TORONTO – Patrick Marleau doesn’t remember the specific details as much as he remembers the emotions that came with missing part of training camp.
Back in 2001, when he was a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, Marleau saw his contract negotiations with the San Jose Sharks extend beyond the point where his teammates reported for a new season. Just 22 and coming off a career year, staying away proved to be a stressful experience for him.
“At that time, yeah,” Marleau told Sportsnet on Tuesday. “I just wanted to go play, so that’s probably the hardest part. That’s probably one of the things everybody goes through.”
He ended up betting on himself by signing a $1.3-million, one-year deal on Sept. 19 – arriving in camp a full two weeks before San Jose’s opening game that season.
It won’t be a luxury afforded to William Nylander, now Marleau’s teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not with puck drop just over a week away and Nylander still at home in Sweden awaiting a breakthrough in negotiations.
For as much as the economics and mechanics governing the business side of the sport have changed, there are parallels to be drawn between their situations.
NHL players first relented to the creation of entry-level contracts as part of bargaining during the 1994-95 lockout. Ever since, we’ve seen teams negotiate even harder in the years between when an ELC expires and a player acquires arbitration rights and eventually becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency. That was true for Marleau in a pre-salary cap world in 2001 and remains so for Anaheim’s Nick Ritchie and Nylander, the NHL’s two remaining unsigned RFAs today.
Only those players need to be realistic and understand the odds are heavily stacked against them enjoying a career that extends through their 40th birthday – as Marleau’s seems destined to do. He’ll be somewhere a little north of $94 million in career earnings when his contract expires after next season.
Given the shrinking window to make hay as an NHLer and Nylander’s importance to the Leafs after consecutive 61-point seasons, you can’t fault him for wanting to maximize his earnings now. And given the cap crunch looming for an organization trying to end a multi-generational Stanley Cup drought and the player’s lack of CBA-negotiated leverage, you can’t fault Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas for holding the line.
Hence the stalemate that has kept Nylander a continent away while Toronto prepares to send its “A” lineup to Montreal for Wednesday’s pre-season game. Mike Babcock plans to deploy lines and special teams units that look like the real thing at Bell Centre – well, the real thing minus Nylander and perhaps injured winger Zach Hyman.
The coach is known for keeping in close contact with his players – the stories of Babcock’s frequent summer phone calls are infamous around the Leafs – but he hasn’t spoken to Nylander since training camp opened on Sept. 13.
“Yeah I just shut ‘er down totally. I just didn’t want him or his agent or anyone to be thinking I was trying to [influence things],” said Babcock. “Willy knows we want him back. We’d like him back as soon as possible. That’s a business thing between them and Kyle. In saying that it’s way easier to be ready to go if you’re here.”
Teammates have tried to give Nylander his space as well. They don’t want to interfere while Dubas and agent Lewis Gross work through contract discussions.
“I kind of leave him alone,” said Auston Matthews. “I think he’s obviously focused on making sure he’s in good shape so when that gets done that he can come here [and play well] – obviously he’s a big part of this team. I’ve talked to him a little bit over the last couple weeks, but I don’t want to really keep peppering him and bothering him because he probably knows as much as you do.
“He’s letting his agents and management here handle all that stuff, and when he signs he signs.”
We are entering a crucial phase of the negotiations.
The start of the regular season is a major pressure point because neither the player nor the team want to see him miss real games. Based on an expected salary of $6 million, Nylander will also start forfeiting in the neighbourhood of $32,000 each day he’s absent from Oct. 3 onwards.
What impact the time missed already ends up having on his season remains to be seen. The Leafs expect to use Nylander on the right side of Marleau and Matthews – a new-look No. 1 line that has missed out on the opportunity to work through some kinks during practices, camp scrimmages and pre-season play.
His absence has not only generated discussion in the media, it’s been a hot topic behind the scenes among his teammates and friends. Everyone is wondering when No. 29 will turn up in Toronto.
“Guys will ask each other ‘Have you talked to Willy?’ or ‘Do you know if anything’s going on?”’ said Marleau. “I’ve reached out to him a couple times just to see how he’s doing. But that is the business side – obviously he’s not going to say too much.
“Sometimes these things just play out a little bit longer than normal.”