Leafs’ smartest bet is to sign Matthews, Marner, Nylander now

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Late July ranks as “the dog days of the hockey summer,” so it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the Toronto Maple Leafs’ in-house big three (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander) provide virtually identical quotes about taking it easy regarding their contract situations. You can basically copy and paste the “shrug, gonna leave it to my agent”-type comments.

If you ask me,* Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas shouldn’t take such a nonchalant approach. Instead, he should get all three done. Like, now.

The natural leaning is to say that Nylander is the most urgent, and that’s a reasonable assumption. After all, he’s currently an RFA without a contract for 2018-19, while Matthews and Marner are set to enter the final year of their rookie deals. The deadlines are more urgent when it comes to Nylander.

But, in seeing the Maple Leafs allow James van Riemsdyk to walk in free agency, you can probably see that Dubas & Co. are fully aware that some big contract decisions loom. Just about every indication is that the Maple Leafs would be much better off signing all three – not just Nylander – as soon as possible.

[From earlier this summer: more on Leafs’ toughest work just beginning]

Now, it’s worth noting that such talks would require mutual interest, which is far from guaranteed.

If Marner and Matthews have zero interest in signing extensions before the season begins, then it’s a bit of a moot discussion. Early rumblings are that discussions have at least started, and players would only be reasonable to strongly consider accepting a decent extension, as the threat of a career-altering injury must loom over the head of any NHL player.

Let’s keep it simple and assume that Marner and Matthews would be glad to sign a fair extension sometime this summer. With that caveat out of the way, here are some of the factors for why it makes a ton of sense to push hard for an immediate solution, even if Dubas is – publicly – playing it close to the vest.

We haven’t seen their best, maybe not even close

You can make a strong argument that all three forwards saw their value either subtly or starkly diluted in 2017-18.

  • In the case of Auston Matthews, there were a few factors worth considering.

One was out of everyone’s hands, as Matthews was limited to 62 regular-season games thanks to injury issues. It’s quite plausible that his postseason struggles had at least something to do with lingering health challenges, too.

Power play context is also interesting for Matthews. While he received decent power play TOI (essentially clustered with the heaviest-use players at 2:09 per game), you can see from Left Wing Lock’s listings that Matthews wasn’t a part of Toronto’s robust top unit. That’s fairly unusual for a high-end young talent.

“Puck luck” might have been the lone factor that pushed Matthews’ numbers in a positive direction, as his high 18.2 shooting percentage helped him generate 34 goals in just 62 games. Then again, Matthews could very well boast elite shooting talent to go with his hearty shooting volume, so the Maple Leafs must be cognizant of a potentially outrageous contract year for the American star.

That’s especially true if a top power play unit features Matthews with John Tavares, and if Tavares forces defenses to send lesser opponents against Matthews.

  • Nylander might be the player whose stats were least subverted by context and Mike Babcock’s quirks in 2017-18.

Granted, it probably didn’t help that Matthews missed some time … but even then, Nylander rarely spent even-strength shifts away from number 34.

This post won’t focus a ton upon Nylander anyway, as the Maple Leafs don’t really have much of a choice but to sign him this summer. (If they don’t it would be a huge headache holdout stretching into a promising season.)

  • Here’s a take for you: Mitch Marner’s situation is actually the most pivotal.

Matthews is the most important player for the Maple Leafs’ future, probably even including Tavares, considering the age difference. That said, Matthews falls in line with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Sidney Crosby, and other no-brainer “face of the franchise” players that you simply have to pay a lot, and merely hope that they leave a little money on the table. This post asserts that the Maple Leafs would gain very little in waiting with Matthews, but one way or another, he’s getting paid, and almost certainly long term.

The Marner situation, more than the situation of those two others, seems the most mysterious from a value standpoint.

Simply put, John Tavares can dramatically drive up Marner’s value. It’s to the point that an incredibly simple observation – Marner told Sportsnet that he plans on increasing his shooting volume – would scare the daylights out of me if I was in Dubas’ shiny shoes.

“In the corners, how he can get away from people and draw people into him, I think that’s very important to have on your line,” Marner said of Tavares. “For me, personally, it kinda makes me think I need to shoot more. Going into this season, I have to be ready to shoot. He can make those plays quick.”

Marner fired 194 shots on goal in 82 games last season (2.37 SOG per game), scoring 22 goals for an 11.3 shooting percentage. It’s easy to picture Marner flirting with three SOG per game, particularly in the very likely event that his ice time skyrockets from last season’s average of 16:23 minutes per night.

It’s far from outrageous to picture Marner scoring 40 goals and 80-something points if he’s a full-time winger for Tavares. Far lesser players have raked in the dough with Tavares.

Marner scored 69 points last season despite spending portions of 2017-18 in Mike Babcock’s doghouse. He took off with Nazem Kadri, yet he spent a bit more time lining up with an aging Patrick Marleau and a good-but-unspectacular Zach Hyman. There were significant factors holding Marner’s numbers in the stratosphere, and the Maple Leafs would be foolish not to take advantage of any doubt that he could be a star-level producer.

A season with Tavares would remove just about any doubt, and maybe inflate his stats to the point that he’d play over his head. That would be a real problem for the Maple Leafs.

Cap percentages, cautionary tales

Yes, there are cases when a team might have been better off waiting, even with a prominent player.

Aaron Ekblad comes to mind as a nice piece who’s making the sort of money his team might regret, but he stands in contrast to Marner and Matthews in that he was riding peak performance years while those Leafs forwards’ stats were subdued (as discussed in the previous section).

Dubas & Co. should be more concerned about contracts that ran their course and ended up costing big money.

The Oilers are lucky that, in all honesty, Leon Draisaitl probably is worth $8.5M per year. Still, it’s difficult not to wonder how much money they might have saved if they signed him during the summer of 2016 when his career-high for points was 51 and he didn’t enjoy a long run maximizing his numbers with Connor McDavid (Draisaitl scored 29 goals and 77 points during his 2016-17 contract year).

Matthews is 20. Marner is 21. They’re already revealing themselves to be difference-makers, but it’s not outrageous to picture them both making quantum leaps in 2018-19. If that happens, those contract values will soar.

The early bird also gets the worm when it comes to simpler arguments.

If Matthews’ and/or Marner’s reps want to say “My client is worth x percent of the salary cap” – a very reasonable negotiating ploy – wouldn’t you want that discussion to revolve around 2018-19’s upper limit of $79.5M, rather than a 2019-20 top end that’s likely to be higher, maybe considerably so? Contracts that seem steep today can look a lot better down the line thanks to the rising cap, not to mention if some big-ticket players raise the bar for salaries.

What would Y do?

Again, this discussion hinges on Matthews and Marner being at least reasonably interested in extensions. If any players would roll the dice with health, it would be ones as young as these two. That’s especially true since the best-case scenario for 2018-19 could be each forward tearing up the NHL, and the Leafs finally making a deep run.

That said, “sign your core players as early as possible” has been a theme for much of PHT’s off-season writings (see these divisional breakdowns), and will likely carry over to August and beyond.

Few teams have as much to gain or lose by such discussions as the Maple Leafs do, at least with the Lightning somehow walking the tight rope with Nikita Kucherov after working magic with Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman (Kucherov and Hedman rank as proactive extensions, by the way).

Can Dubas match or at least echo Yzerman’s successes? Toronto presents some additional challenges – steeper taxes, tougher media coverage – but the Maple Leafs would be wise to do the best they can to pull off their own Matrix-line cap maneuverings. Even if it means dropping the casual facade.

* – You didn’t and the Maple Leafs certainly did not; I’m aware of that.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.