Why Marner’s contract raises questions about Maple Leafs’ defence

Elliotte Friedman gives his thoughts on Mitch Marner signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs for six years. Examining the term, dollar amount, and impact this contract has on other restricted free agents around the NHL.

The Michell Marner contract—rich, long and market-rocking—is a win for restricted free agents.

It’s a win for wingers who drive play.

It’s a win for negotiations as long as those engagements that might not end with marriage.

It’s a win for primary assists and tap-ins and young superstars who’ve never actually been NHL all-stars but are now top-seven in average annual salary (and top two among wings).

It’s a win for lifelong winners who quarterback power plays and murder penalties and hug mascots and fling hockey sticks to kids and dodge checks like taxes.

It’s a win for the small kid who hustles every shift like his chance depends on it.

Zooming all the way out, it’s also a win for the enticing theory that offence wins championships, which is essentially what Kyle "We Can, We Will" Dubas is banking on here.

Damn the clichés. Long live red lamps and 5-4 river hockey.

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Barring a blockbuster trade, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be pouring $40.49 million of their precious salary cap into just four forwards—Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Marner and William Nylander—in each of the next five seasons.

There’s your window, Leaf Nation.

There’s your legacy, Mr. Dubas.

The good news: They’re all young enough that it’s not only believable but probable that their best hockey games lie ahead.

A single Stanley Cup will make any agony Leafs fans feel over the lack of "hometown" discounts totally worth it. (Even the staunchest Raptors fans find it difficult to argue a grudge against Kawhi underneath their flat-brimmed 2019 NBA champions caps.) Plus, the salary ceiling is projected to go up, right? Right?!

The bad—or, at least, sobering—news: Toronto’s defence during that window may never be as dynamic as it is today.

Dubas has boldly waded into uncharted waters here, banking his club’s success on three forwards raking in eight figures apiece.

It’s a first. But if it works, it may not be the last.

In a cap world, the slivers of pie left over for the blue-line must be sliced thin.

Morgan Rielly—a 25-year-old coming hot off a 20-goal, 72-point campaign—has rapidly become one of the league’s greatest bargains at $5 million for the next three seasons. (Take a bow, Lou Lamoriello.)

But Rielly is the only roster defenceman under contract beyond this spring.

Think about that for a second.

If the Leafs are any good this year—and, boy, they better be—defencemen Cody Ceci, Jake Muzzin, Tyson Barrie, and Travis Dermott will all demand raises so large that it’ll be difficult retaining more than two of them.

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Dermott (RFA 2020), whom the Leafs smartly drafted and patiently developed, should be the easiest to re-sign and must establish himself as a top-four defenceman. Maybe a stay-at-home guy like Ceci will settle because he likes his new niche.

Regardless, pressure will shift swiftly to prized prospects Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, first-rounders who could find themselves logging heavy minutes on their entry-level deals starting in 2020, and on Dubas to find cheap labour via free agency or trade that can hold the fort in the Leafs’ back end.

"One of the things we have to improve the most is playing in our own zone," coach Mike Babcock said at the outset of camp. "Last year, when we lost D [Dermott and Jake Gardiner to injury], we didn’t maintain winning. We played tight and we were in it, but we didn’t maintain winning."

That task will only get tougher when Barrie (a steal at $2.75 million) and Muzzin (underpaid at $4 million) command raises next summer the Leafs—so pot-committed up front—can no longer afford.

So as a wealth of defensive depth recently boosted St. Louis and Washington to the promised land in cap-strained circumstances, Toronto—with its Marner payday the latest example—is out to prove there is whole other way to solve the equation.

Dubas is banking, quite literally, that an onslaught of skill upfront is enough to back a team up.

As risky as it is to fly against the grain like this, hockey, which should welcome more goals, could be the greatest beneficiary if the creative GM, somehow, pulls this off.


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