VANCOUVER — Should Mitch Marner sign an offer sheet in the coming weeks, there’s no guarantee it would automatically be matched by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That was the revelation from Kyle Dubas following a meeting of NHL general managers here Thursday — the surest sign yet of how real these negotiations now are.
On one hand, it’s easy to understand where Dubas is coming from. The Leafs are being pinched big time by the salary cap, with less than $7.5-million in available space (on an anticipated $81.5-million ceiling for 2019-20) and some holes to be patched along with players signed.
And, theoretically, Marner could sign a contract carrying an AAV for twice the amount of cap space the team has remaining.
It’s reasonable to assume there is a number that is simply too large for Toronto to match and still field a competitive team — one that would make the four first-round picks as compensation seem like the most appealing option.
But it’s also a departure from how Dubas has handled this question in the past. Then, in December, he was speaking hypothetically about the offer sheet threat when he said "our salary cap situation is set up that we could defend any of those threats with no worry at all."
Today he is knee-deep in a negotiation that isn’t producing traction while also managing contract decisions on fellow restricted free agents Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Each of those players is allowed to speak with rival teams about an offer sheet as of next Wednesday.
These are no longer abstract concepts or ideas.
"I think we’re at the point now where we can speak openly about it," said Dubas. "I think it would really depend on any of the players. It’s not just one guy — we’ve got a number of them — and if there were an offer sheet we would look at what they are, and what the compensation is for our team, and make the decision based off of that.
"I think they’re all very important players for us and it’s our intention that they’re all here for as long as we can possibly keep them. But if the dollar amount doesn’t make sense both in terms of our internal economics, and the marketplace, and the compensation is such, it’s going to be a decision on our end as to what we do."
This is tough business. There is absolutely no reason to believe the Leafs want to wave goodbye to a 22-year-old kid beloved both by teammates and fans on the heels of his 94-point season.
It’s equally difficult to imagine Marner wanting to leave his hometown or his hometown team, especially at a moment when it is bursting with such promise.
But the sides are in a difficult position where their interests don’t fully align — where the amount of money Marner believes he needs to be paid to feel valued matches what the Leafs think they can handle in their budget.
And Dubas isn’t prepared to let one of his rivals set the price of the star winger’s next contract by simply matching any offer sheet. He’s letting it be known that there’s some risk built into pursuing that avenue, particularly if Marner (or Kapanen or Johnsson) prefer to remain members of the Leafs.
"I think it’s been clear to all," he said. "It’s going to depend on where they’re at. Where they fit in our internal economics and so on and so forth. We’ll see. I hope it doesn’t ever come to that, I hope we can all continue to work together and we’re appreciative of all their efforts so far.
"I also don’t think it benefits [us] to shy away from the fact that that may happen."
This is a volatile time for the Leafs GM.
He needs to create some extra cap space by dealing the heavy contracts of Nikita Zaitsev and Patrick Marleau — although he said Thursday there’s a "strong chance" Marleau returns for the start of next season — and he needs to try and make improvements to a blue line about to lose Jake Gardiner to unrestricted free agency.
All the while he has to find a way to fit Marner into a cap picture that already has Auston Matthews ($11.634-million), John Tavares ($11-million) and William Nylander ($6.96-million) pulling down big money.
"I would rather if we’re going to pay our players, pay our top guys, and force our staff to get creative around the edges of the team," said Dubas.
But there is a limit to the creativity.
Should an offer sheet arrive — no guarantee, but not out of the realm of possibility — we may find out where his limit is.