Be glad you’re not Toronto Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas right now.
On the surface, the Leafs are going to have a very challenging time balancing the cap with under $9 million in cap space. With an upgrade needed at defense – Jake Gardiner isn’t the answer, is he? – and potentially some further help behind Frederik Andersen, some shuffling will be needed. But most importantly, Dubas will have to deal with star winger Mitch Marner, who, arguably, is worth $10-11 million on his next deal – a long-term contract, at that.
If the Leafs had to declare an MVP this season, Marner, a pending restricted free agent, would be that man. His 94 points tied Mats Sundin for the most points in a single season since Doug Gilmour had 127 in 1992-93. To think that Marner is just 22 and thriving as John Tavares’ right winger is crazy, given that he looks capable of hitting 100 points in the near future. It’s not even crazy to say Marner is on his way to becoming one of the greatest wingers the franchise has ever had.
But that’s why Dubas’ summer is so important. Marner brings immeasurable value and his agents are going to bargain to reach at least Auston Matthews’ numbers at $11.6 million per year. Having Matthews, Tavares and Marner signed for at least $11 million each is going to make landing a top-end defenseman tougher in the future. Dubas has his work cut out for him this year, and if he makes it work, Leaf fans can stop worrying about the contract apocalypse that loomed over the team’s heads since drafting Marner and Matthews.
What other wingers will command a big payday on the restricted free agent market this summer? Let’s take a look:
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche
Rantanen shook off a disappointing rookie campaign in 2016-17 that saw him finish with just 38 points by recording back-to-back 80-plus point campaigns, including 31 goals and 87 points this year. A member of one of the most dominant first lines in the NHL, Rantanen, 22, quickly emerged into one of the NHL’s best wingers, regardless of age. Assuming he asks for more than the $6.3 million Nathan MacKinnon is paid, Rantanen is set to become Colorado’s highest-paid player, and it wouldn’t be crazy to see Rantanen demand $9 million.
Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets
It’s hard to call a 30-goal season by a kid that didn’t turn 21 until the post-season a bad one, but Laine’s 50-point campaign was a step down from his 70 the previous year. Still, with his 110 goals putting him behind just four active players among goals by a U-22 player in the first three years of their career, Laine is one of the most dangerous goal-scorers in the NHL. Laine could earn in the $8-million range, using Vladimir Tarasenko’s $7.5 million and Leon Draisaitl’s $8.5-million deals as a starting point. Laine does have a bit of refining to do in his game, especially when it comes to playmaking, but he is still one of the best players on the Jets and should serve as a long-term fixture with the organization.
Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
Laine isn’t the only big fish the Jets need to worry about this summer. Coming off a career year with 34 goals and 66 points, Connor, 22, showed big improvements to his game in his second full NHL season. Connor will likely land somewhere in the $7-8-million area after proving he can be a big-time goal-scorer for the Jets with great speed and creativity to play around with. Keep in mind that they will sign one of either Tyler Myers or Jacob Trouba on defense, and even with $26 million in cap space for next season, that can start to add up quickly.
Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames
Tkachuk has to be one of the toughest players in the league to play against. Not only will he pummel you silly or throw a game-changing hit, but Tkachuk proved he can be a big-time point producer with 34 goals and 77 points. Tkachuk is the only free agent on the Flames that will likely command a minimum of $3 million this summer, and a good projection would see Tkachuk signing a long term, $7-million per-year deal. He’s part of Calgary’s future and should earn more than Johnny Gaudreau makes at the cap-friendly discount of $6.75 million.
Timo Meier, San Jose Sharks
Want to talk about an improvement? Meier, 22, had 66 points this past season, a large step up from his 36-point output the previous year. Meier, a physically-dominant forward with tremendous skill to boot, has started to heat up at a time that could see the Sharks lose key members to free agency this summer. That could put Meier’s max earning potential in a bit of a bind in San Jose, but a safe projection would be Meier signing for $3-4 million per season in a two-year bridge contact situation before signing a long-term deal at 24 or 25 when he has a couple of big seasons under his belt.
Other notables: Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), Kevin Labanc (San Jose Sharks), Travis Konecny (Philadelphia Flyers), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals), Kasperi Kapanen (Toronto Maple Leafs).
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