Truthfully, this was the last thing I wanted to talk about as my first post back in pre-season writing mode. My original plan for this week was to come back with a piece on Auston Matthews on Monday, but I pushed that back due to a few radio hits regarding Mitch Marner taking over the attention span of social media.

I planned to wait it out, but the Marner thing keeps snowballing. Let’s review the past couple of days:

Monday

These are the unsubstantial, but still distracting nuggets. Darren Dreger goes on TSN 1050’s First Up and gives us a bit of an update, saying that Marner will likely train a little in London before heading to Switzerland to train with the Zurich Lions in the third week of this month. Dreger also adds his own opinion to the mix, asking why the Leafs don’t just offer Marner $11,000,000 per year over six years and make that their line in the sand.

For what it’s worth, my projection of Marner’s contract value on a six-year deal in May projected him at just over $9 million – I gave him a vanity AAV of $9,160,000 for the fun of it. Needless to say, I disagree with Dreger’s idea of going to $11 million – at any term, but especially this term.

Later in the day, Andi Petrillo made the suggestion Leafs Lunch that John Tavares should be nervous about playing without Marner to start the season, given Marner’s “career history” of boosting linemates. This doesn’t really fall into the news spectrum, but definitely kicked the return of Marner talk into high gear – especially given that all statistical evidence has Tavares as an all-time great linemate booster, and Marner being helpful in the way that any good player is, but not in a stand-out way.

Tuesday

If Monday was the warmup to get people’s eyes focused on the story, Tuesday was when the dam broke and we got our first constructive nuggets on the situation since the big-name reporters went on summer vacation.

Interestingly, the day started slow, with Sportsnet insider Chris Johnston taking the more measured approach with his look at the situation – something that has become his trademark in recent years and is a big reason why he’s shot up to near the top of the insider charts. Johnston suggested that the Leafs should still have leverage in the situation, given that the >$12,000,000 offer sheets that everyone thought would come in the summer didn’t happen, and that using Auston Matthews as a benchmark isn’t helpful to Marner, given that centres and goal scorers get paid the most historically, and that one is both while the other is neither.

But across the hall, Elliotte Friedman dropped bombs in his latest 31 Thoughts. The three pillars to Friedman’s notes were:

  • That the negotiations between Toronto and Marner have become “tense and personal”. This supports things that Friedman has said on the radio and on his own podcast in the past – that Marner’s camp has always felt disrespected by being “second fiddle” in the organization, by the fact that he didn’t get “Schedule B” bonuses in his Entry Level deal, that he was sent back to London in Year 1, and that they see Matthews as the main guy. The note isn’t news, but that Friedman would be so blunt about it in his flagship column was noteworthy.
  • That the Leafs are willing to go to $11,000,000 with Marner, but only on a 7-year deal. Again, this would well exceed most projections and would put him into an uncomparable range, making him the second-highest paid winger of all time despite it only being his second contract and question marks about his production curve. The fact that wouldn’t be good enough for Marner’s camp to do, quite honestly, is shocking. In their defence, Friedman doesn’t suggest that they’ve rejected it, just that Toronto is willing to go there.
  • Lastly, Friedman mentions that the Marner camp has pitched a three-year bridge to the Leafs with a similar structure to Zach Werenski’s bridge deal, with a backload towards the third year to ensure an inflated qualifying offer – giving an easy cash-in to the player that gives them UFA status a year later, or a non-qualification that puts them straight to unrestricted free agency. Marner’s camp is looking for a $15 million qualifying offer, which, as a player who makes more than $1 million, requires his Year 3 contract to be 100% of the QO. The CBA 50.7(b) also has requirements for how dramatically you’re allowed to spread the salary; back-loaded deals do not allow you to more than double the first year’s salary in the second year, and no year can increase by more than the total of the lowest of the first two years. In other words, Marner’s floor on a three-year deal, legally, is $10 million – $5 million in year one, $10 million in year two, and $15 million in year three.

This was enough to put everyone in a frenzy, but Johnston returned to the air to do a general NHL hit, and when asked about the Leafs captaincy, he seemed very confident in Matthews being the future captain of the team – but gave a caveat that they might be putting off announcing it because they feel that it would complicate the Marner negotiations.

