Of the off-season questions hovering over the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, the future earnings of the club’s brightest young stars have been among the most intriguing.
Last month, fresh off signing John Tavares to a franchise-altering seven-year deal in free agency, Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas confidently stated that the club will be keeping its young core intact.
“We can, and we will,” Dubas told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, when asked if the Leafs can really keep all four of Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. He also preached patience — and seven weeks and no contract updates later, he clearly meant it.
Tavares, of course, is locked up through 2024-25. The other three are eligible to sign long-term deals with the Maple Leafs this summer, but just one does not have a contract for 2018-19: Nylander.
The 22-year-old RFA told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox earlier in August that he wants a long-term deal as opposed to the increasingly-common bridge contract young players often sign, and just last week, he told NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger that he’s still not feeling the pressure.
“I’ve said all along that Kyle wanted to take things slow and I’m fine with that,” he said. “They’re going back and forth with my agent from what I hear. We’ll see what happens. They said it would take a while and I’m still not worried. When it gets done, it gets done.”
Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston shared a few of his thoughts on the negotiation process during a conversation on The Steve Dangle Podcast on Tuesday, and added a bit of context to what typically goes on in situations like this.
“You’re waiting for the other side to blink, and there’s no deadline right now. I mean, the deadline — and it’s an artificial deadline — is Sept. 13, when the players are due to arrive and take their medicals,” Johnston said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes until 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th of September.”
That would mean Nylander would be cutting it close to the start of camp, or perhaps missing a few days — not uncommon among young players, and not a reason for worry in Johnston’s opinion. Just last year, Bruins then-RFA David Pastrnak missed a day of camp before signing a six-year, $40-million pact. Leafs fans will recall Nazem Kadri cutting it close when he signed his first bridge deal back in September 2013.
Looking at this year’s RFA class, there are several other notable RFAs still without contracts for the upcoming season, with Edmonton Oilers blueliner Darnell Nurse and newly-acquired Calgary Flames rearguard Noah Hanifin among them.
“I think it’s very likely that this goes down to that kind of wire, and maybe he misses a day or two. I’d be surprised if it gets to missing games in the regular season,” Johnston said of Nylander’s negotiations. “I think both sides kind of know where each other is at. They know probably where the number is, deep down, but no one’s making that first move on the dance floor to really try to get it done. It probably gets done in the middle of September, would be my guess.”
Nylander, who is coming off back-to-back 61-point seasons in his first two complete campaigns with the club, could have more in common with Pastrnak other than just the length of negotiations. Pastrnak’s $6.66-million cap hit is a logical reference point for what Nylander could earn, as is Dylan Larkin‘s newly-signed five year pact which will see him earn $6.1 million per year with the the Detroit Red Wings.
As for Matthews, he’s got plenty more time before he’s due for a new deal — though it would make sense for the Maple Leafs to lock him up in advance. (He and Marner became eligible to ink extensions on July 1.)
Johnston is looking at the monster deals signed by Connor McDavid (eight years, $12.5 million per) and Jack Eichel (eight years, $10 million per) and believes Matthews could fall somewhere in the middle — perhaps with a cap hit to match his new teammates in Tavares.
“Eight times $11 [million], to me, makes a ton of sense for Auston,” said Johnston.
Will the Maple Leafs name a captain for 2018-19?
Another topic of discussion on the podcast — and another popular talking point among Leafs fans this summer — centred around the Maple Leafs’ captaincy.
On Tuesday, Matthews told The Athletic‘s Jonas Siegel he’d “feel ready” if management asked him to serve as captain.
“Yeah, I would tell them yeah. I’d tell them I’d feel ready,” Matthews told Siegel (subscription required). “I don’t know what they’re thinking about doing, what they want to do. Obviously John has been the captain in New York for a while. So I don’t know what they’re thinking or what their whole ideal situation is for that. But I don’t think it really changes much, whether you have a letter or not, for myself or anybody. I go lead by example, on the ice, off the ice, and being a good teammate is a big part of that, too.”
The case can be made for both Tavares and Matthews to wear the “C”. Tavares has plenty of experience in the role from his time leading the New York Islanders, but Matthews has been the face of the rebuild since before he was even drafted first overall in 2016. It could easily be either — or maybe neither, said Johnston.
“I could definitely see no captain,” Johnston said on Tuesday’s podcast. “I think there’s not a compelling reason to have to do it. There’s certainly only the media that’s talking about this, right? It’s hard to make an argument that it’s really impacted the team, not having a captain the last couple of years.”
The Leafs went without a captain for more than two seasons since trading Dion Phaneuf to the Senators at the 2015-16 deadline. Instead, they’ve gone with a captain-by-committee approach and have had plenty plenty of success doing so. They’re not the only ones, either, as the Vegas Golden Knights also went without a “C” for their inaugural campaign, and got all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
“I think they both would want it, with truth serum. I don’t see it though as a friction issue,” Johnston said.