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Hockey Is Trash... and So Am I: Contract Negotiations in the Cap Era

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Is there anything that can suck the fun out of hockey more than contract negotiations during the cap era?

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Pittsburgh Penguins v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

In my first edition of this series, I wrote about the John Tavares Free Agency Saga and how much of a bittersweet episode it was in my life as a Leafs and hockey fan. The bitter part came from the crazy media coverage, the lies and fake scoops, the hatred and anger coming from fans... even those that were never involved! The sweetness came from the drama and intrigue (which I admit feels hypocritical to say), the euphoria of the payoff as a Leaf fan, and the sense of togetherness I felt with other Leafs fans.

Since the Tavares signing, the Leafs have faced down two other significant contract negotiations. One was tense and probably more bitter than sweet by the time Nylander signed his RFA contract, where we saw all of the same bullshit from the Tavares saga but very little of the good part. Fans turned on each other, and the drama might have been interesting for a while but it just. kept. dragging. on.

And now, with the last of The Big Three left to sign, we may be staring down a contract negotiation that will be even worse than Nylander’s was.

It all starts with this Toronto Star article that came out THE SAME DAY that Matthews’ extension was announced, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that lasted maybe an hour or two.

After having gone through a long negotiation with Nylander where they literally signed the extension at the last possible moment, to avoid him missing the entire season, now we have this. For all it was frustrating, and for all that it took forever, the Nylander negotiations never once saw direct quotes from any of the sides involved anywhere close to this contentious. Brendan Shanahan once publicly said that players like Nylander would need to take a haircut, like he and his Red Wings teammates did (except they didn’t). That’s it.

For fuck’s sake, the last thing I want is a negotiation that is just as long and full of much more actual resentment and anger between the Leafs and the player. But I want to go into why this trash is the making of Hockey (capitalized for a reason).

The Salary Cap Is Bullshit

Let’s start with the NHL, and with my coldest of takes: the salary cap ruins hockey as a fan. It makes contract negotiations and their aftermath the antithesis of fun. It fills fans with worry and anxiety, it makes every penny more important for a team and the player, to the point that it sucks the fun out of following your favourite hockey team and your favourite players. I hate it.

Mitch Marner having a great year? Now we’re worried about him being worth more money than the Leafs could afford, or it will mean they can’t re-sign other players you like (Kapanen, Johnsson, Gardiner, etc). I hate it.

William Nylander kinda struggling? Normally you’d just shrug and say it happens, he’ll get better in time. Now? Oh hell no, what’s wrong with him? Does this mean we overpaid him? We’ll never be able to trade that contract now. It’s cost us more valuable players that we need to sign. Your love of a player can be ruined if he doesn’t play well enough according to his contract... or should I say, his cap hit. I hate it.

You see and hear it from current and former players about how much their contracts (present and future) weigh on their minds when they struggle. You see agents (like Ferris) and players on one side, and teams and GMs on the other, sniping at each other overtly or through the media. Some mean what they say, others use it purely as a negotiating tactic. Either way I hate it.

You have the Boston Bruins and their tradition of character assassination of the stars they trade away for cap reasons more than anything else... hello Dougie Hamilton and Tyler Seguin. You had Edmonton do it to Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. You have a Dallas Stars executive calling his two highest paid players “fucking horseshit” on the record because they were playing SLIGHTLY below expectations for a brief part of ONE season.

In any of those situations you might say that those teams had reason to worry. But you know what I say? There has been a long history of far bigger partiers than Tyler Seguin. Or bigger assholes than Taylor Hall. Or a more of a toxic presence in the dressing room than not going to Moxies with them. It feels like a star player’s dirty laundry is only aired, and exaggerated, when a team needs to justify why they had to trade them because of the salary cap.

I. FUCKING. HATE. IT.

Hockey Parents Are Crazy (but I Can’t Hold It Against Them)

Then there’s the parents. Hockey parents, specifically, whether they’re a former player or not. Whether it’s just for the money or for the prestige of making the most money, the stardom that comes with it, or whatever... hockey parents can be fucking crazy, and boy can that come out during contract negotiations.

In the William Nylander standoff, we constantly heard of how Michael Nylander was holding things up as more of a presence than even the agent, and making sure Willy got as much money as possible in case he ever got traded. That was probably one of the tamer episodes of hockey parent craziness we’ve seen, especially since, as far as I am aware, it was only ever hearsay from people in the media. I don’t remember anyone ever corroborate that stuff.

Now we have Paul Marner. I’m going to start with a story I heard from a former boss of mine. He once told me that he had some business dealings with Mr Marner, and wound up being invited by him to see his son, Mitch, play hockey. For an exciting, young star like Mitch Marner? That doesn’t seem so crazy. Except this was when Mitch was still a child — 8 years old or so. This is a dad who was proud of his son’s talents and wanted everyone to know about it. We got another taste of that in this piece from The Athletic where that, let’s call it “aggressive pride”, in his son shines through. If you look up Paul Marner’s twitter account, and check his likes, you see that he’s active in searching for articles and mentions of Marner.

