The short answer is just two words: salary cap. When digging deeper, though, much more can be uncovered in the argument to keep William Nylander regardless of Mitch Marner’s contract situation.
The potential Marner return
The Leafs obviously want to keep Mitch Marner on their team. He is one of the most dynamic playmaking wingers in the NHL and is so young that a longterm deal would keep the Leafs competitive as long as he could lace up his skates. Combined with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Morgan Rielly, and William Nylander, Marner is another insane weapon in a ridiculous arsenal.
The kicker seems to be that Marner wants a shorter team deal (a la Auston Matthews) for hefty money, taking himself to free agency where he can then really cash in on his next contract. Fair play to the player here. This is his job and he has every right to try and get every penny of what he feels he deserves from his team.
This could, however, force the Leafs into a win-win situation. Sure, Marner is a generational talent from the GTA, but the return on an offer sheet or trade would be astronomical. Any offer sheet over $10.5 million would give the Leafs four first-round picks, not to mention free up $10+ million of potential cap space. This isn’t the desired move by the Leafs, but it’s not a bad second option or silver lining.
A trade would have to return similar value to the Leafs. Elite defensemen, A+ prospects, and a swath of high picks would probably be the start of negotiations for Toronto, and rightfully so. For any team that would want Marner, the asking price would be franchise-shaking.
Nylander return… *crickets*
For a fanbase that largely spent the 2018-19 season slagging off the “overvalued”, “underproducing” Swedish winger, they sure do think he’ll return an elite defenseman to the Leafs! It’s obvious Nylander had a bad season last year after his December holdout, but for some reason, critical Leaf fans want to move him now when his value has never been lower.
If a team picked up Nylander from Toronto it would inevitably turn out to be a mistake based on his market value at this time. Taking a loss on a talent like Nylander just to sign Marner to an egregious contract is not smart business. Plus, the Leafs can have both players. Regardless, no elite defensemen, not A+ prospects, and no top-tier picks are going to be returned for him, so why trade him?
The stats don’t lie
If you follow Toronto Maple Leafs 24/7 you might have seen the following graphic:
Player A is Mitch Marner and Player B is William Nylander over a three years sample size. Kinda shocking, right?
No one is going to argue that William Nylander is better than Mitch Marner, but the underlying numbers show the gap between the two players’ fancy stats is a lot less than you may believe.
Stats have their place in hockey, that is for sure, however, the eye test also weighs heavily into how effective a player is. Marner draws harder defensive matchups and better forward groups, something not taken into account. On the other hand, Nylander has played center for extended periods of time (including playoffs) which ups his value, too.
Can there be a conclusion here?
Plenty of Leaf fans are pitting these two players against each other and that isn’t really fair. The most likely outcome of this whole Marner situation is that both players are signed come the beginning of the season and playing for the Leafs.
My prediction would be a six-year deal around $10 million a year. The Leafs don’t get their term and the Marner camp leaves a few million on the table. They say a good negotiation makes both sides feel like they didn’t win; this would be the perfect example of this situation.
Should one player be moved out, though, the Leafs would be crazy not to prioritize moving Marner simply because of the value he’d return. Four first round picks for an offer sheet or insane packages of assets and players in a trade. Nylander wouldn’t garner a fraction of that and his trade wouldn’t help the team at all.
Let me reiterate, I strongly believe both players will be Leafs for the foreseeable future, but if one is moved Marner would be the target.
Thanks to Adam Ludolph for the graphic!