer sheet Marner for just under the highest compensation threshold and the Leafs match it easily. Offer sheet him for a number in the highest compensation threshold, and it’s difficult to imagine any team surrendering four first-rounders for any single player.

Lastly, question No. 4: given how many things have to break perfectly for the “attacking” team in an offer-sheet scenario, is it worth the loss of GM goodwill it may create? We all remember Brian Burke’s “barn fight” threats toward Kevin Lowe. Offer sheets can burn bridges between GMs. There’s a reason why we’ve seen zero offer sheets in the past six years, the last being Ryan O’Reilly’s in 2013. Maintaining good GM relations is one motivation to refrain from offer sheets. Another: the NHL is more of a young man’s game than ever, so four first-rounders are arguably more valuable than they were a couple decades ago. Of the NHLs top 20 scorers at the moment, 15 are first-rounders, and 13 are 25 or younger.

So let’s quit the hand wringing over offer sheets. Treat them like paranormal phenomena: believe them when you see them.

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