Toronto’s long, national nightmare is over. Yes, Mitch Marner has re-signed with the Maple Leafs, ending a summer-long stalemate that threatened to encroach on the season for a redux of the William Nylander debacle of 2018.
Instead, the news is good for Leaf Nation, as the incredibly skilled right winger has been brought back into the fold just as training camp begins with a six-year deal worth an average of $10.9 million per season. So let’s unpack this.
The first point of intrigue is the contract itself. Marner becomes the third-highest paid player on the team, behind veteran center John Tavares (whom Marner developed excellent chemistry with in their first season together) and rising superstar Auston Matthews, who leads the three with an AAV of $11.6 million.
Matthews also re-signed with Toronto this year and it’s worth looking at the two contracts. Matthews signed a five-year pact, so he’ll hit the unrestricted free agent market a summer earlier than Marner. There has been gallons of digital ink spilled comparing the value of the two young hot-shots in Toronto and with Matthews playing the more-important role of center, it was generally assumed he would get the heftier stipend in the end. Of course, Marner has been healthier during his first three seasons in Toronto and amassed more points on the wing - though Matthews has a better points-per-game average in his career at .97 versus Marner’s .92.
This is all fantastic if you’re Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, because you have two offensive powerhouses still on the rise. And with Tavares also locked in long-term, Toronto’s assault on opposing netminders will only get stronger in the coming years.
The second plot thrust here is the salary cap itself. One of Dubas’ challenges in his tenure so far is to keep all the weapons he has amassed under a hard cap system. Trading pricey veteran Patrick Marleau helped ease the pressure a bit this summer, as did the acquisition of prodigal son David Clarkson - whose value is entirely based on the fact he will not be playing hockey but will be on Long-Term Injury Reserve (LTIR). The same goes for Nathan Horton - who was acquired for Clarkson so many moons ago. The Leafs will also start the season without defenseman Travis Dermott and left winger Zach Hyman, providing a little more cap relief at least in the beginning.
Dubas may be walking the razor’s edge this year, but if Toronto can plug the Dermott and Hyman holes with cheaper options - say, Jordan Schmaltz and Trevor Moore for the sake of argument - it will help...slightly. Having so much money wrapped up in three players hogties him and there really isn’t a lot of fat to trim otherwise, with the exception of new defenseman Cody Ceci - who himself was a better long-term cap decision than the blueliner who went the other way in the trade to Ottawa, Nikita Zaitsev.
But if Dubas and the Leafs can eke through until the next American TV deal contract kicks in (which is expected to boost the salary cap in the summer of 2021), then Toronto will have one of the most powerful attacks in the NHL.
Circling back to Marner, he now gets to prove he’s worth the money. In the regular season, that has to mean at least the 94 points he put up last season, plus a better result in the playoffs. While Marner was effective against Boston in 2018, his 2019 output of four points in seven games just wasn’t good enough. Toronto needs to win in the playoffs now. It doesn’t have to be a Stanley Cup next season, but at least a couple of rounds would indicate progress for this group.
Luckily, Marner won’t have the same late start as Nylander. The pressure is still on, but at least he won’t be playing catch-up. And that offer sheet never did materialize...