This article was originally published in September, 2019. It was reposted in May, 2020 as part of our Retro May look back at our work over the years.
It's reductive to say every negotiation has a winner and a loser. It's possible for all sides to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement, and I think that's the case or something close to it with most NHL contracts that get signed.
Kyle Dubas lost the Mitch Marner negotiation.
Mitch Marner is a very fine player. I profiled him in our Top 25 Under 25. The Leafs are a better team with him on it, and he is young enough to keep improving. Between the departure of Mats Sundin and the arrival of Auston Matthews this team probably had zero players as good as Marner. He's great.
We're just paying him the second-largest cap hit for a winger in the NHL. Marner is great and he is not better than Nikita Kucherov; he is not better than Mark Stone. He isn't on a par with Artemi Panarin, the only winger with a higher AAV at present.
So what happened?
Marner was in the perfect situation to get overpaid. He spent the year with a superstar centre who has a history of juicing his wingers' production. He had a PDO spike. He had his contract year in a year of rising offence league-wide. He plays on a team with a recent star RFA who set a new record under this CBA for the price tag on a five-year contract. And more than anything: his team is committed.
Kyle Dubas has made move after ingenious move setting this team up to win this year. He'd pushed all his chips into the centre of the table well before now, and Marner and his agent Darren Ferris knew it. It is possible Dubas was in a situation where he had to make what he knows is an overpay. Don't let anyone tell you Marner had no leverage; if Marner isn't playing this team is worse in a year it needs to be at its best.
And yet it's hard to avoid thinking Dubas was the victim of his own desire to be reasonable, to preserve relationships, and to keep players that he values not only professionally but personally. Leaks suggested that the team offered seven years at $11M per as early as June, an excessive and unprecedented number for any RFA short of a franchise player—which Marner, for all his gifts, is not. The team was willing to go as far as that as early as that in the process for the sake of hopefully getting an early resolution.
The problem with being reasonable and generous in negotiations is that it works only as far as the other side is the same. Marner's camp insisted, repeatedly, that they wanted a deal equivalent to Auston Matthews, and despite the oceans of evidence of that Marner is not the player Matthews is, they got something not all that far short. By holding to an extreme position and pushing their leverage to the fullest, by exploiting the team's need to contend immediately and Dubas' desire to be find a resolution, they wound up getting Mitch paid at the level of a better player. I don't blame Mitch or his agent for that--and despite him becoming a villain on Leaf Twitter this summer, Darren Ferris just did extremely well for his client, his own bank account, and his reputation as a hard bargainer. But we probably have to come back around to how it happened.
Among the many admirable things about Kyle Dubas is that he seems like a genuinely nice guy. He's a thoughtful GM, he's charming, and he's hard not to like. And he wants to deal honourably with his players—witness his willingness to lose a trade in order to give Josh Leivo an opportunity he wasn't getting in Toronto. This is good, generally. It's a nice thing to have in your organization.
But it raises the question of how he handles genuinely unreasonable demands from players he likes, values, and needs. After the fraught Nylander negotiation, he seems to have settled early on the Matthews deal and to have folded in the end on Marner. No one wanted a repeat of the Nylander holdout—but it's probably the best-value contract of the three.
Mitch Marner wasn't taking an offer sheet. He apparently turned down offers. He loves being in this city and apparently when the logjam got to the point the Leafs began leaking details of it, it bothered him; he signed within two days. Maybe the pressures were so irresistible Dubas was never going to get fair value on this contract. But it is hard to avoid the feeling they negotiated expecting give and take and they ran into a party that mostly took.
None of this makes Dubas a bad GM. The Tavares signing, the clever drafting, the bargain bin UFA adds, the slick trades, the cap gymnastics—those all still matter and they add up to an impressive year and a half in office. I would not trade Dubas for another GM.
And if you're going to overpay, overpay your stars. The excess cap hit above value on Marner, Matthews, and Nylander's deals is probably less than one dud deal for a declining player like Patrick Marleau, David Backes, or Ryan Callahan. If you have to lose a negotiation, lose it in the way where you keep a star player for their prime. The Leafs, when all is said and done, will now ice a genuine contender for the next several years. Kyle Dubas deserves a lot of credit for that.
There's just one flaw. When push comes to shove, he might be a little too reasonable.