The Free Agent apocalypse that was poised to hit Toronto next summer appears to have vanished. Before last summer, Auston Matthews and William Nylander were a season away from unrestricted free agency, and John Tavares and Mitch Marner were two years away. While the latter two remain in that position, both Nylander and Matthews are now locked in, as reported today, that the Leafs have committed to an eight-year, $92 million extension for Nylander beginning next season.
This will coalesce in heavy scrutiny of the BIG 4 come spring, with much commentary given they have yet to collectively secure a playoff series victory during their entire shared tenure. When a player is the highest-paid, they are always in the spotlight, that’s just how it goes. And when things go awry in April or May, as is likely, given only one team can do well, you can bet all the scribes and radio hosts in „The Six“ have already staked their claims and penned their monologues about how Matthews and his 70 goals this year don’t equate to victory for a player, or that stars aren’t a way to win a Cup, and that it must be accomplished by a collection of players nobody’s heard of because „they want it more.“ It’s coming.
It’s also hogwash.
The Leafs‘ issues do not stem from having too many top players. And Nylander’s contract won’t be a bigger millstone than any other player earning an eight-figure salary across the league, as long as they produce like those players. Nylander has certainly found success this season, even if individual accolades have been lacking. Matthews may hit 70, but it’s Nylander who ranks in the top five in points while playing on the second line with Tavares and Tyler Bertuzzi, if he only had a brain. Watch any Leafs game and see who is leaping off the screen every shift. It’s Nylander.
While the Leafs will be the only team with four players earning over $10 million, there are a few factors to consider. Firstly, the salary cap will finally increase after this season to provide a bit more flexibility. Secondly, the hefty contracts of TJ Brodie for $5 million and Bertuzzi and Max Domi for another $8 million will be cleared from the books. That should be enough to do what needs to be done.
And one doesn’t need to look further than the contracts doled out to players like Bertuzzi, Brodie, or Domi to understand why the Leafs have never made it to the business end of the playoffs. Sure, Matthews, Nylander, and Marner haven’t replicated regular season results in the playoffs, but that’s how the playoffs go. Rarely do the stars produce in every game across four rounds. Eventually, the supporting cast must come through. The argument has always been that the Leafs are overpaying these four players to get that kind of player or some of them. But Bertuzzi earns $5 million. Brodie does too. Domi earns $3 million. There are plenty of other players at those prices who can produce in the spring. The Leafs, whether it’s Kyle Dubas as GM or now Brad Treliving, just couldn’t find them.
Regardless of what they pay Nylander now, he can’t make their defense faster, and the Leafs have consistently chosen to tap dance beyond Morgan Rielly, who may not even be a D-man No. 1 by trade anyhow. The Knights boasted Shea Theodore on their second pair. The Avalanche had about four puck movers in 2022. The Lightning had Mikhail Sergachev behind Victor Hedman. It’s not a hard formula to crack. And yet, the Leafs, with a straight face, continue to throw out guys like Jake McCabe. Or maybe they have the right idea and the wrong solution, like the decaying corpse of John Klingberg who they had to embalm for a quarter of the season.
The Leafs have also been unable to produce someone from within their system to contribute, and not at low cost, as those first wave of kids yielded these stars they’re paying now. Matthew Knies is pretty much it. Even if they make picks in the twenties most years and trade picks for deadline acquisitions, a team has to hit on some of those. The Leafs haven’t.
The Leafs have what every other team is after, and that is really good players. Teams fight for the right to only have one of the four drafts the Leafs have. Rebuilds are about stockpiling top picks to get more of them. None of the other questions come into play until a team has filled the top ranks.
Nylander will not be the Leafs‘ problem, regardless of what happens in the spring. Whatever else they might do, the Leafs are right to lock in what they’ve found.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social