Leafs need to avoid repeat of Nylander saga with unsigned star Mitch Marner

Jul 17 2019, 6:09 pm

It’s almost August. Do you know where your Mitch Marner contract is?

After 61-point and 69-point campaigns to open up his NHL career, Marner blossomed alongside superstar centre John Tavares, scoring 94 points last season. The playmaking winger led the Toronto Maple Leafs in scoring for the second consecutive year, while finishing fourth league-wide with 68 assists.

It’s still about two months out from training camp, with no reason to panic that the restricted free agent Marner will miss any time this upcoming season.

But it was just last fall when the hockey world saw what should have been a straightforward contract negotiation drag on for months on end. William Nylander was unsigned until just minutes before the 5 pm deadline on December 1, when it was announced that the Leafs signed him to a six-year deal worth $6.96 million per season.

Having missed two full months of the season as well as all of training camp, Nylander hit a career-worst slump.

It took him 12 games to score his first goal of the season, and it wasn’t until his 24th game that he’d score another one. Nylander’s shooting percentage on the season of 5.4% was almost exactly half of the 10.7 and 10.9% marks he’d posted in his first two full campaigns in Toronto. He eventually sorted his game out, but his 2018-19 season was still disappointing as a whole. With seven goals and 20 assists in 54 games, his points per game mark dropped from 0.74 to 0.50 from the previous season.

See also

Nylander’s down season and the contract negotiations that preceded them show a cautionary tale for what can happen if a player misses out, for any reason, on getting integrated into the roster right away.

For the sake of everyone involved, this can’t be a repeat: Marner needs to be signed  by the time training camp rolls around, and barring that, needs to be in the Leafs lineup by opening night.

Risk of replicating failure

Above all else, the biggest disappointment is that the Nylander situation was, ultimately, that it was a major part of what contributed to wasted season. Nylander’s inclusion back into the lineup felt jagged and inconsistent, and the effects were seen throughout the roster as line juggling became commonplace.

Of course, the end result of the Leafs year — a third consecutive first-round exit — couldn’t be directly tied into just one player being out of the lineup for 28 games.

But it’s not hard to feel that having a full year of William Nylander could have changed the narrative of this iteration of the Leafs: a good regular season team who can’t quite get it done when it counts.

Ultimately, that’s where the meat of the issue of the Marner contract dilemma lies.

If there’s a five-year window of contention for this core group of players (which is, conveniently, when Auston Matthews’ contract expires), the actual makeup of the team is much murkier past this season.

The Leafs only have one year of high-profile defensive acquisitions Tyson Barrie and Jake Muzzin under contract. In fact, Morgan Rielly is the only defenceman with NHL experience that has a contract with the Leafs past this season.

With Marner now 22, Matthews hitting that age before the season starts, and Nylander at age 23, there is no better time than right now for the Leafs to be going all-in on a push to win the Stanley Cup.

And while Marner missing any given game or 10 in October might not do much to alter the Leafs’ long-term odds at being competitive, history has shown that fairly or not, Nylander’s public perception around (at least certain segments of) the fanbase took a nosedive by prolonging negotiations.

Conversely, the Leafs would be hurting themselves — at least in the short term — if they let the contract situation get to a point where Marner does end up signing an offer sheet with another team they are not willing to match.

The compensation for Marner signing elsewhere (which could go as high as four first round picks) might sound great in theory, but it doesn’t take long to realize it would leave a gaping hole if the Leafs were to lose their leading scorer of the past two seasons.

It’s many fans’ pipe dream to have a number of assets to work with in order to improve your team, but that usually doesn’t involve also losing a player who finished 11th in league scoring the year prior.

While Dubas literally travelled the world to try to negotiate with Nylander, it still didn’t really feel like there was any rush on either side that him being part of the opening night roster was a necessity.

So what’s the hold up?

Marner’s ask reportedly has gone upward of $11 million per season (for anywhere from five to seven years), but it’s hard to really see through the smokescreen of a complicated market.

Marner met with media members last week for the first time this offseason, but mostly directed that contract talk would have to go through his agent, Darren Ferris.

A failed attempt at a $42.25 million offer sheet by the Montreal Canadiens for Sebastian Aho was supposed to be the domino that kickstarted a busy offseason for restricted free agents. But at the time of publishing, Mikko Rantanen, Brayden Point, Matthew Tkachuk, Patrik Laine, Brock Boeser, and Kyle Connor all are in a similar boat: young, unsigned stars.

As all are comparable on some levels, figuring out who’s worth what is a tough challenge when everyone’s engaged in a stalemate.

The discourse all year has dictated that Marner will be, in the words of Ferris, “a lifetime Leaf.”

But for the sake of the Leafs and Marner, both parties need to get ahead of the game and hash out a deal, well, basically as soon as possible to prevent a repeat of last year’s Nylander saga.