Now, this should normally not be the case. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that any player that requires the possibility of being named captain as part of their contract negotiation is someone that I would never want to wear a letter – that status is earned and not bargained for, especially when you’re asking for well above market value. But it also falls in line with what Marner’s father Paul said to The Athletic last December:

“I’ll just be honest with you,” Mitch’s dad said. “It drives our family nuts when we hear you guys all talk about who should be the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Mitch never hardly gets any consideration. It’s because he’s like this happy-go-lucky little kid. But he championed the London Knights to the Memorial Cup with that same happy (personality). I watched a guy like Doug Gilmour who had a lot of joy on and off the ice but was a real competitor.

This ties back to the previous points from Elliotte about things being tense and personal and being about respect. It’s not a pattern that is completely unprecedented or even off the record for Marner and his camp – his father in that same December interview goes on about people not respecting Mitch as much as they did Connor McDavid in Minor Hockey, and how people never really gave him as much praise as they should’ve – and still don’t. This seems to be a reoccurring theme in this process.

Johnston later went on Sportsnet 960 Calgary to talk shop, and more was passed along. Johnston points out that Marner’s camp has approached other team about signing him to a three-year offer sheet, and that they are struggling to find biters for offer sheets in general – which again, contrasts the last 12 weeks of speculation that a monster offer sheet was going to come to light any second now.

Wednesday

We’ve already gotten this far, it can’t get worse – right? All the air has been let out?

Not quite – now we’re getting more specific. This morning, Dreger took to twitter and suggested that Toronto made an $11,000,000 offer in the 7-to-8 year range in June, and also threw in $1.6 million extra – which represents a number of “respect”. That’s his Schedule B bonus money, referenced earlier.

Specifically, teams give players bonus potential on entry-level contracts. There’s a general tier system in place, and it also gets broken down into two different types of bonuses – Schedule A, that can net you an extra $850,000, and Schedule B, that can net you an extra $2,000,000. It’s been long-reported that Marner and his camp were unhappy with the fact that they were not given Schedule B bonus potential – and were even more upset when Auston Matthews got his.

To be honest, I fully agree with the disdain for the situation in the heat of the moment. I think that the cap structure of the National Hockey League takes advantage of superstars in their first few seasons, and that if the bonuses are a way of bridging the gap for players who hit the ground running, then all players on ELCs should have Schedule B bonus potential. What makes this especially the case is that Schedule B bonuses are incredibly hard to earn – you have to finish Top 10 in Goals, Assists, Points, or Points Per Game, win the Hart, Selke, Rocket, or Conn Smythe, or be named a First or Second team All-Star. There is no reason that players one through two hundred and whatever in the draft shouldn’t have Schedule B potential written into their deal – because anyone who hits those bonuses is worth much, much more than $3-4 million.

The issue comes in the grudge, though. For Marner to not get his Schedule B’s wasn’t an act of favouritism – it just wasn’t a thing that the organization – especially with their GM at the time, was about doing with any of their players. When Marner came to the negotiating table, the Leafs had never given out a full Schedule B to a player – they gave a partial one to Luke Schenn in 2008, but Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, and all the much lower picks beneath them were capped out at Schedule A. Matthews did get his a year later, but he was a first overall pick – to not give the top pick a max bonus would be completely unprecedented.

People still feared it with Matthews, because of how much of an “old-school” GM Lou Lamoriello was – you’ll notice that the lowest contract of this group belongs to Adam Larsson, who was picked at the same spot as Marner four years before under Lamoriello’s control and got no bonuses at all. Again, this is a bit of a broken system, with weird traditions that had to be corrected, but Marner not being the first benefactor wasn’t a slight specifically towards him – it was just how was at that point in time.

Not just that, but missing out on them didn’t cost him that much. Marner only qualified for Schedule B in 2018/19 – he did not reach the marks required to get the same treatment in his first two seasons. He finished fourth in assists this season, but was closer to 11th than he was to second. That Toronto was willing to spot him that one year’s worth of bonus money, on top of an above-market payment seems like a near-excessive offering of goodwill – the fact that that’s not enough is concerning.

Maybe most concerning of all, though, is the fact that all of these loose reports, coming from A and B tier insiders, were all tied together by Mr. S tier himself. Bob McKenzie also took to Twitter today, and had this to say:

TOR has made seven and eight year offers in the $11M AAV universe but because it’s a lower AAV and longer term than Auston Matthews, it hasn’t been palatable to Marner.

