Now that they’ve outsmarted Mitch Marner into taking a US$11-million per year deal, the Toronto Maple Leafs are collectively paying their top four players about US$40-million annually.
That doesn’t leave much for everyone else, and though they may love the game, they aren’t going to play it for free.
The Boston Bruins have been kicking the Leafs like a can down the playoff road for a few years now. They pay their top quartet about US$28-million, and just convinced defenceman Charlie McAvoy to take a cut-rate bridge deal (US$14.7-million for three years).
Boston has done what Toronto can’t – getting its players to buy into an one-for-all culture rather than a multilevel-marketing operation.
The Tampa Bay Lightning – the most talented, most humiliated and therefore most dangerous team in the NHL – notch in around US$33-million. Through a different route, the Lightning have managed the same thing.
That leaves the Leafs in what’s known around your house as a budget crunch. Except your house isn’t competing for anything.
And when someone comes home to your place and says, “Bad news. We have to get rid of the car,” your kids aren’t going to say, “Mom, dad, we appreciate all you’ve done for this organization, but we’re gonna have to go with a different approach. We wish you all the best of luck with your next family.”
There are two ways of looking at this right now – the Leafs have secured their future; or, the Leafs have bought themselves a golden parachute (since gold has a way of getting you to the ground a lot faster than you’d intended).
That window of contention people are always talking about didn’t just open. Instead, it’s starting to close. The club has this season, and this season only, to prove it has made the right choices.
This is what happens when you take risks, which should always be applauded in sport. But doing the right sports thing is not synonymous with doing the correct thing. You don’t know a right thing is correct until it works out. If it doesn’t, it was wrong by definition.
Signing John Tavares to the biggest contract in club history was the right thing, but it created a grab-all-you-can-for-yourself atmosphere for everyone else. William Nylander was emboldened to climb onto the contract barricades. Rather than put him in hockey jail for a year, the Leafs gave him what he wanted. That doesn’t look so smart in retrospect.
Auston Matthews got paid, which is also right, but a simultaneous deal wasn’t done with Marner – even if was just a nod and a wink – setting up a second opportunity for off-season brinksmanship.
The Leafs did all the right things, but in the wrong order. Whether the ordering of it was their choice (it wasn’t), that’s how you end up paying more for your elite talent than any team has before. And it still ends you up in a financial pickle that cannot be solved by saying, “We didn’t want to do it this way.” Try that one at the mortgage department of your bank and see how far it gets you.
Another problem, with creating a situation in which siblings rush to grab as much of mom and dad’s money as possible, is that no one is particularly satisfied after getting what they want.
When he’d done his deal, Marner did the usual “I bleed blue” routine, while also complaining about how hard this all was. He told TSN some kid yelled at him in a park.
This year, with front-loaded bonuses, he’ll make more than anyone in the NHL. Maybe it’s not yet time for him to be writing The Sad Ballad of Mitch Marner.
On the European continent, if you don’t play well, the more unbalanced fans will sneak into the stadium overnight and dig you an imaginary grave, or throw flaming Vespas at you from the stands. North Americans – professional athletes, as well as all the rest of us – have a very poor basis from which to bemoan their lot in life, but it has never stopped them.
Getting the paperwork in order is great and all, but now the Leafs have to win. Not should win, or would love to win, or believe they can win. But must win.
Because if they don’t win – and a single postseason round is no longer the benchmark – the operation begins to blow smoke and pop rivets.
The first thing that will happen is a power struggle within the hierarchy. The coach comes under enormous pressure. The GM only slightly less so. That struggle inevitably begins leaking out into public. It usually ends with someone packing all their stuff into boxes.
Then you have to go out and secure your remaining talent with reduced resources. It’s great that new arrival Tyson Barrie looks like the real deal. It will seem somewhat less so if the Leafs lose again and he then asks for a substantial raise. Getting defencemen under contract will imminently become a crisis for the team.
Goalie Fredrik Andersen is not the best Leaf, but he is the most important. If he gets hurt, the team’s top backup option is three jumbo bags of flour strapped into pads.
Andersen’s going to be looking for a raise in a couple of years and, based on the way Kyle Dubas & Co. have been splashing around cash, he’s unlikely to limit his financial aspiration.
This could conceivably work if the salary cap rises steeply, but that’s a basis for prayer rather than planning.
The worst thing about being short of money (rather than honest-to-God poor, which is a unique hardship) is the worrying.
Worrying is contagious and non-conducive to performance. It brings out the best in some people, but the Leafs – historically and presently – have not yet shown themselves to be those sort of people. Expectations seem to eat them from the inside out.
None of them – up and down the organization, top to bottom – has felt pressure like this before. By April, it will be the weight of the world.
Once there, they probably have to get through the Bruins or the Lightning, and maybe both. Things haven’t got easier since the last time they got this bit wrong, despite the hurrah-ing over recent administrative successes. They’ve got harder.
Then we’ll see if all this money has bought the Leafs something that becomes precious material under extreme stress, or something more brittle.