Today Zach Werenski became the first of the high-ranked RFAs to sign a deal since Sebastian Aho signed his offer sheet.

Bob McKenzie then did a little twitter essay on the topic, and this is how this affects the Leafs:

Forget his prospective numbers there for a minute; he’s essentially just riffing off the kinds on numbers that have been tossed around. The point is the final year salary, anyway, not the AAV.

As you would have learned if you read through the whole saga of Ceci vs Gardiner, things like arbitration and qualifying offers are based on salary not AAV. We get so used to worrying about the cap in money-rich Toronto, that we forget sometimes to notice the salary structure.

Let’s see some examples, beginning with the version of this sort of deal that benefits both sides, the Timo Meier:

Meier’s deal has a lovely low AAV of $6 million, and he is a player who is at least in the class of William Nylander, if not quite a bit better. Nylander’s deal was considered a indicator of what Meier would sign for. Nylander’s AAV is $962,366 higher than Meier’s, but his deal runs until 2024, and of course, his year-one amount was much higher due to starting late.

Nylander’s salary in the last year is a paltry $6 million, since he’s getting all his actual money as front loaded as you can get. He’ll be a richer man in the end that way, and his term deal takes him into his UFA years. His is a very old-fashioned, “I love you and I’ll never leave you”, traditional marriage deal.

Meier’s is another thing altogether. His deal expires with Meier an RFA with arbitration rights, and it’s only four years long. Why would the Sharks, whose GM is a shark, sign this deal? To get that low AAV when they’re strapped for cap space and have what might be a closing window to contend. They are not the Leafs. They aren’t necessarily setting up a household forever and ever, they’re burning the walls down around them to keep the heat up in a push for the cup.

Meier’s deal expires with a salary of $10 million. Which means his qualifying offer due the summer of 2023 is $10 million. and if he can’t make a new deal with whoever owns his rights at that point, he goes to arbitration making a case for a raise on $10 million, not $6 million. At a minimum, his total salary over the life of this contract plus two speculative years at $10 million is $44 million.  Nylander’s is $45 million.

It’s more likely that, when Meier has put in 6 years on his two separate contracts, he will be ahead of Nylander in salary earned. And the AAV right now is lower enough to let the Sharks fit in one whole roster player.

This deal worked for the Sharks, and it worked for the long term salary gain of Meier. Nylander can win in the end with a smart investment program on all the time value of money, but that’s the Toronto advantage. The Sharks used their smarts to gain a cap advantage.

Now, let’s look at Werenski:

His deal has an AAV of $5 million for its three years, saving the Blue Jackets some cap space exactly when they have heaps of cap space. Cap Friendly lists them as having $10,765,918 in space with a roster of 22, and that’s including Werenski. Unless they are planning to acquire one of those RFA forwards in the next two weeks, they have no one to spend that on.

When the deal expires, with Werenski as an RFA with arbitration rights, they’re looking at paying him at least $7 million so add that year in, divide by four and you get... $5.5 million in AAV.

What’s in this for Columbus? I sure see why Werenski was willing to take what superficially looks like a discount to set himself up for a big raise and soon, but what’s the team doing? Saving money is the only answer I’ve got.

Now, it’s time to ask if a bridge like this is a good idea for Mitch Marner. Some mood music:

Let’s use McKenzie’s speculative numbers. Let’s imagine the three year $9 million AAV deal with $12 million in salary in the final year.

What’s in that for Marner? It’s equivalent to at least a four year deal with an AAV of $9.75 over four years, which isn’t quite Matthews money, but is more than the Leafs are likely interested in giving him on a deal with five, six or seven years as term. That big salary at the end is a nice symbolic marker of his worth, which sure seems to be the issue here. Marner wants to be the biggest star on a team where that’s not possible. But he’s giving up the real-world value of having his salary front-loaded like Nylander did. (Is Willie the smart one? Discuss.)

What’s in it for the Leafs? He might sign it? I don’t know, otherwise, if there’s a single pro to this kind of deal for the Leafs.

This sort of bridge sets up a situation where, near the end of year-three — I mean really near, you know, in late February or so — Marner will have either proved himself worth $12 million or he might be trying on new clothes.  Who benefits from that? Marner, presumably in lifetime earnings, because I don’t think the Leafs will be anymore likely to want to ladle out huge dollars to one winger three years hence than they are now. Maybe the best you can say for it is that it would kick the whole nasty can of worms down the road for three years, when everyone’s perspective might have had a time to, dare I say it, mature.

I don’t think this is at all what the Leafs want because they aren’t the Sharks, they are looking for a nice comfortable long-term poly marriage where everyone grows old together with a really nice collection of silver. I don’t think Marner can have what he wants, so he has to pick something else out of the pantheon of the possible, so maybe this would suit him.

It’s not a modern and clever deal like Meier’s that works for everyone. It’s not safe and traditional deal like Nylander’s, which is conservative in the best way for everyone. It wouldn’t be the worst deal the Leafs could make with Marner. I hate it enough, I’m now afraid it might happen, even though that seems unlikely.

There was a Leafs Lunch last week where Andi Petrillo and Mike Johnson yelled at each other about Marner and his desire to get a statement contract. Petrillo made the point, that if Marner wants that, if he believes he’s due that, than he should go for it, but he needs to be ready for the consequences of that. Or to put it another way that some might recognize: When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action. The corollary to that is: To get the result you desire, you have to be willing to make the choices necessary to bring that about.

Marner wants to be on the Leafs and he wants to get a statement contract, and he can’t have both of those things. Not really, not forever and ever. If this ends up with a muddy, messy, bad compromise bridge deal because Marner can’t bring himself now to choose between his conflicting desires, then he may well have made a choice without admitting it to himself.