So there it is. Toronto has made long-term offers for $11 million, which would make him the second-highest paid winger of all time. They have been rejected because, as we keep going back to, they’re not quite as nice as Auston Matthews’ terms.

So.. What Now?

A lot of this was very predictable, but the recent wave of how quick the information has gotten to us, and how detailed that information is, seems very, very concerning for the future of this deal.

The general gist of what we have here is that the Leafs have been willing to work on 3, 7, and 8 year deals with Marner. The long-term deals come in at $11 million per year – about what John Tavares is making and 10-20% more than what many models and estimates deem to be fair. Toronto has also tried to right a perceived wrong in terms of the ELC bonus situation, though there’s not much that indicates that there was an actual slight involved, or that it mattered much financially (oh, and the GM who did it is long gone).

Marner is insistent on a shorter-term deal – one that completely breaks the moulds of the cap era. While we haven’t seen a forward hit even the $5 million milestone on a bridge deal in over eleven years, Marner is in pursuit of double that, if not more. His long-term ask (a term used lightly as he sees it as closer to 5 years than 8) isn’t much better – pushing $12 million, which would be over a 30% premium on comparative market value.

But it doesn’t really even seem to be about money, but rather, what the camp feels the money represents. The bonuses, the tip-toeing around the C, and everything in between seems to indicate that the pursuit of the big contract isn’t about getting “fair value” or setting the market for other players, but simply about being treated as the biggest fish in the pond. Seeing the market and the fanbase turn on Marner over the past couple of weeks makes me inclined to believe that this is a bad, bad misstep for him.

Marner has been the golden child of Toronto for the past few years, and for good reason. He has a happy-go-lucky personality on the surface, he’s an incredibly skilled hockey player, he makes the Maple Leafs better and he makes the sport more entertaining. He is a premium asset to the team, and the fact that we can all vicariously live out our childhood dreams through him makes him a guy that you really, really want to root for. Heading into this summer, Marner looked like he was easily poised to be the most universally-liked Maple Leafs player of all time – at the very least, in several generations.

But in this bloody, seemingly-unwarranted pursuit of heightened respect from the front office, he seems to have lost much more of it in his city. Fans will often rally around a player who is being short-changed, but that isn’t what this is. Fans were even willing to give Marner a premium price tag thanks to what he represents to them; a bigger gap than the gap between expectation and reality for Nylander and Matthews. But now that it’s out there that Toronto’s offers have exceeded that and he’s still saying that it’s not enough, the change in perception has been swift and blunt.

This doesn’t make Kyle Dubas and the rest of Leafs management completely blameless for where we are either. There are unforced errors that left this window open too. You can start it with letting the “If you have time, use it” mantra of Lamoriello’s hold back the progress with Nylander, leading to a negotiation cycle where certain rules shifted and a slightly higher contract than expected was ultimately given. You can blame Dubas a bit for the “We Can And We Will” mic drop on the radio last summer – something that I’m sure he thought was harmless at the time, but ended up being an underestimation of the virality of Toronto media and a piece of leverage for all three of his big RFA’s – one that likely plays no small part in the team getting into the $11 million range here, just to have it done for now and worried about later.

Whoever is to blame, we’re stuck with a very messy situation. You’ve got a player who’s reputation is cratering in pursuit of a status symbol contract, with all sorts of rumours and speculation swirling – some intentionally, and some out of control. You’ve got a team that seems to feel stuck conceding as much as they can, but also don’t have the available resources or ability to concede all the way without causing serious damage to the roster blueprint.

Truthfully, this looks like it’s getting to a point where the situation is unsolvable without a drastic turn in events. I don’t know how you get a contract done with a player who is taking the process personally and won’t take an above-market offer that puts them into an all-time category for compensation. I don’t know how you concede and bring a player back whose contract requests were contingent on looking better off than their own teammates, especially when you likely have to break up plans for the group to make it happen.

If this pushes any further, it’s going to get to a point where either Marner has to re-evaluate how he measures respect, admiration, and reputation, or where the Leafs have to not worry about breaking radio promises and hearts and do what’s best for the team. There is still time for the two sides to find a realistic middle-ground that makes everybody happy, but if this keeps progressing as it has, that time might be running out.

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