While it was certainly a difficult ending to the 2018-2019 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, this offseason is shaping up to deliver even tougher times for General Manager Kyle Dubas and Co.
The biggest task they currently face, is resigning playoff star Mitch Marner to his first substantial NHL contract. Coming off his entry level deal, Marner has become a hero in Leafs Nation, with his elite playmaking skills, his ever-happy demeanour, and the fact that he is a hometown kid.
In his 241 NHL games, Mitch has amassed 224 points, adding 17 in 20 career playoff games; not bad for a kid who was deemed too small after being drafted 4th overall by the Leafs in 2015.
While no one can argue his importance to the Leafs lineup, we have arrived at a point in time where Kyle Dubas must decide if he can and will pay Mitch Marner what he is asking for.
Rumours in the hockey world say that Marner and his agent want similar money to Auston Matthews; $11.6 million per year for 5 years. While Marner has been a dynamic player, and is the favourite Leaf in many cases, he doesn't deserve that much.
Why doesn't he deserve that much? Because this would make him the highest paid winger in the NHL. Centres always get paid more. Goal scores always get paid more. Marner is a superstar in his own right, but he meets neither of these criteria, while both Matthews and Tavares do.
Back to talking about wingers though, Patrick Kane is currently the highest paid wingers in the league, at $10.5 million. While Marner has often been compared to Kane skill-wise, the differences are still very distinct.
When Kane was coming out of his entry level deal, as Marner is, he signed for $6.3 million per year for 5 years. Kane has registered 230 points in 244 games, similar to Marner. The difference though, Kane had 42 points in 38 playoff games, and helped lead the Chicago Blackhawks to their 2010 Stanley Cup win.
Is Marner the reason that the Leafs didn't hoist the Cup during his entry level deal? Absolutely not. Should he make $6.3 million coming out of his entry level deal? Absolutely not. The cap has gone up drastically, thus the percentages change accordingly.
Kane signed for $6.3 million when the salary cap ceiling was $59.4 million. This accounts for roughly 10.6% of the team's salary cap. If Marner were to sign for the same percentage now, with the salary cap ceiling for next year at $83 million, he would be signing for roughly $8.8 million per year.
This is certainly low, considering Matthews is signed for 13.8% of the cap, and Tavares for 13.2%. But the Leafs will need Marner to be closer to this number than the reported desire of $11.6 million per year, or else they will find themselves in a huge cap-related predicament.
Also significant regarding the $10.5 million figure, is offer sheet compensations. Should the Leafs be unable to sign Marner for a number they deem realistic, he will be open to offer sheets this summer from other teams.
$10,568,590 and higher is the number in which a team would be required to give the Leafs 4 1st round picks in order to sign Marner for this much.
Losing Marner to an offer sheet is definitely nobody's first choice, but it is an option that may have to be explored, should Marner not budge on his current desired salary.
Below I will outline 2 possible scenarios in which I think the Leafs are most likely to follow this offseason, and will explain each of the individual moves following the graphics.
Above is the hypothetical Leafs roster if they are able to resign Marner for $10.6 million on a long term deal. Unlike Matthews, who can walk to Unrestricted Free Agency following his 5 year deal, the Leafs will want security with Marner, as opposed to risking losing them both in the same year. $10.6 keeps them over the offer sheet amount, while still giving Marner $1 million less than Matthews.
This proposed team has a total salary hit of $82,227,199 coming in just under the $83 million maximum.
Diving in deeper at the rest of the moves, you will notice the absence of Kasperi Kapanen. With Marner receiving a contract prior to the offer sheet window, yet the Leafs still being up against the cap ceiling, it can be expected that a team could take a swing at Kapanen or Johnsson via offer sheets.
Kapanen, being younger, and likely the more skilled of the two, will demand more money this offseason. He will also draw more interest from opposing teams. Any team can offer up to $4,227,437 per year for them, while only being required to give up a 2nd round pick in return. This logically looks like a steal for an opposing team, as the Leafs would almost certainly ask for a higher return via trade, and any team could offer this slightly overpaid salary on a 1 year deal, since the Leafs can't afford to match it, then renegotiate with the player following next season for a longer term deal.
With Kapanen leaving, Johnsson will be the recipient of a new contract. He has turned down $2.1 million for 2 years and $2.6 million for 4 years so far (according to Darren Dreger) and thus I feel $3 million for 3 years is what his camp is looking for.
Another absence is that of Connor Brown. While he has been a serviceable player, and a coaches favourite, Dubas did not give him the $2.1 million per year deal that he is currently on, and will attempt to trade him as it is too much to pay for a 3rd or 4th liner who doesn't play powerplay or penalty kill. I traded Brown to Detroit, along with a 5th round pick in 2019, in exchange for defenseman Madison Bowey, who makes just $1 million next year.
Bowey is a smooth skating, right-handed, d-man who has continually grown his game over the past few seasons. The 24 year old put up 10 points in 50 games last year, splitting time with Washington and Detroit.
Bowey helps alleviate the loss of Ron Hainsey, who despite a few decent seasons in the blue and white, has continued to age and be overplayed by coach Mike Babcock.
Also coming in to shore up the d-core is UFA Ben Chiarot. Chiarot is a 6'3" physical defenseman, who managed to put up 20 points last season for the Winnipeg Jets. The 27 year old plays a simple yet effective game, which will be loved by Babcock, and will be useful on the penalty kill.
Also missing from the d-core is Jake Gardiner. While he was a polarizing player whom many fans disliked, Gardiner was a highly effective player during his Maple Leafs career. He will be missed on the back end, but it just will not be possible to keep him around, money wise.
