You’re probably doing it right now.
You’re probably looking at the news that the Toronto Maple Leafs signed superstar center Auston Matthews to a five-year, $58.17 million contract extension on Tuesday and starting to panic.
You’re thinking about the contract negotiation they now have to go through with Mitch Marner this upcoming summer and wondering which one of them they’re going to trade.
Maybe you’re even naive enough to think one of the other 30 general managers in the NHL, despite a mountain of evidence over several years to the contrary, is going to suddenly grow some guts this summer and try to sign Marner to a restricted free agent offer sheet, while also believing that Marner might want to actually play for the undoubtedly worse team that is offering it, bypassing an opportunity to get still get paid a ton of money and be a part of a Stanley Cup contending team in Toronto.
How can they pay all of these players? How can they keep them all? Who will they have to trade for DEFENSE?! This can’t work, you’re screaming!
Yeah, you might be doing that.
Well, if are you are, stop doing that. Right now. Because not only are the Maple Leafs going to figure out a way to keep all of Matthews, Nylander, Marner, and Tavares, they are still going to have a chance to win by doing so. I’ve made this argument so many times I know I’m repeating myself, but until the hockey viewing and observing world gets over this fear of paying elite players I am prepared to continue pounding the table over this.
Make no mistake, the Maple Leafs will have to get rid of some people. They will have to make tough decisions and make trades and cut salary somewhere on the roster. But it is not going to be one of those four players. It shouldn’t be anyway. It also doesn’t have to be.
This situation is not unique to the Maple Leafs. They are not the first team in the salary cap era that has had to pay a core of All-Star level players big money at the same time while also trying to figure out a way to still build a competent team around them. They are not the first team that is going to have tough decisions to make. If your natural reaction to seeing the Maple Leafs do this with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and Marner is that it can’t work then you haven’t been paying attention to, quite literally, every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era. All of them have a core of four or five players that takes up close to half (or even more than half) of their allotted salary cap space. It is a necessary part of winning, as long as that money is going to the right players.
These four players are the right players.
Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that Marner gets $10 million per year on his next contract, which might be a good ballpark figure. It’s more than Nylander, little less than Matthews, and that is probably fair because that is where he fits on the Maple Leafs’ talent hierarchy. That would mean the Maple Leafs would open next season with $39.4 million committed to the quartet of Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Tavares. If the projected 2019-20 salary cap ceiling of $83 million becomes a reality, that is around 47 percent of the Maple Leafs’ allotted space.
Just for fun, here’s a little comparison of the past three Stanley Cup winners, who also had some pretty high-profile players on their rosters.
You are not winning the Stanley Cup without players of that caliber. Players of that caliber cost a lot of money. Every year between 2010 and 2015 we used to hear about how the Penguins’ model with a couple of big-money players at the top wasn’t working and they might have to trade one to get more depth. Alex Ovechkin‘s contract was just too much for the Capitals to win with because you can’t have one player taking up such a big portion of your salary cap space.
Does this mean the Maple Leafs are going to be able to keep everybody they want? No. They will have to make some difficult decisions in the coming years. They might have to dump Patrick Marleau‘s contract this offseason. They might have to trade a young player like Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnnson. Or maybe even a Zach Hyman or a Connor Brown. And that’s okay. Those players are replaceable. Maybe not easily replaceable, but still replaceable. You can find another Kasperi Kapanen.
You’re not going to find another Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner.
Just look at the Capitals in the summer before their 2017-18 Stanley Cup season. The salary cap worked against them and they had to make some tough cuts. They couldn’t re-sign Justin Williams and they had to trade Marcus Johansson for pennies on the dollar. But they still had their core, made enough shrewd signings and trades, and had enough young talent coming through the system that they could still piece a competent team around their core and win the Stanley Cup.
Just like the Penguins did the two years before.
The Maple Leafs will be pressed against the salary cap for the foreseeable future, and some second-and third-tier cuts will be happening. But they also have a smart front office that no doubt knows what it’s going to take to make it work, and a front office that knows the type of talent you need to compete. They have it, they kept it. And before you start talking about their defense and how they could, in theory, trade Nylander or Marner for help on the blue line just remember they have a No. 1 defenseman in Morgan Rielly locked up on a long-term, bargain contract for the next few years and just acquired another top-pairing defender in Jake Muzzin without having to trade a core player of their own.
They have the core that can compete for a Stanley Cup. It is definitely not cheap, and it is not going to be easy, but neither is actually winning the Stanley Cup. This is simply the price you have to pay.