Look, I don’t want to attack Paul Marner’s character. Or Michael Nylander’s. Just like a player has every right to try and get as much money as they can in their careers, a parent has every right to be as loud and proud about their son’s accomplishments in the NHL. A parent SHOULD give whatever advice or wisdom they have to their young 20’s children when it comes to their careers. Hell, I’m past 30 and I still ask my parents for advice related to my career. Even the twitter searching thing, I can’t really hate on him for that. There have been several times we find out that a hockey parent (or grandparent in the case of Gramma Dubas) likes one of our articles or our tweets here at PPP and we always get such a thrill by it.

But stories like the one in the Athletic (which came in the middle of the Nylander negotiations), and all of the constant mentions and articles about Michael Nylander earlier this year just add on to everything else that makes these negotiations so wearying. It’s yet another self-interested voice shouting into the screaming void where fun and joy go to die.

The Media Make Everything Worse

Take the trash parts of the Tavares negotiations I mentioned, add them with the trash salary cap and the crazy hockey parents, then present this platter of trash to the media. What happens? Get ready for the never-ending assault of panic-inducing, sensationalist, overly dramatic and exaggerated dumpster fire that is the mainstream coverage of contract negotiations.

Those hockey parents? They seem crazy because of the details we get are carefully offered. Because crazy gets clicks. The salary cap anxiety? Media people are only too happy to stoke those fires, whether intentionally by exaggerating how much trouble a team is in or unintentionally by trying (and failing) to make sense of what is actually pretty damn complicated thanks to the CBA’s Byzantine rules. They’re also all too willing to offer themselves up as the voice-puppet of either camp.

Bob McCown and Brian Burke have been saying for months that the Leafs will HAVE to trade Nylander because he asked for and got too much. It’s just not possible to afford him. The math doesn’t add up, according to them. And yet I have yet to hear him, or Brian Burke for that matter, talk about literally any of the other moves or tricks that Dubas can and probably will use to keep Nylander. But remember how I mentioned that story about Paul Marner and my boss? I can’t remember if McCown admitted anything outright, but he has told stories of watching Marner for years — more than other hockey prospects — that makes me think his talk about Nylander is coming from a place of preference for Marner, or when he asks if Marner is as good or better/more important than Matthews.

When we hear someone in the media talk about an outrageously low-ball offer from the team, it’s probably coming from an agent. Although sometimes they don’t even bother being subtle about it — take Ferris’ talk in the Star article linked above. On the other side, when we hear about a player asking for an outrageously high AAV, you can believe the team put something in the ears of an insider to put public pressure on the player to lower their actual demands.

But it doesn’t just stop at the people involved in the negotiations. Oh no. We also get plenty of unnamed (ALWAYS UNNAMED) rival executives trying to take advantage of a contract negotiation to try and sabotage it, stoke the fires, or insert themselves to talk trade. We saw that plenty during the Nylander negotiation. I’ll bet you we’ll see it during the Marner negotiations too. OH WAIT! We already have had a couple months of the dreaded offer sheet threat that Marner will assuredly sign to screw over the Leafs!

LOOK AT THIS SHIT! THIS WAS THE NEXT GOD DAMNED DAY FROM THE MATTHEWS SIGNING!

Why the fuck would I care or believe one god damned word of what a rival NHL executive thinks will happen? Even if they’re not talking out their ass to inconvenience a competing team, what do they know about what’s going on? No one does except the Leafs’ management and the Marner camp — the former does not leak shit to the media, the latter apparently can’t make up their mind whether or not they’ve been low-balled and that’s an outrage or of course they were low-balled that’s just part of the game!

Let’s face it, for the most part the Nylander negotiations were not really that bad... except for the attempts to make it seem worse either by the media or through some parts of the media. By the end you could hear the exasperation in Bob McKenzie’s voice as a new sensationalist report would come out, and he’d stick to his usual lines of “nothing has changed, we still don’t know anything yet, it’s all speculation at this point...” and so on. I look at Ferris pounding his fist on the metaphorical table tonight and I can’t help but think it’s going to be even worse.

Take that Toronto Star article. It wound up being even muddier and messier than you’d think at a first glance. Did Feshuck misquote or misrepresent Marner’s agent? Did he sensationalize it? Or was the agent simply playing a game and walking back his comments to prevent heat blowing back on Marner? Did Marner have any input on the quotes? Did he give the okay? Was Ferris just saying what Marner and his camp think?

And here’s the best one:

Of course Marner wants to stay here. This is his childhood team. These are his teammates and friends. This is a market where he makes crazy endorsements (for a hockey player). In his ideal world he’ll stay with the Leafs long term and make his money, just like Nylander and Matthews will. Dubas and Babcock also said they’ll lock him up to a contract. We all know they’ll lock him up to a new contract. The end result is all but guaranteed, but we still have to go through this song and dance thanks to the media trying to dump truck-fulls of gasoline on a candle.

FUCK!

God Bless Kyle Dubas

This is where the sweet side comes in. This is where I admit how if hockey is trash, then so am I.

