On Marner and teams paying the price for developing top talent

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Maybe it’s time for a change.

Maybe it’s time for the owners and the NHL to sit down and hash out something that makes sense so that the former doesn’t get punished when they draft and develop good players.

So that the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have to worry about losing Mitch Marner because of cap problems.

So that the Winnipeg Jets don’t have to sell off assets, including perhaps some they’ve groomed since the day they drafted them, just to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor — also players born and bred in Winnipeg’s system.

The list goes on and on, from Brayden Point in Tampa to Mikko Rantanen in Colorado. There’s an endless drove of teams who have drafted great players and now have to potentially make their rosters worse just to afford them.

It all seems kind of backward.

Last week, TSN’s Bob McKenzie said something quite interesting while on TSN 1050’s OverDrive show, a sobering reminder to NHL teams right before the 2019 NHL Draft.

“If you draft good players and you develop good players, and they’re stars and they represent, basically, the future of your hockey club, you’re screwed,” he said.

We’re seeing that in Toronto right now. The Maple Leafs have had to pay millions to Auston Matthews — a draft pick — William Nylander — a draft pick — and now have to figure out a way to keep Marner — a draft pick — in the fold.

The argument there, of course, is that they didn’t have to go out and sign John Tavares in free agency. Or perhaps they should never have given Nylander what he wanted.

But teams have no choice these days. Drafted stars need to be supplemented with ones available through other channels to make a team competitive.

“These guys want to get paid,” McKenzie went on to add. “And there’s no external mechanism to settle a dispute between Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs other than him withholding his services with the Leafs giving him close to what he wants. You kind of have to pick your poison. It’s why [William] Nylander did what as well as did and it’s why [Auston] Matthews did what as well as did.”

Some of the rhetoric surrounding the Marner deal and others is that these players should take a friendlier contract to help the team out and give them the best chance to win a Stanley Cup.

Please.

[Is Marner really going to leave Toronto?]

There’s a business side to the NHL that is separate from a player’s drive to become a Stanley Cup champion. These guys have, or will have, families to feed, kids to put through college and a future to make sure is all set. They’re in a fortunate position where they’re among the greatest in the world at what they do and in a market that dictates that salaries are paid out in the millions.

But take away the money aspect for a second, that doctors should get paid more, or firefighters or whoever else may be in roles that come with more risk. Or this silly sentiment. It’s irrelevant anyway.

Strip it down to what it is. An employee is looking out for his own interests. He’s performed better than others and wants to be compensated as such. The pay scale suggests that the best get paid the best, regardless of seniority, and that every new raise is the benchmark for the next. 

So when it’s your turn to take a walk from the cubicle into your boss’ office, you aren’t going in there to tell him/her that you’ll take the minimum for the company’s sake. No. You want your fair share of the pie. And if you had an agent, you’d probably be pushing the upper limits of what is fair.

Why is this any different in the NHL? Because young players and their agents are greed machines capable only of working inflated, astronomical numbers? No. It’s because if they perform better than another player, they want to be compensated as such.

And don’t blame the player, as Ice T once said. Hate the game.

Marner owes Toronto nothing in negotiations. He’s merely following the flow set out before him.

And for fans: You can’t call one of your players the greatest thing since sliced bread one day and then put him on blast the next for asking to get paid like he’s the next big thing.

So circling back to the change bit, perhaps teams should be protected to some degree when it comes to players they draft and develop.

Something like teams getting cap relief on homegrown talent, maybe having their contracts only hit the team’s cap for half. Or maybe something along the lines of one or two special contracts that don’t hit the cap at all, an exemption of sorts.

These contracts would only be for players the team has spent time and money grooming since they drafted them. It would allow for top players to receive top money and teams wouldn’t have to worry about losing said players or having to perform roster surgery just to keep them.

Of course, there would have to be rules attached to all of this. A set amount a team can pay certain players comes to mind. But it might be the first step in teams avoiding the “you’re screwed” part of the game just because you drafted well.

The draft shouldn’t come with a downside. Teams shouldn’t select a player knowing that in several years, they’ll have to make a choice on whether or not to keep that player or do harm to their team by selling off other pieces just to keep hold of them.

And those returns often become draft picks and the vicious cycle continues: Draft, develop, make another team better.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.