We’re just a hair under two weeks into the NHL season, and everything’s going well in Toronto. With a 6-1 record, Auston Matthews occupying top spot on the league’s goal and point leaderboards, and an average of 4.7 goals scored per game, there’s little to complain about if you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The only thing that has put a damper on the Leafs’ hot start is William Nylander, who is still without a contract.
Nylander was a staple of the top line during his first two full seasons in Toronto, scoring 61 points each year. Playing typically alongside Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman, Nylander finished sixth in Calder Trophy voting in his rookie season (behind teammates Matthews and Mitch Marner).
It’s clear he’s set up to be a great player for years to come, though how high his ceiling is isn’t exactly clear. But contract negotiations haven’t been pretty so far, as he’s already missed nearly 10% of the season.
General manager Kyle Dubas has reportedly traveled to Zurich, Switzerland to meet with Nylander in an attempt to resolve the standoff. But while it appears they’re meeting, there’s still a few different ways that Nylander could end up with the Leafs this season.
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What’s the issue?
To put it simply, the Leafs and Nylander aren’t budging on the dollar value they’re willing to settle for. On many teams, Nylander would be a clear #1 or #2 target to earn his big payday after his entry-level contract, and things would come to a halt pretty quickly. But the Leafs aren’t most teams, and with the $11-million signing of John Tavares in the offseason, have to be careful with every penny they spend moving forward.
Two big cap-space eating contracts stand out for many: Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. Marleau, signed at $6.25 through the end of the 2019-20 season, and Zaitsev, signed at $4.5 million through 2023-24.
The issue isn’t this year, as the Leafs have slightly over $12 million in cap room, but rather how the Leafs manage the cap in the future.
They also have Jake Gardiner potentially entering unrestricted free agency after this year, meaning he’s yet another piece to the complicated salary cap puzzle.
What are the contract options?
It’s unlikely either the Leafs or Nylander wants a “bridge deal”, hockey talk for a shorter contract where the player looks to make his big splash at the end of the deal. However, by signing a shorter deal, Nylander could subsequently “bet on himself”, and try to earn a larger contract in two to four years.
The most sensible contract for both sides is likely a six or seven-year deal, with the maximum they’d be able to settle for under the collective bargain agreement being eight years.
A boatload of articles have been written comparing previous contracts around the league, with wingers Nikolaj Ehlers and David Pastrnak the two names most commonly floated. Ehlers currently makes $6 million per season over the next seven years, while Pastrnak, who signed his deal prior to last year, is making $6,666,666 through 2022-23. Much like how Nylander clings alongside Matthews, Ehlers plays alongside stars like Patrik Laine, Mark Schiefele and Blake Wheeler, while and Pastrnak’s line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand last year was talked about often as one of the league’s very best.
Leon Draisaitl, however, drives up that bargain. Taken four picks ahead of Nylander in the 2014 draft, his $8.5 million per year (over eight years) deal, signed in the spring of 2017, puts the upper end as to what kind of asking Nylander and his agent could be pushing for. While Nylander hasn’t matched Draisaitl’s totals of 77 and 70 points over the last two years, he could also make the case that he hasn’t had the opportunity to play alongside Connor McDavid, who’s led the NHL in scoring each of the past two seasons.
If the difference the Leafs and Nylander are talking about in their asking price is a relatively small sum, it’d be assumed one side would budge. But if the sum is say, $500k, over eight years that turns into four million, and so on.
With Nylander being the first of the Leafs’ three young star forwards (alongside Matthews and Marner) to be in contract negotiations, the number he sets will take precedence for how the Leafs will be able to negotiate moving forward.
There were in fact KHL rumours as well, but that seems more like wishful thinking on Russia’s part than anything.
How essential is Nylander to the Leafs?
On one hand, it takes only last season to realize the necessity of a player like Nylander. When Matthews missed 20 games with various injuries, Nylander stepped up in his absence, posting identical production to the previous year. Even if the Leafs’ have some of the league’s top forward depth, injuries do happen over the course of the year.
On the other hand, the Leafs have shown in the opening stretch of the season to have one of the league’s most lethal offences. Even if Auston Matthews’ 45.5% shooting percentage won’t last forever, a Nylander-less Leafs shouldn’t have much trouble clinching a playoff spot in arguably the league’s weakest division.
Does a trade make sense?
That’s a whole different debate, but at the end of the day, the only Nylander trade that makes sense is one that you win.
Trading Nylander for a top-end defenceman that legitimately helps the roster is a lot different than trading for a middle-of-the-pack guy that the Leafs could perhaps promote internally within the next season or so, a la Timothy Liljegren or Justin Holl.
Players like Nylander don’t come around every day, even if the Leafs do have other forwards capable of driving the offence.
However this is resolved, you can bet much of Leafs Nation is hoping the neutral grounds of Switzerland will serve as a trivia question for the location of Nylander’s lengthy, team-friendly contract signing.