It wouldn’t be a Leafs offseason without a contract panic, would it? They don’t even have to necessarily make sense; they just have to exist. Last year, it was that Auston Matthews took longer than usual to sign his entry-level contract, complete with proven-to-be-unfounded speculation about his signing bonuses.
This year, it’s Connor Brown, if only because he’s the last player in the organization waiting for a deal, weeks after everybody else had their negotiations settled. There are two key points of interest in this case; why the Leafs are waiting, and what the end result would be. Let’s touch on some of the potential scenarios for both.
What’s The Hold Up?
To be perfectly clear, Brown is far from the last restricted free agent to sign this a contract this year; 20 remain, including four players that scored over 50 points this year in Leon Draisaitl (77), David Pastrnak (70), Alexander Wennberg (59), and Bo Horvat (52). On a league-wide scale, the idea of a 36 point RFA still not having a contract really isn’t that big of a deal.
On the other hand, the Leafs signed two entry level contracts, three restricted free agents, two returning players, five incoming unrestricted free agents, and half a Marlies roster in the span of two weeks and are approaching a month since they’ve done anything else that impacts the big club. So having one player sit around in the balance seems peculiar.
But there’s also a matter of their current contract situation. It’s difficult for anybody who isn’t with the team or the league to properly explain how close to the wall the team is; initially, nearing the offseason cap ceiling was believed to be an issue, but then came a revelation about using LTIR in the summer, which Lou Lamoriello confirmed the Leafs were doing.
Even still, Toronto remains at 49 contracts signed out of a maximum of 50. Signing Brown is doable, but it also ensures that the next trade that the team makes has to involve no worse than an equal balance of players going each way. While it’s likely that the Leafs will find a way to clear out a few contracts before opening night, it’s also believed that the team would like to make one more move for a minute-eating defenceman if the right opportunity arises.
Giving Brown his contract now would mean that, should the right fit come up with the other team wanting just a draft pick or a 1-for-2 that involves taking on a short term deal, the Leafs would have to miss out or make a panic move elsewhere. Not to mention, any team taking on some excess contracts, even if it benefits them, will try to pull the leverage card harder on a team that’s at 50 than one that’s nearing it.
Since nothing has leaked about Brown’s contract demands or Toronto’s offer whatsoever, it’s probably safe to assume that there’s an agreeable deal in place. Unless his agent is that scared of the Leafs’ brass, this would be about the time where “sources” begin to tell the media how things are going, and instead, we’ve had radio silence.
What Would Be Ideal?
If you’re in agreeance with me that Brown’s contract is closer to locked up in a file cabinet for safe keeping than it is a work in progress, then your next concern lies in the details of the deal. Now that Toronto is at the stage of their rebuild where they have to routinely win out negotiations with their core players, every dollar matters, and Brown is a player that many would like to keep around for quite some time.
Curious as to what the market thinks of a player like him, I consulted the history books. Specifically, I looked up every player who had a season in the cap era that fit the following parameters:
- Aged 22 to 24 years old (Brown: 23)
- Playing in their 1st to 3rd NHL season (Brown: 1st)
- Played in at least 60 games (Brown: 82)
- Scored in between 0.20 and 0.30 goals per game (Brown: 0.24)
- Scored in between 0.40 and 0.50 points per game (Brown: 0.44)
Such a season has been accomplished 28 times over the past 11 years (Nikolai Kulemin was the only player to do it twice, doing so with the Leafs). 22 of those seasons were had during contract years, and 20 of those were in years prior to this year (Andreas Athanasiou of Detroit also had a similar year this year). Using that information, we can get a pretty good idea of what history tells us a player like Brown will get according to the market.
In the case of this group, 18 of 20 players signed for two years or fewer, with the average sitting at 1.9 years. Their cap percentage averages out at 2.7%, putting the average at 2.025 million. The averages get even lower if you only use players who, like Brown, had just one season to prove themselves; Rene Bourque had a cap percentage of 1.8%, Josh Jooris sat at 1.37%, and Nigel Dawes earned just 1.04% of his team’s budget after a 29 point season.
So two years at $4 million is an easy guess there if you’re looking to go short term. That falls a little behind Matt Cane‘s salary model prediction of $2.78 million, but it’s worth noting that of this group of players, Brown was 5th in goals, 7th in points, 5th in time on ice, and 10th in Hockey-Reference’s point share calculations. It’s a safe bet to consider his season above average in the pool; not to mention, more years would probably lead to a higher salary.
While stinginess will be key moving forward, it’s probably worth it for them pay for some extra years, too. Brown has exceeded the expectations of his youth for a solid half-decade now in Major Junior, the AHL, and now the NHL, and it’s hard to believe that he’ll stop anytime soon. Not to mention, the above list is full of some very good players. Almost every one of these players were at least useful contributors in the NHL during their early-mid 20’s, with guys like Pavelski, Wheeler, and Eriksson being standouts. The odds of getting at least a good, long-term, third line forward here seem to be pretty good, so why not stretch the term a bit?
Toronto likely gets its most ideal bang-for-buck by offering Brown a four-year deal at somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million per year. The deal is advantageous to them because they eliminate the risk of him making another leap just before the big three sign extensions, and its advantageous to Brown because it brings him to Unrestricted Free Agency as soon as possible.
That last part is a bit of a gamble, seeing as you could lose him in four years. Hopefully, the idea of remaining as one of the local boys playing on the best Leafs team in multiple generations gets him to stick around, but if it doesn’t, it’ll be the same tough decision that Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles have had to make multiple times. If anything, not buying UFA years will keep him on the team longer, as he won’t have a cap hit that makes him necessary to ship out right away.
It’s also a better risk than going for a shorter term now. It wouldn’t take much for Brown to be put into a position to have a breakout season in that time; one shooting percentage bender or one promotion up the lineup due to a long-term injury to Mitch Marner or William Nylander would do the trick. Brown also gains arbitration rights at the end of next season, which doesn’t matter a ton but gives him more leverage in a situation like this.
Whether the Leafs are of the mindset to take roll the dice on a medium-long term deal to get the most potential gain in their cup window, or whether Brown is willing to accept his place in the lineup for now and take a deal that might be called a steal in a few years is a subject for debate. But I wouldn’t be too shocked if the final deal looked something like that; maybe with an extra year attached, maybe closer to the $3 million mark than $2.5.
Either way, it’s safe to say that we’ll see it when the team is ready to make it. The holdup is likely as artificial as can be, and it would be shocking to see a Day 1 training camp roster that doesn’t include Connor Brown.