Leafs fans should appreciate William Nylander while they can. Because the dynamic young Swede might not be wearing blue and white beyond this season.
On Saturday, December 1st, Nylander and Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas ended their season-long stalemate when the restricted free agent was inked to a six-year contract valued at just under $42 million. The final five years of the deal are averaged at $6.96 million annually.
The negotiations came to a precipitous climax before the 5pm Eastern Time deadline, after which Nylander would have been ineligible to play this year had he remained unsigned. Leafs Nation understandably exhaled a collective sigh of relief upon learning that Toronto’s lethal forward unit would be injected with yet another dose of adrenaline.
And yet, there is a downside, which has come as a result of the Leafs young crop of talent developing so productively, so quickly.
The elephant in the room is the pending restricted free agency of superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Matthews, will command a salary in Connor McDavid’s stratosphere, and rightfully so. $12 wouldn’t be an unreasonable figure for the franchise cornerstone.
Marner, who entered Thursday’s action with 33 assists – second only to Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen in that category – is easily showing why his market value next summer will be in the eight-figure range.
Factor in the seven-year deal that John Tavares signed at $11 million annually, and the Leafs are projected to be spending $40 million on the quartet of potent scorers.
Even if the salary cap increases from $79.5 million to 83 million as projected, funds will be scarce when determining the allocation of the budget among the other 19 players on the team.
Some wiggle room might be available should defenceman Jake Gardiner decide to move on as an unrestricted free agent. Yet the contract of Patrick Marleau , priced at $6.25 million heading into the final season of the veteran’s three-year deal is practically immovable. Because of his seniority – an elder statesman at 39 – Marleau cannot be bought out.
Indeed the evolution of Matthews, Marner, Nylander and Morgan Rielly into stardom and the subsequent transformation of the Leafs into a Stanley Cup contender is reminiscent of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks.
Back then, the Windy City franchise was approaching a Stanley Cup drought of nearly a half-century. Led by Jonathan Towes, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks finally reached the pinnacle of success, claiming a championship.
Then, due to salary cap constraints, a mini fire-sale ensued. Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, and most notably Dustin Byfuglien were all jettisoned.
If a player of Byfuglien’s stature can be a cap casualty, simple math dictates that Nylander would be just as likely to become the odd man out in a game of numbers, regardless of how far the Leafs progress in the playoffs.
Dubas said all the right things when welcoming Nylander back into the fold at Scotiabank Arena. “He came here a month before I did,” Dubas said of the Leafs’ 2014 first round pick.
“We had the year with the Marlies. He’s someone who continues to improve and get better. I have faith, knowing him and his intelligence level and dedication to his craft, that he’s only going to continue to improve. He’s not the type of person we want to see walk out of here.”
It’s noble of Dubas to publicly voice his loyalty to his burgeoning star. It’s also worth noting that the contract that the general manager negotiated for Nylander is heavy on signing bonuses after Year One, making the player a more tradeable asset.
Dubas sounds sincere when stating that it’s not his intention to deal Nylander.
However, pending a masterful manoeuvre of the salary cap, he may not have a choice.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.