Everything is fine in Toronto, because training camp doesn’t even start for another few weeks. But ... is it really? The negotiations between the Maple Leafs and their wunderkind RFA winger Mitch Marner have, perhaps unsurprisingly, plodded through the offseason with minimal progress, or at least with minimal progress updates. But as the season creeps closer, and as the wounds from last year’s William Nylander impasse still feel fresh, this situation is starting to feel just a teensy bit tense.
The latest development in the standoff came on Tuesday, when some strategic leaks floated the possibility that Marner would practice on his own in Switzerland if he hasn’t come to terms with the Leafs in time for camp. That information isn’t exactly news in itself—of course an unsigned player should be exploring alternatives to staying in shape if he can’t get a contract—but it adds a bit of pressure to the NHL’s restricted free agent market, which has felt totally stuck since the Sebastian Aho offer sheet drama nearly two months ago.
Still unsigned along with Marner are crucial players like the Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen, the Lightning’s Brayden Point, the Canucks’ Brock Boeser, the Flames’ Matthew Tkachuk, and the Jets’ Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. But it’s Marner who’s generally pegged as the guy who will “set the market.” Nobody is going to get paid more than Marner, the thinking goes, so the other dominoes can’t fall without him.
What Marner wants is no secret: what Auston Matthews has. The young Leafs center signed a deal in February with an $11.634 million AAV, and Marner thinks he’s on par with the former first-overall pick. But the Leafs seem to be hoping they can lock Marner in for several years at a smaller rate—around $10 million, say, so they can more easily squeeze him under the already-tight salary cap bind they’re going to find themselves in even after they put Nathan Horton and David Clarkson on long-term injured reserve.
Who’s right in this dispute is mostly a matter of perspective. Historical precedent, and the argument that winger is a less valuable position than center, falls on the Leafs side. But the franchise also set a new precedent when it gave Matthews so much money, and when a player the same age as Matthews wants an equal deal after leading the team in points in 2018–19, it’s hard to blame him. Any media posturing or flirtation with European workouts that Marner’s camp needs to do in order to pressure the Leafs is fair game.
Also on the player’s side is the knowledge of two things. First, the Leafs are going to need a fully operational Mitch Marner if they’re ever going to push farther than the first round of the playoffs. Second, they’ll want to put Marner’s signature on the dotted line as soon as possible. Toronto already stumbled in a similar situation last year, as 22-year-old William Nylander didn’t sign until Dec. 1, and then struggled mightily once he finally got on the ice. The stakes are even higher with Marner, who does everything the Leafs need him to do and can reasonably claim to be the team’s MVP. The thought of John Tavares’s right-hand man missing any significant chunk of games—or being forced to skate through them without a full preseason of conditioning—doesn’t quite feel like a real threat yet. But call it the threat of a threat.