I am here to stand for Kyle Dubas. Not because I think he is flawless, or incapable of making a mistake in general or during negotiations. But because I love how he handles himself during it. He always sounds calm, easy going and confident — even as the clock ticked away to get Nylander signed. He will admit mistakes, say he will change his approach to negotiations... and then he did it with Matthews.

He could have sunken to the level of other GMs in the history of the NHL and attacked Nylander’s character through the media. He could have expressed frustration and anger. But he didn’t. He kept it civil. He always praised Nylander and gave him the respect he deserves as his own person acting in his own self-interest, as is his right. He’s already started the same thing with Marner, even in that same Toronto Star piece where the attitude between Ferris and Dubas is night and day.

LOOK AT THIS LOVABLE DORK!

For all that contract negotiations have proven to be awful in a lot of ways, I am thankful that Kyle Dubas helps make it better instead of worse.

Most importantly, I want to remind myself of the entire second half of this article during Marner’s upcoming negotiations. It may seem like it will be bad because of what happened with Nylander, with Paul Marner’s public statements, and now with Marner’s agent’s public statements.

But I want to remember everything about Marner’s involvement with the team and with his teammates. I want to remember that Dubas has shown he will give his stars their money, and that Marner, like Tavares, grew up a Leafs fan and can become the hometown LEGEND that can lead the Leafs to their first Cup since 1967. I want to remember that Marner’s agent is talking tough and he has used holdouts as a bargaining tactic for a lot of his clients (Bennett, Athanasiou, Anderson), but they re-signed with and are still with their respective teams.

I Love This Team

The Toronto Maple Leafs are great. Can I just say that? They’re a fun and exciting team to watch — this ain’t your daddy’s trap-era Devils. They’re a fun and exciting team to follow. They have fun and exciting people in management, from everything I said about Kyle Dubas above, to Brendan Shanahan apparently DMing Steve Dangle to congratulate him when the Reimer’s baby girl was born because he knew how much of a Reimer fan Dangle is, to Babcock’s sass in the media.

I know some people get rubbed the wrong way by how Babcock speaks in or to the media, especially during tense parts of the season when the Leafs are struggling. But I view it the same way I view Dubas’ cool and calm demeanour during the Nylander negotiations. What good does it do to be seen to panic? To be angry at your players?

I love the way they’re going about acquiring new and young players. Whether it’s through the draft, trading down for more picks, acquiring free agents from Europe for either the NHL team or to help make their AHL team competitive alongside their prospects. I love that they make it a point to make the Marlies a great team too. I love that they bring in more and more brilliant minds to help make the team and organization better, especially women to add more diversity to their process.

I even love that the Leafs will always be an underdog until the day they win their next Cup to end the drought. The pressure can be great at times, even for us fans. It can be a source of mockery and derision by other fans, but at this point in time we’ve all heard them so often I can laugh with it. This team and we fans CAN be ridiculous at times. But we’re heading in the right direction.

I Love These Players Too

You can’t have a team without its players, and I love the players on the Leafs and in the organization. Annie’s fashion report series touches on the flair and personality that their young players are willing to show. We have Matthews and Marner’s sensational ballet performance. We have Dermott’s cornrows and Nylander’s playboy-esque photoshoots on boats. We have Marner’s goofy commercials. We have Marleau the Hockey Day adopting the young stars, which we as fans have been lucky enough to get exposed to by the players through social media. I love Tavares’ boyhood bed sheets and pajamas. We have the bromance of Gardiner and Rielly, and Andersen’s take-no-shit Danishness. We have Kapanen’s savage trash talk on Instagram to his teammates.

I love the skill and speed we have. I love Matthews’ ridiculous dangles and wrist shots. I love Nylander’s silky smooth skating and puck handling, and his snipe of a shot and great passes. I love Marner’s ridiculous creativity and playmaking. I love Tavares’ great skill and tenacity in making plays happen, and the great chemistry he has with Marner. I love Kapanen’s ridiculous speed. I love Johnsson taking his game to a higher level whenever a much bigger player than him thinks they can bully him with hits. I love Rielly’s ridiculous skill at managing the blueline in the offensive zone, and Gardiner’s crazy hail mary passes, and Dermott’s rushes. I love Muzzin’s blend of skill and physical play. I love Andersen’s stellar but calm play in net. I love Kadri’s on-ice trolling blended with his tenacious skill. I even love Hyman and Brown’s dogged determination, and the times they basically forecheck the puck into the net.

In the end, that’s what makes the contract negotiations so tense but so worth it in the end. We get these players, these weird, goofball players. OUR weird, goofball players. Many of them we have seen develop together, either in the AHL or at least in the NHL. We’ve seen them genuinely excited for each other on and off the ice.

I don’t want to lose any of these players, even though I know we’ll always have to lose some of them eventually. While that makes me sad, it also makes me extremely happy in my life to be able to follow them as a Leafs fan for the time they’re here with us. I just hope we get to see them for some years yet, and eventually hoist the Stanley Cup together as we all scream ourselves mute in ecstasy and adoration.

Go. Leafs. Go.