ST. PAUL, Minn.—With eight whole minutes to spare, there was finally ink on a contract.
The hockey world was watching as the Maple Leafs and William Nylander both went deadline hunting on Saturday, dramatically deciding not to break up and go their separate ways just before the clock struck 5 p.m. ET, about 20 minutes after Nylander called Leafs GM Kyle Dubas from Sweden and said, “Do you want to make a deal?”
For the industry, it was the end of a long, drawn out and somewhat unprecedented salary squabble. For Nylander, it’s extraordinary wealth to be paid out over the next six years in a contract worth 30 per cent more than his talented father made in his entire career. For the Leafs, it’s a chance to chase a Stanley Cup with a full complement of players.
And for Leafs fans? Well, it’s something they may have to get used to.
Both Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, after all, could be in exactly the same situation next year, and both are going to cost the Leafs more than Nylander. As the details of the Nylander negotiation come out, it will provide information for the agents of the other two to better understand the ways in which Toronto’s hockey office negotiates.
“We’ve had discussions with both of (Marner and Matthews) camps already,” said Dubas. “We’ll continue to do that. We want to avoid a situation where not all our players are here at training camp. We’re happy to have a solution (with Nylander), but this is not the preferred timing of the solution.
“That’s the plan, to avoid it with the others. It’s our full plan to have everybody available for the first day of training camp.”
Complicated salary cap math will decide if Toronto will be able to keep Marner, Matthews and Nylander beyond this season, and if the Leafs can do that, it may mean other players like defenceman Jake Gardiner will have to go.
But for now, for this season, the Leafs have all their players, and Dubas once again emphasized he intends to keep Nylander, Marner and Matthews for the long term.
“That’s our goal. We want this group to be together as long as we can possibly keep it together,” he said. “We hope these players can be career Leafs.”
The Leafs GM also said Nylander’s contract, which comes with a cap hit of $10.2 million for this season, won’t block the club from adding other players before the winter trade deadline.
“We’ll still be able to potentially add to the group, and if we can strengthen the group, we will,” vowed Dubas.
Head coach Mike Babcock broke the news to his players that Nylander had signed.
“High end players are hard to get,” Babcock said. “You’ve usually got to finish low in the draft, or high in the draft, to get a player like this. When you get them, you keep them. (Nylander) is here for a long time and we’re excited about that.
“The depth, if you can get in the playoffs, is absolutely critical. He gives us another line. You put (Matthews) and him together and there’s a line. Now you can have a really good third line and an unbelievable fourth line. To have success in this league that’s what you need.”
The news that Nylander had signed leaked out just after the Leafs clambered off their snowy bus and into the Xcel Energy Center for Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Wild. Players were kicking a soccer ball in the hall and goalie Freddie Andersen was getting a pre-game snack when the news broke.
Team president Brendan Shanahan, Dubas and other members of the Maple Leafs hockey office put the finishing touches on the $41.77 million deal at their hotel several blocks away, with all of them jammed into Dubas’ hotel suite in the frenzied final minutes.
“Right down to the wire,” Dubas said.
About 40 minutes later, Nylander tweeted a picture of his Maple Leaf hockey bag at the front door of his home in Sweden with the caption, “Going home.”
“We were always cautiously optimistic that he was coming back,” said Babcock. “He loves being a Leaf and we love having him, so that’s a real positive thing for our team.
“You think it’s going to get done. You don’t know when it’s going to get done. Now he’s got back and get working.”
Nylander was expected to arrive in Toronto Sunday morning on a flight from Stockholm and could return as early as Tuesday when the Leafs face the Sabres in Buffalo, although Thursday against Detroit might be more sensible.
“I would say patience with that,” Dubas said. “He’s got to go through his medical testing. Although everyone wants him to get back and playing right away, we have to still play the long game. It’s a six-year contract.”
As Babcock indicated, Nylander will likely be slotted alongside Matthews, which might mean Kasperi Kapanen, who has blossomed with the opportunity afforded by the absence of Nylander, could end up playing with Nazem Kadri on a very strong No. 3 line.
If Nylander hadn’t signed, he would have become the first NHL player since Michael Peca back in the 2000-01 season to miss an entire campaign because of a contract dispute. It always seemed unthinkable that he wouldn’t play this season, but it became clearer as time passed that a trade to another team would be very difficult to achieve.
For Dubas, a rookie GM, this was his first major contract test, and he passed it. With no Nylander and nothing to show for him in a trade, the Leafs would have effectively squandered a very valuable asset in a year in which they are pursuing the Cup. It would have been an embarrassing failure for Dubas and hockey’s richest team.
Signing John Tavares to a $77 million contract last summer squeezed the team’s payroll, and the Leafs hoped that Nylander would accept a little less in his contract for the opportunity to be part of a strong club.
“(Nylander) missing the season wouldn’t have been good for anyone, not for the team and not for William,” Dubas said. “I’m happy for our team and I’m happy for William. I just wish that we had been able to get this done before training camp.”
Backed by his father, Michael, the 22-year-old proved to be a tough adversary for Dubas, willing to miss more than a quarter of the season to achieve his salary goals. The $41.77 million contract includes a prorated portion in the first year and a cap hit of $10.2 million, which then drops to $6.9 million in the other five years. Only Tavares has a higher cap hit on the Leafs now ($11 million), but that will change when Matthews and Marner are signed.
Without Nylander, the Leafs went into Saturday’s game as the third highest scoring team in the league. The young Swede is regarded as a player capable of scoring 30 or more goals per season, although he’s so far been more prolific as a playmaker.
So, with this soap opera over, both the Leafs and Nylander narrowly avoided a lose-lose scenario, and reached a salary agreement approximately where most hockey analysts believed for several months they would eventually meet.
And they did it with eight whole minutes to spare.