With the Toronto Maple Leafs inking Auston Matthews to a five-year, $58.17-million contract extension ($11.634 million annual average value), their focus shifts toward getting Mitch Marner re-signed before July 1.
A restricted free agent this summer, Marner could become an attractive target for an offer sheet from a rival club. He and the Leafs agreed to postpone contract negotiations until the end of the season and it’s a good bet they’ll try to get him signed as quickly as possible.
In my analysis of the Matthews deal, I speculated Marner’s new contract could cost the Leafs around $11 million annually on a long-term deal of six-to-eight years. Some readers scoffed at that notion. Several suggested he wasn’t worth more than $9 million annually, believing it wouldn’t be right for Marner to get more than Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov ($9.5 million per starting in 2019-20) or Dallas’ Tyler Seguin ($9.85 million).
I’m willing to concede that maybe Marner might accept an annual cap hit of between $10- million to $10.5 million on a front-loaded eight-year deal whereby, like Matthews, the bulk of his salary is paid as a signing bonus every July 1. However, I don’t believe he’ll accept less than $10 million per.
First of all, as Marner’s agent recently stated, his client won’t accept any hometown discounts. Not after seeing Matthews and William Nylander getting lucrative new contracts this season.
There’s no justification for the Leafs to low-ball Marner or force him to accept less than market value. He tallied 61 points as a rookie, led the Leafs with 69 points last season and is currently their leading scorer with 66 points in 54 games.
Had Matthews not been sidelined by shoulder injuries the last two seasons, he probably would have been the Leafs’ leading scorer. Still, that doesn’t detract from Marner’s steady improvement as a scoring star or his value to the Leafs as one of their core players.
As of Feb. 9, Marner sat tenth among the league’s top-10 scorers. Indeed, he’s been in the top-10 for most of the season. He’s on pace to reach 100 points, which would make him the first Leaf to reach that milestone since Doug Gilmour (111 points) in 1993-94.
You don’t look at that type of point producer and beg him to take a discount.
As for the comparisons to Kucherov and Seguin, Marner’s already out-pointed them at this stage in his career compared to where they were at the same period. Kucherov had 149 points in his first three NHL seasons (18, 65, 66) while Seguin had 121 (22, 67, 32). Granted, Seguin’s third season came during the last lockout, but even if we’re being generous and assume he’d reach 60 points had he played a full regular season, he’d still fall short of the 195 points Marner’s already accumulated.
The argument can be made that the game is now more favorable toward offensive players than it was for Kucherov and Seguin earlier in their respective careers. That’s as may be, but it doesn’t negate the fact Marner has thrived in the NHL much sooner than expected.
And let’s not forget the tax implications. Kucherov and Seguin play in cities where there is no state tax. That’s not the case for Marner living and working in the province of Ontario. Once those provincial taxes are deducted, he could end up taking home less than Kucherov and Seguin if he accepts less than $10 million annually on his next contract.
Some Toronto fans and pundits could beg Marner to accept less to save their club from a coming salary-cap crunch. However, management could’ve avoided that problem had they not invested over $6 million per season in an aging Patrick Marleau or $11 million annually on John Tavares for seven seasons or over $4.5 million annually on a long-term deal for defenseman Nikita Zaitsev.
Marner deserves almost as much as Matthews. He’s an indispensable, durable player who is as responsible for the Leafs’ dramatic rise over the past three years as Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and anyone else among their core players.
Marner is going to get paid. A lot. And it’s probably going to be north of $10 million annually. If the Leafs won’t pay that much, another club happily will with an offer sheet, perhaps with an amount the Leafs, despite their bluster, might be unable to match.