NHL training camps are underway and most of the high profile restricted free agents are still unsigned. Zach Werenski settled with the Blue Jackets on a reasonable bridge deal and Ivan Provorov followed with a long-term commitment to the Philadelphia Flyers.
But most of the forwards out there still don’t have a new contract, and in most cases don’t appear close to agreeing on one.
The highest profile of all of these is, of course, Mitch Marner. Whether you believe Marner is the best restricted free agent right now likely depends on which team you cheer for. The competition is pretty fierce, but due to him playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, he’s bound to get the most coverage of anyone anyway.
That coverage has intensified because Marner and his camp have been attempting to reset the market for restricted free agent forwards, with all the other RFAs seemingly waiting to see what happens to improve their own bargaining power.
After leaks of contract offers from the Maple Leafs in the $11 million AAV range for seven and eight years that the Marner camp turned down, fan opinion has begun to shift against the player at a more rapid pace. This always happens when a player crosses a threshold of ‘too much’ money.
It’s believed that Marner’s camp prefers a three-year bridge deal, but is unwilling to come down on the cash side, with Elliotte Friedman reporting in 31 Thoughts that at one point Marner’s side had proposed a three-year contract with a third season paying him upwards of $15 million, which would set him up for an extremely rich qualifying offer that would walk him to unrestricted free agency.
On Friday, Chris Johnston reported that there seems to be some progress in the Marner contract talks – all this just shows how difficult this contract negotiation has been.
In an ideal world where players all make what they’re worth, Marner’s stance may not be that unreasonable. But we have to remember there are current market values for players by position, by contract status, and player type.
Unfortunately for Marner, an unrestricted free agent who plays a very similar style to even greater effect from the wing just signed a new contract this summer — Artemi Panarin went to the Rangers for an $11.64 million AAV on a seven-year deal. That effectively creates a top end limit. No matter what Marner’s agent brings to the table as an argument, Panarin scores more, creates more, and drives play to greater effect at 5-on-5.
But even with that limit, is Marner worth the money the Leafs have already reportedly offered? Let’s play to his strengths and figure out where exactly Marner ranks against his peers as one of the NHL’s best playmakers.
Jack Han, who now works for the Maple Leafs, once put it succinctly to me that offence in hockey is all about creating odd-man situations. Two-on-one breaks are the most obvious, but most puck movement in the offensive zone is made with the goal of creating a situation where the attackers outnumber the defenders within a space, which they can take advantage of and hopefully score. You can do that with passing, skating, or deking.
We already know that Marner is among the best in the NHL at generating scoring on the power play. But when we break down the plays he makes at even strength that produce goals and compare those to his peers in restricted free agent limbo, do we find a player who stands alone atop the group?
Marner is certainly among the top, but he doesn’t stand out alone. Both Brayden Point and Mikko Rantanen match him in overall playmaking involvement at evens, with Point ahead by a statistically insignificant margin, and Rantanen behind by the same.
Marner is particularly skilled at turning his controlled entries into scoring chances and moving the puck East-West in the offensive zone is something he does better than most. However, Point matches him on the latter, and the entries Point creates have significantly more puck movement than Marner’s.
Rantanen hits the slot more often than either of them, but doesn’t connect as often on other pass types and he isn’t the key to rush plays on his line. That’s Nathan MacKinnon. Where Rantanen makes up ground on his RFA peers is with his incredible ability to beat players one-on-one.
So if we ignore that goal scorers are paid better than playmakers, and if we ignore that centres are paid more than wingers, we can easily see why this RFA class is waiting for Marner to set the market. It would be incredibly easy for Rantanen’s and Point’s agents to go to their respective teams and say “Marner got this much, but look at the data, we create as much or more.”
Marner is among the premier playmakers without a contract today, so his talents are in short supply. But compared to the rest of the league, how well does his best season truly stack up as a playmaker?
Looking at all forwards who played 800 or more minutes last season, Marner’s career year ranked 28th in plays completed that created better scoring chances at 5-on-5. This is the range Marner continually falls into whenever I look at data for ranking players.
This makes Marner a mid-range first line forward for playmaking at even strength, but he is not by any means in the category of players who set precedents in contracts.
If every single player in the league were an unrestricted free agent today, the market would likely squeeze money out of the lower end players’ pockets in order to lock up ones like Marner. But this isn’t the reality and that’s what puts the Maple Leafs in an extremely tough position.
At this stage, few teams have the cap space, let alone the will, to give Marner the money he wants, especially on a short-term deal. It’s in the interest of every GM in the league for Kyle Dubas to not fold and reset the market, so what is the play?
Unfortunately for the Leafs, Marner, and the fans who enjoy watching him play, the only move that’s really available to the Leafs is to wait, and see how much of the season Marner is willing to lose plus the salary he would have earned.
One thing the Leafs cannot do is reward a player whose breakout season ranked 28th at even strength in playmaking inputs with a contract that would pay him like a generational talent.
It’s possible that Marner could get better over time, but even in his best season his playmaking at evens was slightly outpaced by Auston Matthews’ who is an even better goal scorer than he is a playmaker. So again, they are not equals by any stretch of the imagination.