A big name has finally inked a new deal and the dominos are set to fall. But what does Mitch Marner’s deal mean for the remaining RFA class?
Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews|Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images
Matthew Tkachuk scored eight more goals than Mitch Marner did last season. There’s a good chance he’ll be the next captain of the Calgary Flames. He scores, makes plays and hurts people. Just ask Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who got a face full of stiches and missed 50 games with the torn pectoral muscle after he decided to engage Tkachuk in a fight last season.
Mikko Rantanen scored five more goals than Marner did in 2018-19 and unlike Marner, was a beast in the playoffs, leading the Colorado Avalanche in scoring with 14 points in 12 post-season games. Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning scored a whopping 15 goals more than Marner did last season, established himself as one of the top two-way centermen in the league and was so good that he essentially supplanted Steven Stamkos as the Lightning’s No. 1 center and go-to offensive player.
And now that Marner has a six-year deal with an annual average salary of $10.893 million, Tkachuk, Rantanen and Point now know exactly where they should fit in, which is in the same snack bracket as Marner. There are those in the game who would argue that all three of those players are actually better than Marner. There are others who would posit that Sebastien Aho, who signed an offer sheet this summer for a relative bargain at $8.5 million, is a better player than Marner.
The only problem is there’s a very good chance none of those players is going to get Mitch Marner money. As good as Point is, there’s no way he’s going to get that figure from the Lightning, not with Nikita Kucherov as the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner and checking in a $9.5 million. Are the Colorado Avalanche going to want to pay Rantanen more than $4 million more than Nathan MacKinnon and more than $5 million more than Gabriel Landeskog? Probably not. The Winnipeg Jets have just over $15 million in cap space and they have to sign both Patrik Laine and
The problem in thinking players of Marner’s ilk will get the same amount of money is that the market value of a player is not established league-wide. More than any other pro league, the NHL is made up of 31 very different and disparate markets. There is a sense that the rest of the league has watched the Toronto Maple Leafs go rogue with their players out of entry-level contracts and basically taken the stance that Toronto is a unique market in and of itself. And they want no part of the way the Leafs have dealt with their players coming out of their entry-level deals. The William Nylander deal was an outlier. The Auston Matthews deal was an outlier. And now, boxed in by those two previous deals, they served up another outlier with Marner.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Marner deal won’t start knocking dominos over when it comes to other players signing. In fact, there’s some evidence we’re seeing that already with the recent signings of Zach Werenski with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ivan Provorov with the Philadelphia Flyers. But if it happens, they will not be contractual dominos. Rather, they will be psychological ones.
Players are hard-wired to want to play hockey and the younger they are, the more they want to be on the ice with their teammates. So while most of them can manage to go through the summer with the uncertainty of not having a contract, this is the time when they really begin to get antsy. They see all their teammates are doing drills without them and they realize that each passing day means one more day they’ll be behind in their season. They see that the highest-profile free agent has signed a contract and they’re probably feeling it’s time. Relatively speaking, they’re already rich beyond their wildest dreams, but they also know they’re risking leaving a good amount of money on the table by missing games.
This puts the likes of Tkachuk, Point and Rantanen in interesting positions. Perhaps they see what Marner got and it strengthens their resolve to negotiate similar deals. Perhaps this makes them dig their heels in and gives them more confidence to know that what they’re asking for is what they’re worth. In a way, Marner’s deal could actually slow the process down for players who think they deserve as much as he got. There are still 12 players out there who are coming off entry-level contracts who don’t yet have deals. One of them could dig in his heels. Patrik Laine, anyone?
But it’s more likely that now that training camps have begun and the process of preparing for the season is in motion, most of the young men who are sitting out will realize they have to be on the ice and will begin to sign their contracts, thinking they’re every bit as good as Mitch Marner, but will have to settle for less.