Here’s how the Maple Leafs can keep John Tavares, and their big 3, together
If you happened to walk around the streets of Toronto on, or after July 1st, there’s a good chance you heard someone talk about the John Tavares signing. It’s been a week since the talented center put pen to paper, making the long-term commitment to his hometown official, but there are still questions being asked among the fanbase.
How will the Maple Leafs afford Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander now that Tavares, and his $11 million salary, is on the books? You might have seen some stories being pushed out by certain Toronto media outlets, with similar rhetorical headlines detailing Nylander as the odd man out. I’ll admit, even before Tavares signed, I contemplated the future financial state of the Maple Leafs, wondering how they’d be able to survive in the salary cap era with three, let alone four of the league’s most talented players. It won’t be easy, and Dubas will have a full plate for the next several months.
Of course, there’s always a way.
No player, including Matthews, will get close to Connor McDavid’s average annual salary of $12.5 million. Something more along the lines of Tavares’ seven-year, $77-million contract, is more likely.
At the moment, Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel, who signed an eight-year, $80-million contract ($10 million AAV) in 2017, is a good comparison. He’s similar in age (21), and while a strong argument can be made that Matthews holds more value than Eichel does right now, in terms of contract structure, a similar annual figure would make the most sense for both sides. If Dubas and Brendan Shanahan want to get talks going with Matthews, offering him an eight-year, $84-million contract would be a good start. That’s an annual cap hit of $10.5 million, putting him just above Eichel and Anze Kopitar, who signed his long-term deal (also $10 million AAV) during the 2015–2016 season.
The deal: Maple Leafs sign Matthews to an eight-year, $84-million contract ($10.5 million AAV)
It gets a bit trickier with Nylander. Let’s start off by assuming, or rather, predicting, that the Leafs present Nylander with a bridge deal, much like the three-year, $14.2-million contract ($4.76 million AAV) that Nikita Kucherov initially signed in October 2016. The Lightning winger was coming off 65, and 66 point seasons having played primarily at 5on5 with linemates Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat. That is important because Nylander has two 61-point seasons since becoming a full-time NHL player. The difference, in this case, is that Nylander has arrived at those totals playing 5on5 with Matthews as his center, and Zach Hyman as his other winger. I don’t need to tell you that Nylander playing with Matthews gives him an advantage; that is, at least, when you compare it to Kucherov playing with Johnson and Palat.
Kucherov isn’t the only winger we can use to measure Nylander’s next contract. Another that comes to mind is Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson. It took some time for the now 25-year-old forward to hit his stride, as he managed only 16 points in his first 62 NHL games. After a successful, but brief stint in the AHL, Arvidsson exploded for 31 goals and 61 points in 2016–2017. Instead of going the bridge-deal route, the Predators rewarded and banked on Arvidsson, signing him to a seven-year, $29.7-million contract last summer ($4.25 million AAV). Much like Nylander in terms of point production, the Predators winger followed up his new contract with another 61-point campaign this past season.
With all of this in mind, it’s time to dig into the numbers. In two seasons leading up to his bridge deal, Kucherov scored at a 68-point pace. Arvidsson, who was a bit older than Nylander at the time of his breakout, tallied 61 points, doing so playing alongside Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg — two highly skilled players. It should be noted he played with those two again this year, and Arvidsson finished with an identical 61 points.
For Nylander, the Leafs can go either one of two routes. If you factor in Nylander’s scoring (62 points at an 82-game pace), his age (22), and, more importantly, the Leafs’ current, and future state, it might be in the their best interest to sign him to a contract similar to Kucherov’s, albeit with a bit more in terms of AAV. Something like two, or three years and $10-15 million, with an AAV of $5 million, could work. If a long-term deal is preferred by both sides, Nylander would be deserving of more than Arvidsson’s $4.2 million AAV, and would then slot in somewhere around Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau ($5.9 million) and Winnipeg’s Nikolai Ehlers ($6 million).
The deal: Maple Leafs sign Nylander to a seven-year, $42-million contract ($6 million AAV).
Marner and Nylander are of equal importance to the Maple Leafs, but one of them is coming off their best season as a professional. That’s not a knock on Nylander, it’s just that Marner, having just turned 21 years old in May, was the Maple Leafs’ best player on most nights, and throughout the entire postseason.
After a fine rookie season saw him score 19 goals and 61 points, Marner improved upon that with 69 points this year and led his team in playoff scoring with nine points in seven games. Three players similar to Marner already under contract are the aforementioned Ehlers, Boston’s David Pastrnak — whose contract carries an AAV of $6.6 million — and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau ($6.7 million).
In both seasons leading up to their extensions, Gaudreau scored 72 points per an 82-game pace. Pastrnak was more impressive, scoring at a 78-point pace. Marner is below that, though it should be noted that it took Pastrnak two seasons to firmly establish himself in the NHL (it also helps when you get promoted to play on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand). In Calgary, Gaudreau made an immediate impact, much like Marner.
So where does that leave Toronto and negotiations? Well, if you examine Marner’s production to date while comparing him to these three players, he should factor right in the middle. The Leafs offering Marner a long-term contract from the get-go is a no-brainer. No bridge deal is necessary here.
The deal: Maple Leafs sign Marner to an eight-year, $56 million contract ($7 million AAV)
Dubas locking up all of the Leafs’ big four at once is an exorbitant ask so early in his tenure as general manager. If he were to get it done exactly like I’ve proposed, the four players, including Tavares, would combine to make $34.5 million. For comparison’s sake, this year, the Washington Capitals managed to win the Stanley Cup with their big five (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Niklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Braden Holtby) earning an similar $34 million. That was before Carlson, who earned $3.9 million AAV this past season, was signed to a long-term contract worth $8 million per year in June.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ core of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, one responsible for winning three Stanley Cups, cost $33.3 million. Pittsburgh has won two Stanley Cups with a group of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. Those four players combine to earn $32.2 million. Of course, that doesn’t include goalies Marc Andre Fleury (who earned $5.7 million AAV in Pittsburgh) and Chicago’s Corey Crawford ($6 million AAV). The Leafs’ Frederik Andersen is earning $5 million, a figure still owed to him for each of the next three seasons. In terms of combined salary, the Maple Leafs’ core, including Andersen, would be paid $39.5 million, compared to Chicago’s big five ($39.3 million), followed by Pittsburgh at $37.9 million (it’s a bit less for the Penguins with Matt Murray in goal now that Fleury is in Vegas).
Hypothetically, this should answer the dreaded question: “Can the Maple Leafs afford to sign all of their talented young players’ long term?”
As Dubas put it recently: “We can, and we will.”