After watching Mitch Marner’s one-goal, three assist performance in a 5-3 pre-season win over the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night, former NHLer Marc Savard, who is now a radio analyst in Toronto, had an interesting observation. He opined that the Maple Leafs should forget about focusing their efforts on signing William Nylander and get Marner under contract before he ends up costing the organization $10 million a year.
It’s an interesting thought and one that is not without merit. The only problem is that ship may have already sailed. At this point, amid rumblings that the Marner camp will not sign a deal until after this season, it’s hard to imagine the Leafs could get him under contract for less than that on a long-term deal. And if his two goals and eight points in three pre-season games is any indication of what he’s capable of accomplishing this season, $10 million might be a bargain.
It really makes no sense for Marner to sign now. In his first two seasons in the NHL, he has scored 130 points, two fewer than Auston Matthews in 15 more games. And even with all the hype surrounding Matthews and John Tavares this season, there is a very real possibility Marner could lead this team in scoring if he’s healthy for all 82 games. There really is no downside for Marner to wait and see what lies in store for him in 2018-19. What if this young man develops into a top-five talent in the NHL? What if he goes out and contends for a scoring title? What if he becomes a beast on the penalty kill and the main distributor on the power play? None of these things is a far-fetched notion and if they come to fruition, Marner will want to be paid as such and $10 million simply won’t cut it.
While the Leafs continue to decide what to do with Nylander, Marner is going about his business and, in the process, making things more difficult for the Leafs. If they think they had a headache with Nylander, that will seem like child’s play if they go into the next off-season with both Marner and Matthews to sign, as well as potential unrestricted free agent defenseman Jake Gardiner.
First of all, though, this is a wonderful problem for the Leafs to have and there are 30 other GMs in the league who would be happy to take the challenge that faces Kyle Dubas. Signing Tavares over the summer to a deal that will average $11 million over the next seven seasons undoubtedly took potential cap space away from Marner, Matthews and Nylander. But to have that kind of glut of young talent is something GMs spend their nights dreaming about. Unlike the Edmonton Oilers, who had years of top picks and so little to show for their ineptitude in the standings, the Leafs used a total of 13 draft spots over three years to get Nylander (eighth in 2014), Marner (fourth in 2015) and Matthews (first in 2016). With picks that high for that long, the Leafs should have a bounty that looks this good.
But Marner could be really gumming up the works here, particularly if he continues to outpace expectations. Unlike Matthews, he never came to Toronto as the anointed one. Ever since his draft year when he was overshadowed by Connor McDavid, Marner has had to accept second-tier status. He has been far better than both Matthews and Nylander in the playoffs, especially last spring when those two struggled while Marner registered nine points in the Maple Leafs seven-game ouster to the Boston Bruins in the first round. He has had to work for everything he has earned, occasionally suffering the punitive measures imposed by coach Mike Babcock, who at one point demoted him to the fourth line. Through it all, Marner was quiet and kept his head down. And while reports of a rift between Matthews and Babcock surfaced this off-season, the same has never been said of Marner toward a coach who has put him through his fair share of trials.
And unless the Leafs blow Marner away with an otherworldly offer, his comeuppance will come this summer when he negotiates his contract. He will have no arbitration rights and his only real leverage will be to do what Nylander is doing and withhold his services, but if an NHL GM is going to break tradition and put forth an offer sheet for a restricted free agent, Marner would be a likely target, if for no other reason than to force the Leafs to match the offer, which would put them in a further bind with the salary cap.
It will be fascinating to watch as the season unfolds. And the more Marner accomplishes, the more perilous the situation will potentially get.