On Friday, the Winnipeg Jets signed restricted free agent Patrik Laine.
This had been a summer-long odyssey as Laine tried to increase the pressure on his team. He left for Europe. He started practising with a Swiss club. He said some hurtful things about the quality of his linemates. He did all the transparently passive-aggressive things players do in an effort to bend a club to their will.
In the end, Laine signed a neither/nor deal – two years, US$13.5-million. This isn’t a win for either side, but it isn’t a loss. If Laine gets back to his best – something he is now highly motivated to do – the Jets will end up having the best of it.
Just about all the top RFAs who spent the summer playing low-speed chicken with their clubs are signing now. Most opted for bridge deals, doubling down on what they think they might get in three or four years. All of them assume the salary cap will balloon and they’ll get the benefit of it. Sports – it’s the last corner of the world where people still believe in the inevitability of permanent growth.
When you go down the list, there’s a pattern. Matthew Tkachuk (three years, US$21-million); Charlie McAvoy (three years, US$15-million); Zach Werenski (three years, US$15-million), et al.
It’s good money, but not crazy money. These are contracts that treat hockey as a team game. It’s not about having the best guy. It’s about having a whole bunch of them.
Then you look at the Toronto and think, “Do they operate under a different salary cap than everyone else? Because they spend as though they do.”
The Leafs are paying a total of US$30-million a year to Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander and will be for a long time. Based on where everyone else is ending up, it certainly looks as though the team got taken for a ride.
A lot of the reasonable deals were handed out in the United States. You’ve heard of it. It’s the place where people like hockey, but don’t like like it.
No one in Tampa Bay was going to lose their minds if Brayden Point had taken an unpaid sabbatical year. Because the majority of them, being Floridians, think Brayden Point is a town near Kissimmee.
This reduced Point’s leverage. The result was a three-year, US$21-million agreement.
Up in Toronto, Mitch Marner – about the same age, stats and importance as Point on a team nearly as stacked with talent – got six years and US$65-million.
Most leagues have a luxury tax. The NHL has a Toronto tax. But this tariff is paid to the players, rather than by them.
The old saw used to be that hockey players avoided playing in Toronto, especially if they were from there. Too much attention. Too much pressure. Not enough fun.
Because while ‘Local Boy Comes Home’ is a nice story, more Torontonians will read “Local Boy is Personally to Blame for Postseason Collapse.”
Much better to live in suburban splendour in Columbus or Nashville, where you can enjoy a night out at the strip mall’s finest Applebee’s without being hassled by the proletariat.
Or you can go to Dallas or San Jose, put in a shift and, once you leave the arena, your actual face acts as a disguise. It’s the perfect athletic existence.
The most perfect thing about it was that you were paid the same amount of money, but did only a fraction of the ancillary work of an NHL player in Canada (generally) and Toronto (specifically).
Down in Texas or Carolina, there are no 40-person media scrums. No one’s getting yelled at every day on sports radio. No one is expected to explain in detail how you missed your man during a switch in the defensive zone, because so few people watching the games understand that’s what happened.
The discrepancy didn’t make much sense from a market perspective. Why should some people do more for the same?
Eventually, some bright bulb put two and 65 million together. That’s how Point gets a third of what Marner got, and ends up in the same tax bracket as Nylander.
Leafs players finally figured out that all the pressure they feel from the Toronto audience can be redistributed onto the team when they are negotiating a deal. Suddenly, the club’s the one being slapped around by the press: “When’s X signing a deal?” and “Aren’t you ashamed you haven’t done a deal with X?” and “How long after X’s deal is done is it appropriate to demand you be fired for doing that deal with X?”
This negotiations jiu-jitsu is remarkably effective, but only works if you try it somewhere between Mississauga west of Toronto and Scarborough to the east. The deals aren’t rational because the local audience isn’t, either.
The counterpoint from Leafs true believers is that everyone is now stuck here. Toronto will be good forever (or five years, which has often seemed like forever when it comes to Toronto hockey).
But no one’s stuck anywhere. If a player wants to leave, he will. All he has to do is complain about it long enough and loud enough. And “good,” in this case, is theoretical. The Leafs are the proud permanent owners of a bunch of guys who’ve never won a playoff series.
If Anaheim stumbles into the greatest player in history and finds itself negotiating with him as an RFA, it can put the guy in thumbscrews. Because nobody cares in Anaheim. The few who do would see the player as the villain in any sort of squabble.
In Toronto, the team is always to blame when some second-line guy decides he needs somewhere to park his Porsche. Maybe on top of a yacht.
That’s not the player’s fault. He’s controlling the means of his production (though not in the way Marx meant it).
It’s also not the Leafs’ fault. They’re giving their customers what they want.
So that means it’s your fault. It’s because you love the Leafs too much they gave William Nylander the money they will soon wish they could give to Tyson Barrie instead.
You turned a Swede – someone from a nation of enthusiastic socialists – into a little Gordon Gekko. I hope you’re proud.
Bizarrely, a good thing – so many people caring so much about the Leafs being good – has become a bad thing – because it makes that success a little more difficult.
The result of the Leafs’ locking themselves into a four-lords-and-twenty-serfs strategy is yet to be determined. There are no bad contracts on a winning team. How much you paid for that and to whom becomes immaterial.
But if this goes sideways – and that’s always a possibility, especially in a market as warped and frothing as Toronto – the Leafs are stuck.
That’s when the Laine deal starts to look good. Because while the Jets haven’t made the club’s most gifted asset theirs for life, they still have the freedom of imagining one after him.