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Mitch Madness

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Some rambling about everyone’s favourite RFA negotiation.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

So we’ve reached June 24th, and star winger Mitch Marner has yet to sign an extension. Let’s check in on how the Leafs’ fanbase is doing:

Mitch Marner, as you have heard upwards of fourteen hundred times, will be a restricted free agent when his contract expires at noon next Monday. If young Mitchell is so inclined, he can sign a contract with another team (an offer sheet), and the Leafs will then have seven days to make a choice: whether to match the contract and keep him on those terms, or to let him go and accept draft picks as compensation.

Would Marner actually sign an offer sheet? Well, gosh, he sure wants you to think he’s thinking about it.

Hmm.

The Leafs, as you are also probably aware, are the teensiest bit squeezed by the salary cap at the moment. The squeeze loosened a little this past weekend, when beloved overpriced veteran Patrick Marleau was unloaded on the Carolina Hurricanes for the 31st overall pick in next year’s draft. Still, the fact remains that as presently constituted, the right side of the Leafs’ defence is Nikita Zaitsev and then guys who make Nikita Zaitsev look good by comparison. That’s a rough shred for a team trying to contend, and most of the money to plug the hole is in that space between what Mitch Marner wants and what the Maple Leafs want to give him.

This is a source of wide and deep disquiet. A lot of people wanted/hoped/wished that Mitch Marner would take some kind of hometown discount. Another group of people hoped that he would take a salary somewhat in line with most of his NHL comparables. Neither outcome appears to greatly interest him. As a result, a lot of people blame Mitch, his father, his agent, or whoever else for paralyzing a team financially just as it tries to get all the way to real, honest-to-God champion status.

Some thoughts about all that.

Take It Easy

Be mad if you want. But...it’s worth noting a trend here.

Ultimately Marner’s demands will impair the ability of this team to contend if the team meets them. This is undeniable, and if you’re a fan you can resent it if you want. That’s not how I see it—everybody can negotiate in their own interests, and Marner is not responsible for the league structure that makes his salary such a problem for us—but you gotta do you.

Just, uh, don’t burn yourself out.

We’re in June. The William Nylander negotiation (which was admittedly a lot less adversarial in public than this one) didn’t wrap up until December. For a few reasons, I don’t think this process is going to go that long—the Leafs can’t really front-load Marner’s contract like they did Nylander’s, for one—but it’s not at all hard to see this one stretching to the start of October. I assume if it does Darren Dreger will have gone on a hunger strike that will be featured in a 24-hour TSN feed.

Offer Sheets

Or maybe it’ll all blow up next week! Maybe Mitch will become the first player in six years to sign an offer sheet, and we’ll have a choice to make.

The thing about this negotiation is as far as I can tell, both sides are doing what makes sense for themselves. Mitch Marner’s camp is agitating for the best possible deal he can get, and they’re making all sorts of noises and gestures that he might seriously! for real! I mean it! sign a deal with another team. They’ve also negotiated through the media, which I have to say I think is paying out for them, because they’ve pushed up the numbers we hear leaked from the talks. It’s annoying but it works. Finally, Mitch’s circle has been indicating he and/or they have felt “disrespected” by the organization in the past, for example due to Lou Lamoriello not giving Marner ELC bonuses or due to somewhat limited ice-time in his first season. If Marner (or Marner Senior) actually feels this way he is a baby, but as a negotiating stance to suggest he might be so hurt and offended he could really sign a deal with another team, it adds up. Everything Marner’s group has been doing, obviously including meeting with other teams, seems geared to make the offer sheet threat seem credible in a way it basically hasn’t been for most RFAs in recent years.

Maybe he really does mean it. I don’t know what’s going on in Mitch’s heart. But Kyle Dubas, by most accounts, has been handling this one about the only way he can. He’s put a reasonable offer on the table, and that’s been that. He’s been polite—there’s no need to damage the relationship—but he’s also indicated that he has a number and he can’t go over it. He said recently the Leafs weren’t guaranteed to match should Mitch sign a deal for too much. Some people lamented that as Dubas reneging on his famous “we can and we will” statement about maintaining his team’s core; to me it just sounded like sound bargaining. Don’t sign a deal elsewhere unless you’re really prepared to move, Mitch.

And that ultimately has to be Dubas’ attitude. Marner, by most accounts, wants a huge number. He’s either able and willing to get it from another team, or he’s not. If he’s not, eventually his number will come down. If he does get it, then you make the decision to match when you have to. But in the end, Mitch is a hometown star who’s taken endorsements with every insurance and watch and widget company in the GTA. You can’t give him the moon for fear of an off chance.

Hakuna Matata

Say we cheered for another team, and Marner signing an offer sheet were something we wanted rather than dreaded. What would you think our chances of getting him were?

I think we’d remember no player has signed an offer sheet in six years and none has gone unmatched in twelve. We’d probably note that the contract required to pry Marner out of Toronto would be one in the top compensation bracket—$10.6M a year or higher on a five-year—and that a deal ugly enough to scare off the Leafs would probably be ugly enough to scare off most teams when you add four first-round picks to the cost. I can’t read Marner’s mind, but the personal facts that seem the clearest militate in favour of him signing with the Leafs and not elsewhere. The leaks that argue the other way just seem like negotiating tactics.

So in the end? I think this will work out fine. Marner will sign before opening night, with the Leafs, to a deal that I will probably think is too expensive but that will be at least a little less than the bananapants numbers being floated in the media. If he doesn’t, well, we’re rich and we’re going shopping, baby. But that’s not something I prefer or expect. I’m betting on an extension, as annoyed as we’ll all be at Dreger by the end of it.

Besides, it’s the Kawhi negotiation you really worry about.