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Why a bridge deal could be what’s best for Leafs’ Nylander

The Maple Leafs want a long-term deal. William Nylander wants a long-term deal. But maybe what's best for both is a short-term pact.

On Tuesday night in Lucan, Ont., the Toronto Maple Leafs will take the ice for their first tilt of the pre-season. Mitch Marner will be there. Nazem Kadri is set to suit up. John Tavares, arguably the most monumental free-agent signing in NHL history, will pull on the blue-and-white for his first game action with the Leafs. But amid all the excitement, there will still be one question on the minds of Toronto faithful: what exactly is going on with William Nylander?

Now that training camp is well underway, Nylander, 22, has become conspicuous by his absence. And with each passing day, the concerns surrounding his contract status — he’s a restricted free agent without any pact of which to speak — are growing. What we know is only what we’ve heard or what the two parties involved, Nylander and the Maple Leafs, have let us in on. The ask from Nylander appears to be a long-term contract, one that sees him paid handsomely and a rate commensurate with other top young stars. And while Toronto, it would seem, is interested in going long with Nylander, the money has seemingly become the greatest sticking point.

To be sure, Nylander’s value is hard to peg. Early off-season suggestions were that Nylander was seeking north of $8 million annually. More recent reports have indicated that the sweet spot, particularly for the Maple Leafs, may be somewhere in the $6 million to $6.5-million range. And the case can certainly be made for both.

Leon Draisaitl, for instance, signed an eight-year, $68-million contract with the Edmonton Oilers coming off of his second and third NHL seasons in which he accumulated 48 goals and 128 points in 154 games. That’s comparable to Nylander’s 42 goals and 122 points in 163 games during his same seasons. The argument against a similar payday is that Draisaitl is pegged as a second-line center while the Maple Leafs, especially with Tavares now aboard, will be sticking Nylander on the wing for the foreseeable future. Less versatility and less impact equals a lower rate of pay.

One can see, too, why the Leafs are eyeing something in the mid-$6 millions. Statistically, there are similar comparisons, chief among which is Nikolaj Ehlers. The Winnipeg Jets inked him to a seven-year, $42-million deal ahead of last season, and Ehlers has accumulated 54 goals and 124 points across his second and third NHL campaigns. Granted, the contract might not be a perfect one-for-one comparison given it was signed prior to Ehlers beginning the aforementioned third season. Last season’s output could have inflated the asking price.

Regardless, with the two sides seemingly stuck in a state of financial impasse, one wonders why there hasn’t been more consideration given to a short-term deal that simply gets Nylander locked up for the time being.

The obvious benefit for the Maple Leafs in a bridge deal in the immediate view is that it gets Nylander, a shoo-in for another 20-goal, 60-point season, back in the lineup. Not that the Maple Leafs’ lineup is in any dire need of additional firepower, but Nylander is one more bullet in the chamber for a Toronto outfit that will be able to run and gun with anyone this coming campaign. That’s not to mention the short-term financial flexibility that a bridge deal would offer that a long-term contract simply will not. While it may not be the most pressing issue this season, what with the Maple Leafs having upwards of $13 million in projected cap space this season, the additional cap space a short-term deal offers could be of benefit next summer when Matthews, Marner and a stable of others enter varying stages of free agency. It also won’t hurt when the trade deadline comes around during the 2018-19 or 2019-20 campaigns.

Of course, with bridge contracts generally coming with lesser cap hits, such a deal would assuredly see Nylander sacrifice some of his earnings for a couple seasons. But what Nylander loses in the coming campaigns he’d be almost guaranteed to make up the moment he puts pen to paper on his next contract. It’d be a bet on himself, somewhat of a gamble, to be sure, but it would seem foolish to suggest Nylander can’t increase his asking price with each consecutive season.

In fact, who’s to say Nylander can’t go out and pull a Nikita Kucherov? When Kucherov inked his almost absurdly team-friendly three-year bridge deal with Tampa Bay in October 2016, it came on the heels of the Lightning winger asserting himself as an offensive star thanks to second and third NHL campaigns in which he racked up 59 goals and 121 points in 159 games. The assumed asking price on a long-term deal at the time was in the $7-million range. And while he settled for far less at roughly $4.8 million per season, Kucherov turned the bridge deal into a bank-breaking contract. He signed an eight-year extension this summer that carries a $9.5-million cap hit after stuffing the scoresheet to the tune of 79 goals and 185 points across the past two seasons.

Kucherov’s long-term deal is evidence of the potential for significant financial gain that can come from a player biting the bullet on a bridge deal, too. If Kucherov had signed an eight-year deal at $7 million per season ahead of the 2016-17 campaign, he would have earned an additional $6.6 million in salary by the end of the 2018-19 season. But Kucherov is also going to earn $12.5 million more over the next five seasons than he would had he been locked in on an eight-year, $56-million contract two seasons back. All told, he’ll come out nearly $6 million ahead come the end of the 2023-24 season, and he’ll still have another $28.5 million yet to be paid out. Not bad.

This is to say that a bridge deal, while it saves the Maple Leafs money now and might seem more favorable for Toronto, could be a worthwhile gambit for Nylander. If he believes he can be an $8-million player — or if he feels his value is even greater than that — he would have two seasons to prove it. And if he makes good on his yet untapped potential, Nylander could put himself in a better financial position long-term than any lengthy pact he signs today could possibly offer.

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