The Toronto Maple Leafs have been nothing if not interesting over their first four games. They lead the league in goals with 20 and are the third worst team in goals against with 17. Auston Matthews has been leading the charge with an unreal seven goals and 10 points in four contests while John Tavares has made his presence known right from the start with six goals of his own. Meanwhile, Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly already has two goals and 10 points and Mitchell Marner has eight points.
It’s Marner whose start is the most noteworthy in some regards, at least as far as Toronto’s future is concerned. Matthews and Marner will both be restricted free agents this summer and while Matthews is having the better start, it almost doesn’t matter how well he does this season as far as his future negotiations are concerned. He’s arguably already reached the point anywhere where he can basically pick his own salary and the Maple Leafs will just need to hope that he’ll put some value in giving the team some cap flexibility and taking at least a bit of a discount.
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Marner though is harder to peg when it comes to projecting what his salary will be and consequently, what happens this season will have a greater influence on what comes next. Marner had 61 points in 2016-17 and 69 points as a sophomore. If he pushes the 80-point milestone this season – which isn’t a certainly, but also isn’t a ridiculous possibility to consider – then he will have somewhere in the range of 210 points over his first 241 games. At that point, would Marner be out of line to demand as much as $10 million per season? Eichel got that after recording 113 points in 142 games. You could say that Marner doesn’t have Eichel’s upside, but again, we’re talking about a scenario where Marner just got 80 points at the age of 21 (he’ll turn 22 on May 5), so how much more do you need him to prove himself?
You could point to Leon Draisaitl as the better comparable. Then again, Draisaitl had 51 points as a sophomore and 77 points in the final season of his entry-level contract, so we’re going over a scenario where Marner did better than Draisaitl in each of those campaigns and Marner would be signing roughly two seasons after Draisaitl got his contract, so the salary cap’s inflation would need to be taken into account. Draisaitl comes with a $8.5 million cap hit and under those circumstances, Marner would have fuel to fight for something higher than what he got.
Of course, the premise of this argument might prove to be false. Marner might not generate 80 points this season and he might enter the summer with less leverage, but it’s worth considering. Between Marner, Tavares, and Matthews, it’s certainly not inconceivable that over $30 million in total cap space is tethered to those three starting with the 2019-20 campaign.
That makes the William Nylander negotiations so much more important and it’s why Toronto is likely willing to continue to stare him down. Nylander didn’t have the contract season that Marner might and he isn’t the superstar that Matthews is. He’s a great forward, but if the Maple Leafs are going to fight tooth-and-nail over the contract of any of their great forwards, Nylander seems like the one to do it with. The fact that the Maple Leafs’ offense has been red hot out of the gate only gives them more room to wait him out.
In the meantime, Toronto’s bigger concern is its defense. It was never expected to be a strength, but it needs to be better than this. We may see the Maple Leafs’ improve in that regard as the season progresses though – after all, we’re only four games in. Another possibility that fans have been speculating about is trading Nylander for a defenseman and while that’s not an impossibility, it’s not the direction Toronto seems to want to go in. Rather, trading Nylander right now seems like a last resort rather than the preferred course of action and given that there is still plenty of time left to negotiate with Nylander, the Maple Leafs don’t need to start seriously considering Plan B yet. If you are wondering if Toronto does have a firm deadline for its negotiations, the answer is yes. Toronto has to sign Nylander before Dec. 1 or he will become ineligible for the remainder of the season. So if we find ourselves in November and Nylander is still unsigned, then a trade begins to look like a more realistic possibility.
Finally moving passed the Maple Leafs, another interesting storyline to begin the season has been the New York Rangers. They’re a rebuilding squad, so the fact that they’re 0-3-0 isn’t shocking, but they are still a team with fantasy relevant players on them and their cold start has put new coach David Quinn in the position of making some significant tweaks. Chris Kreider, for example, isn’t expected to play on the first line on Thursday and will instead likely skate with Brett Howden and Mats Zuccarello. In Kreider’s place, Jesper Fast is likely to play alongside Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich.
It’s worth keeping an eye on how that unit gels Thursday night as once a trio finds a spark, Quinn might settle in with that group for a while. Meanwhile, Kevin Shattenkirk won’t be in the lineup at all. He’s struggled right out of the gate with no points and a minus-four rating in three games. Shattenkirk is a top-tier offensive defenseman when he’s at his best, but he is working his way back from major knee surgery so you have to wonder if his sluggish start will drag on. In nothing else, Quinn has already said that Shattenkirk will be back in the lineup on Saturday, so ideally this will light a fire under him and he’ll come back strong.
We’ve also seen Vegas get off to a quiet 1-3-0 start. The Golden Knights are a team that a lot of people pegged to regress as if you looked down their list of players, you found plenty of examples of people that seemed to over perform based on their analytics. For what it’s worth though, the Golden Knights have been given a difficult schedule to start the season. After opening at home versus Philadelphia, they began a five-game road trip that included some significant competition in Minnesota, Washington, and their opponent tonight, Pittsburgh. Vegas will enjoy a five-game homestand from Oct. 16-28 and consequently we should have a much better idea of what kind of team the Golden Knights will be by the end of October.