To be honest, I’ve consciously resisted writing about the Mitch Marner situation for most of 2019. The last thing the world needed was another tired column about stalled contract negotiations that had nothing new to add.
But it feels like it’s time to break the silence. In part because some new information is filtering out.
I’ll get into where I think things are headed with Marner and the Maple Leafs a little deeper in this piece, but there are some league wide threads that are interesting here that deserve addressing first. Let’s start with a macro view, connect some dots, and then come back to the micro, which is the last piece of business that Toronto needs to get done before the season starts.
It’s been fascinating talking to various executives and agents around the league about the Marner situation this week, as they all see it a little differently. One view that’s shared, however, is that this contract will be the bellwether RFA deal of the 2019 offseason.
It will effectively set the market’s ceiling – and everyone else will lineup underneath.
It’s wild how many good young players don’t have contracts right now. There’s Mikko Rantanen and Brayden Point, who both had a higher points-per-game average last season than Marner. Plus Matthew Tkachuk out in Calgary, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor in Winnipeg, Brock Boeser in Vancouver… even Travis Konecny in Philadelphia and Colin White in Ottawa qualify.
Plus a few high profile defencemen in Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov.
They’re all 21 or 22 years old – save for Point, who turned 23 in March – and they’re all seeking huge money on their second contracts, which is a new trend in the NHL.
At least when it comes to the forwards, they all seem to want to wait and see what Marner signs for before committing to anything long term.
The sense around the league is that Marner is going to get the biggest number. Part of that is his talent level and the numbers he put up last season, but there’s also the huge Auston Matthews contract and what happened with William Nylander’s situation last year. And an agent who’s known for difficult negotiations.
There’s pressure on the Leafs to get this done before the season starts, too, given their salary-cap situation and how using long-term injured reserve makes an in-season signing more punitive.
So other RFAs and their agents are simply waiting for Marner to sign and set the bar for what they can ask for.
The big question, then, is: How high is that bar going to go?
The general consensus out there is the Marner camp has asked for the Matthews contract, which at five years and $11.634-million per season was unprecedented for an RFA deal. I do not believe that is going to happen.
There has been talk for ages now about the Leafs’ making a max-term offer, some time ago, at eight years and more than $10-million a season. Giving away that many UFA years, however, was a no-go for the Marner camp.
They apparently countered with three years at around a $10-million annual value, which would be the richest bridge deal in NHL history – by quite a bit. (Consider that Nikita Kucherov’s three-year bridge back in 2016 was for just under $4.8-million AAV.)
With the Marner camp uninterested in an eight-year deal, there are three term lengths the Leafs have commonly been working with in this process: A three-year deal, a six-year deal and a seven-year deal.
One- and two-year contracts are considered too short, in most scenarios. Those deals would just put them back at odds again in short order, which no one wants.
The problem with a four-year deal is it would walk Marner right to unrestricted free agency at 26 years old, so that’s basically off the table, too.
And the problem with a five-year deal is it would mean that all three of Matthews, Nylander and Marner all come up for renewal as UFAs in the same off season in 2024.
So that’s not happening either.
Ian Tulloch did some nice work back in May in finding the right historical comparables for Marner in this post here. He basically settled on Marner deserving something in the $9-million to $10-million range on a long-term deal and something in the $7.5-million range on a three-year bridge deal.
The problem with those numbers is the historical precedent is quickly becoming less and less relevant as young players sign bigger contracts. Marner’s camp simply has no intention of working off non-Matthews comparables here.
But it’s my understanding that the Leafs have been aggressive in trying to get this done to the point that they’re offering well north of all of those figures on the three-, six- and seven-year contracts. And by aggressive I mean in the range of just under $9-million to roughly $11-million per season, depending on the term.
The timing of when those offers were discussed is unclear. Both the Leafs front office and Marner’s representatives continue to decline comment on anything to do with these talks. But, if accurate, those numbers are a very clear sign that GM Kyle Dubas is prepared to go well beyond historical RFA norms to get Marner’s name on a contract before the season.
There’s a good news / bad news equation here with all this.
The good news is that I think this means Marner will get signed, at some point, and remain in Toronto.
The bad news is that he will get more than most of us anticipated and more than his comparables would dictate, making the Leafs’ already tight cap situation even tighter.
Now, it’s Aug. 2, and there are a lot of balls in the air here, but my bet is on Marner signing a bridge deal at a big number in September. I just don’t think his agent’s numbers and the Leafs numbers are far enough apart at this point that it won’t get done. There should be some common ground here if Marner’s camp moves off the Matthews’ number as their primary request.
What’s clear at this point is that, if Marner re-signs, it will be a significant contract outside of Toronto. It will be controversial and precedent-setting for the league.
And it’ll be good news for the other RFAs without contracts, waiting for their first big paydays.