Also gone is Nikita Zaitsev. The Russian d-man had a big contract at $4.4 million per year, and we know that Kyle Dubas almost traded him at this past trade deadline. While that deal fell apart, I feel Dubas will continue trying to move him, as he doesn't move the puck overly well, and the Leafs need to clear cap space. I moved him to Florida for a 4th round pick.
To the dismay of some, Patrick Marleau is still on the team. He has 1 year left at $6.25 million, but has a No Move Clause, thus is highly unlikely to be traded or even sent down. Many people suggest burying his contract on Long Term Injured Reserve, but that spot is better served for Nathan Horton's contract, as Marleau has played nearly 800 straight NHL games and is still a serviceable player.
As for promotions and new faces, Trevor Moore and Nic Petan will each crack the opening night lineup, due to their fast, puck possession style of play, and their cheap contracts at $775,000 each. Jeremy Bracco, fresh off finishing 2nd in AHL scoring, also cracks the roster. While he plays a skill style of game that Babcock will not want on his "energy 4th line" Ilya Mikheyev will be the 13th forward, sharing ice time with Bracco and maybe Petan. The Russian free agent signing is a big body who plays a skilled 200 foot game, which we all know Babcock will enjoy. Calle Rosen, who was arguably the best d-man in the AHL this year will crack the roster playing on the bottom pairing.
Overall, this is a good hockey team. The star power upfront, the depth of skilled wingers, some puck moving defenseman, and star goalie, come together to bode well for another playoff appearance from the Leafs. While this team will certainly win some games, it illustrates the fact that paying too much for stars can lead to other weaknesses, such as the d-core. Below, we will explore the option of not resigning Marner.
The other primary option the Leafs have, letting Marner sign an offer sheet, also gives them the opportunity to build a strong team. Spending $82,823,907 the Leafs come in just under the cap, while icing a much more complete team.
By letting Marner sign for over $10,568,590 with another team, they will receive 4 1st round picks in return, as well as give them money to improve the back end.
While losing Marner hurts the offence, let's not forget that the Leafs scored the 4th most goals in the league last year, even though many said that Babcock was holding them back to play better defence. They will still get the job done offensively with this squad, and play much better team defense with these additions.
With the addition of 4 1st round picks, the Leafs could keep them to build for the long term, or, as I would rather, utilize a few of them now to bolster their Cup chances in the near future, when the team will be the best. After the offer sheet, they have another team's 1st round picks in 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023, along with their 1st round picks in each of those years.
The 1st way they can use these picks is on another offer sheet. With young stars such as Mikko Rantanen, Sebastian Aho, Charlie McAvoy, and others needing big deals this summer, there is plenty of potential for other offer sheets.
However, all the teams of the players listed above have adequate cap space to match offer sheets. The 2 most vulnerable teams other than the Leafs cap wise are the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Winnipeg Jets, both of whom have young players who need big deals. Brayden Point is a superstar, who had a nearly identical year to Marner. While he would replace him upfront, he will cost almost as much and we create a team similar to that in option 1.
Jacob Trouba of the Winnipeg Jets is the better option in my mind, as he is cheaper, is a right-handed d-man, and the Jets are less likely to match him as they also have to pay Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.
Paying Trouba $6,341,152 via an offer sheet was my strategy. This is fair market value for a solid righty d-man, who made $5.5 million on his last deal, and instantly helps our lineup. This salary amount requires the Leafs to compensate the Jets with a 2020 1st round pick and a 2020 3rd round pick, very reasonable for a potential top pairing d-man, especially when considering the compensation picks received for Marner.
After that, with a substantial amount of salary left, the priority shifts to resigning Kapanen and Johnsson prior to offer sheets. As Johnsson had turned down similar deals previously (discussed in Option 1) we can offer him more now, and he will settle for $2,750,000 on a 2 year bridge deal. Likewise for Kapanen, he will resign at $2,900,000 for 1 year. The short term deals allow them to resign for bigger deals once Marleau and Horton are off the books.
Next up, with the additional picks received as compensation for Marner, the Leafs could look to add to the d-core. I decided to trade our 1st round pick in 2021, as hopefully it is late in the round, Connor Brown, to shed salary, and prospect Dymtro Timashow to Anaheim for Hampus Lindholm.
Hampus Lindholm is one of the most underrated defenseman in the NHL, and is certainly under at $5.205 million for the next 3 seasons. Despite him being a lefty, he will drastically improve our d-core, as he put up roughly 30 points in each of the past 6 seasons. Anaheim is on the decline as their stars get older, and are likely willing to accept this trade to begin rebuilding upfront.
Nikita Zaitsev is again absent, as he was traded due to his large contract, in exchange for a mid round pick from Florida.
Jake Gardiner also tests free agency in this option, as Lindholm is a significant upgrade, who likely comes at a cheaper cost than Gardiner desires.
Same as the other option, Rosen, Petan, Moore, Bracco, and Mikheyev all get promoted to the NHL, and will battle for the bottom spots.
As well, we would still have 2 of the picks from the Marner compensation, which Dubas could effectively use in future drafts, or flip them in deadline deals if he is better at adding salaries than me.
Overall, this team has many benefits that come from saving money on Marner, by being able to add the defensive depth that fans have been clamouring about for years. While the goal scoring will go down, the goals and shots against will drastically go down as well, which will certainly please Babcock and arm-chair GM's across Ontario.
Neither of these is the right or wrong way to approach this offseason, but each provide interesting insights as to what could occur, despite the fact that everyone wants to see Marner play out his whole career as a Toronto Maple Leaf.
(Salary Information courtesy of https://www.capfriendly.com/)