Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares, left, and William Nylander talk during the third period of a game against the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. on Jan. 4.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs created a splash this week when they signed William Nylander to the largest contract in team history.

Not-so-free Willy’s US$92-million extension, which goes into effect next season, keeps him in Toronto for another eight years.

The club’s next big contract conundrum will be what to do with Mitch Marner. Certainly, they should reward him handsomely.

But how?

They already have re-upped Auston Matthews for US$13.25-million a season beginning next year. Nylander’s deal works out to an annual average value of US$11.5-million. John Tavares is paid US$11-million and his contract expires at the end of the 2024-25 campaign, the same as Marner, who currently takes home US$10.9-million.

To have four such players on one team is an embarrassment of riches.

Marner has had 97 and 99 points over the previous two seasons and is presently at about the same clip. He has produced at nearly a point-a-game level in 50 playoff games. He ranks among the NHL’s most accomplished playmakers and is strong on defence. He can be a little moody but has never been a problem in the clubhouse. His biggest drawback is that at times he does seem bothered by criticism more than most players.

He is still just 26 and will undoubtedly want significantly more money the next time around.

But how?

This is the pickle that the Maple Leafs find themselves in, and it is entirely of their own making: their salary structure is bloated to the point of being too top-heavy.

The league’s annual salary cap of US$83.5-million a team will likely increase a bit next year. As it is, Toronto expends roughly 60 per cent of its salary cap on four players.

Armchair general managers – of which there are many – see this as a failed strategy. At the same time, those four core players have been Toronto’s top performers.

It is difficult not to reward them, because the horse is already out of the barn.

So absurd as this sounds, signing Nylander – who deserved a raise – may have made it all that more difficult to retain Marner.

Technically the club can’t sign him until July and at the end of the 2024-25 campaign he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He already has a no-movement clause as part of his agreement, meaning he can’t be traded or waived without his permission. Matthews, Nylander and Tavares each have a no-movement clause as well. How did the Maple Leafs get into this position?

Games are not won and lost entirely on the ice. There is also an off-ice competition among organizations that are trying their hardest to secure their best players while also attempting to filch a top one from another team.

There are a few ways for Toronto to wiggle out of this. A couple are fairly easy. At the end of the season, send Ilya Samsonov, the goalie signed for one-year at US$3.55-million, packing. Everybody is always looking for a goalie, even a flawed one, with the hope they will return to past form.

Thank 33-year-old defenceman T.J. Brodie for his four years of service and say goodbye. His four-year contract with an average annual value of US$5-million expires. John Klingberg, signed for one-year at US$4.15-million, is hurt and never got untracked. There are reasons to like Ryan Reaves, but he had a rocky start, is hurt, and is a liability even at US$1.35-million for three years. That is already a fair chunk of change to at least begin to figure out a way to keep Marner.

Already this week some fans suggested that the club find a way to trade Nylander, the US$92-million winger, now that it has him under a long-term contract.

Really now, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that. And neither does getting Marner to agree to a trade and cutting him loose. Using your second- or third-best player as trade bait, a nearly 100-point guy, is crazy.

But perhaps that is the predicament the Maple Leafs face. They have paid their stars, those stars have individually more than met expectations, but what now?

The team is 12-13-4 in seven-plus seasons in games Marner has missed. It is 35-19-2 when Matthews has been out of the lineup and 46-39-12 without Nylander. Tavares played most of his career elsewhere so there really is no comparable.

What it does tell you is that Marner is an asset to keep.

But how?

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe