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Mitch Marner’s contract is set up for him to disappoint

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Marner’s contract pays him for the fortune he received last year

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Leafs last day Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Mitch Marner has signed. Our long national nightmare is over, replaced by the new, ongoing nightmare that is looking at his contract on CapFriendly and wincing. The reaction to the contract has nearly been universal. It is an overpay.

It’s an overpay if you look at statistical models to project contracts. It’s an overpay if you look at his comparables. It’s an overpay almost beyond belief. But it’s an overpay that keeps him a Leaf.

It’s possible to rationalize this contract in reasonable ways. Given the choice, you’d prefer to overpay a brilliant player like Marner than some third line plodder. Contrary to what others have said, Marner does have leverage, in that he’s a sublime player that is a key reason that the Leafs consider themselves contenders. Toronto couldn’t afford to not have Marner at his best, and they went to great lengths to demonstrate that to him.

Additionally, you can convince yourself that they only overpaid by $1M or so — not the end of the world. Hell, you can also argue that Marner is worth the salary he’s being paid. Per the calculations of Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic, Marner’s on-ice value (in wins) is likely to exceed the amount of wins his salary usually buys on the UFA market. The disappointment arises from the fact that RFA negotiations are usually an environment where teams extract notable efficiencies through the resulting contracts. Mitch Marner’s contract, in a vacuum, likely provides more value than John Tavares’, because Marner will be in his prime throughout the deal while Tavares will be exiting his. However, the expectations for those situations were drastically different. Tavares was the first elite UFA to change teams in the last decade, and signing him gives a team the opportunity to improve their team dramatically for nothing but cap space. Re-signing an RFA is considered a base case; that the Leafs had to pay over the odds to do so is unequivocally not a win.

A huge reason as to why this overpay occurred is because of Marner’s platform year. Using points to evaluate forwards is a bit reductive, but the fact is, points are what get players paid, and Marner had 94 of them. If he sustains (or improves, as he is only 22 — firmly in the upward swinging part of his career) this scoring rate, people will forgive the acrimonious negotiation. If he doesn’t, then it’s not going to be pretty.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult for him to exceed last season. It’s been fairly common to predict Marner as a player to regress. Ian Tulloch of The Athletic noted as much here, pointing out that Marner (and his linemates) had a lot going for them last year. Marner’s 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage of 11.36% was 9th leaguewide among players with more than 500 5v5 minutes. As has been established many times (here is one example, by Eric Tulsky, now of the Carolina Hurricanes), players exhibit limited control of their on-ice shooting percentage, even in relatively larger samples. Through no fault of Marner’s he will likely see less of his team’s shots turn into goals this season.

The common counter to this is that Marner might simply be a player who can sustain high on-ice shooting percentages. Maybe that is the case — his previous two on-ice shooting percentages were 10.16% (rookie year) and 8.28% (sophomore year). Both are above league average, and the rookie year especially so. Both are also a fairly steep decline from last season. The counter to that is that Marner is also playing with a high-skill centre in John Tavares, and the combination of those two together can sustain elite on-ice conversion rates. Maybe they can, but every year, the highest on-ice shooting percentages experienced by players are around 12%, with league average being closer to 8%. There is simply not much room for Marner to increase from last year, and a lot more space to go down.

More recently, Draglikepull of TheLeafsNation pointed out that Marner’s primary assist rate was the highest we’ve seen since 2007. There are two ways you can look at this.

  1. Marner is the best passer we’ve seen in the last decade
  2. There’s little room for him to ‘gain’ points via primary assists - he’s already operating near the maximum of what is practically possible in terms of primary assists in the NHL.

Draglikepull establishes that other players who had huge primary assist rates in year N invariably saw their primary assist rate drop in year N+1. Simply put, it’s hard to follow up the best passing season since 2007 with something better.

None of this means that Marner is going to get ‘worse’. He is not. It’s just that he had many things go right to hit 94 points last year, and there’s no guarantee that happens again. We saw with William Nylander last year that most mainstream analysis of forwards begins and ends at points. This is so pervasive that people made up flaws to explain Nylander’s points, rather than criticize the player honestly.

Despite Nylander having a genuinely stunning year with respect to shot share and driving play, he was roundly criticized because the puck wasn’t in the net enough. I don’t think Marner will struggle with point scoring the way Nylander did last year. Marner is better on the power play, will have better linemates than Nylander did last year, and is simply a better point scorer overall.

However, I can see a world where Marner is a better player than last year, but one who happens to score fewer points. If that happens, I don’t expect the broader hockey media to attack that with any particular nuance. Marner will be the selfish player who got his contract and stopped caring. Dubas will be the naive GM who got suckered by an experienced agent. Lets hope we don’t have to see it.