With over $74MM tied up in 17 players heading into next season, none of whom are young star winger Mitch Marner, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in for a tough summer. It is clear that signing Marner is “priority one”, but what Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston points out is that in terms of not just importance, but also time. Speaking with Leafs GM Kyle Dubas, there was an understanding that Toronto cannot do much this off-season prior to signing Marner (or else moving him):
Without an answer on Mitch, we’re going to kind of be in a stalemate, right? It is a top priority because we’re not going to jump around and chew up our cap space that we may need for Mitch with fringe signings, either. It’s important. We’ve just got to get to work on it and get it done… It’s a tough process. It’s long, and just don’t expect anything to get done nice and smoothly. It’s always a battle.
Dubas has been adamant that the team will need to resolve the Marner situation by July 1st, one way or another, and for good reason. Following another early playoff exit, the team is hoping to improve this off-season and the free agent market, which opens on that date, will be one of their main opportunities. However, as Dubas notes, the team cannot make even fringe additions until Marner is signed and their salary cap status is clear. The team is expected to lose defenseman Jake Gardiner, but more affordable extensions with the likes of Ron Hainsey, Tyler Ennis, and Michael Hutchinson remain possible, yet harder to get done once those players hit the open market.
One other way to solve the cap crisis is via trade, but even that route is risky without clarity on Marner. While fans may prefer to see the likes of Nikita Zaitsev, Nazem Kadri, or Connor Brown dealt away, it is Marner’s RFA brethren Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson who will carry more value on the trade market. Just like their UFA counterparts in Toronto, Dubas and company cannot re-sign Kapanen and Johnsson – who are due substantial raises of their own – without first knowing the details on Marner. The team would also be taking a major risk by trading either one in hopes of creating the space needed for Marner, as failure to get the star forward signed regardless would leave them down two young scoring assets.
Johnston writes that offer sheets – often an over-hyped false reality anyway – are the least of the Leafs’ worries. Not only would the team have the right to match any offer made to Marner, but a deal large enough to lure him away from his hometown team would likely net Toronto four first-round picks. That price could be worth giving Marner up, if any team actually had the audacity to make such a move.
There seems to be mutual benefit between Marner and the Maple Leafs in getting a new deal done. However, only Toronto has a time crunch to manage, while Marner can hold out for his best possible deal, as he has every right to do. It seems like the Leafs won’t possibly be able to sign Marner without first moving out some salary, so if any move can occur before a Marner extension, expect it to be a cap dump by Dubas. Otherwise, prepare for a quiet couple of months in Toronto until this situation can be resolved.