We Can Dream, Can’t We?

Now that we’re starting our initial descent into the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft, the speculation about which team will protect which player, who might waive their no-movement clause, and who the Seattle Kraken will select is in full swing. We’re admittedly in the thick of it ourselves with the Jet City Ice Mock Draft v1.0.

But amidst this speculation is a rumor so bizarre and otherworldly that it bears further scrutiny, along with a review of the factors that will affect the picture as the draft approaches.

Superstar On The Block

One of the Canadian-based hockey pundits spent some time surveying a number of the leading player-agents in the NHL landscape. He was trying to get a feel for what types of activity was taking place behind the scenes, stuff that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise. Among the other detritus that he unearthed was this positively unbelievable tidbit.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are taking offers on Mitch Marner.

I mean, “WOW!” doesn’t even begin to cut it. The fact that Marner shares the Toronto media spotlight with two franchise superstars in Auston Matthews and John Tavares tends to overshadow the fact that the kid has posted 291 points in 300 NHL games — including 94 points in the 2018-19 season alone. He’s a franchise player on fully 25 out of the 31 teams in the league, perhaps more. And the Leafs are shopping him.

Hold Your Horses

“FANTASTIC!” I hear you bellow. “The Leafs will expose him, and we’ll select him in the expansion draft!” Let me disabuse you of that notion right now.

Nobody gives up an asset that valuable for nothing. Nobody. And certainly not the mercenary GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kyle Dubas. He’s a ruthless and dispassionate trading partner, and he is not going to simply let Marner go for nothing.

But the emergence of this information opens the door for Seattle Kraken GM Ron Francis to engage in discussions about what the Leafs’ needs are, what problems they would like to try to solve, and how the Kraken could potentially address one or more of those problems during the expansion draft. If conditions are right, Francis could craft a deal that would land Mitch Marner on the Seattle bench in the fall of 2021.

Viewing The Landscape

First thing we need to do to get a handle on what may happen with this is to look at the entire picture. Mitch Marner was selected 4th overall in his draft year. He is in the 2nd year of a 6-year, $10.89 million AAV contract — but, that contract is paid out almost entirely in signing bonuses, and more than half of those are paid last season and this upcoming one. So his actual salary for 2021-22 is right around his AAV number, and the next 3 years of the deal he gets paid only $8 million in real money.

The Leafs have two players earning more than that, if you can believe it: the aforementioned Matthews and Tavares are both at or above $11 million for the next 4 and 5 years respectively. The next highest paid is William Nylander at just under $7 million for the next 4 years. They then have an additional $10.6 million wrapped up in two defensemen for the same time period.

So Toronto is very firmly entrenched in cap hell, and it appears they will be for some time — unless they move one of these high-value contracts. It is for this reason that the rumors about Marner being shopped can’t be immediately dismissed out of hand.

Toronto has done an admirable job of hanging on to their upcoming early-round draft picks; they are only lacking a 3rd- and 7th-round pick in next year’s draft, none in the two years after that. But for a team that is going to be staring down the barrel of a re-tool in about 5 years, stocking the cupboard with picks and prospects will be on Dubas’ mind.

The other thing that bears mentioning is, Toronto’s starting goaltender Frederik Andersen is coming into the last year of his contract, and speculation is that he will not be signed to an extension. There is the hope that backup Jack Campbell will grow into the starter’s role this year, but honestly I can’t see that happening. So, when the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft comes around, it’s better than even money that the Leafs will be in the market for a new starting goalie. This is a very important piece of this puzzle.

How This Could Work

So what we know is, the Leafs want to lose Marner’s contract; they would want a less expensive top-six winger to replace him; they would want a starting goalie, or at the very least somebody they could use in a tandem with Campbell for one or two years; and they could use one or two draft picks.

The goalie is the easy part. There is a veritable buffet of quality netminders available for the Kraken in the expansion draft. Not only will a number of potential starting goalies be exposed with existing contracts, there are a number of quality netminders who will be unrestricted free agents in the days following the draft. The Kraken will have first crack (heh heh heh…) at those players with an exclusive negotiating period during the expansion draft.

This sets up the possibility that the Kraken could select two starter-quality goaltenders in the expansion draft, then send one of them packing to Toronto. The limit on the number of goalies the Kraken can select is dictated by the players-by-position rules for the expansion draft. The Kraken must select 3 goalies, but they can select as many as 7. So adding one they don’t need to package as part of a separate deal with a different team is easily accomplished.

Looking at the potential candidates, I believe the most likely options for this are Jaroslav Halak out of Boston, and Anton Khudobin from Dallas. Halak is entering the last year of his $2.25 million AAV contract and will be a pending UFA at the time of the draft; and Khudobin’s new deal pays him $3.5 million this year and next. Either would be a suitable (and more affordable) option to carry part of the load and act as mentor for Jack Campbell as he becomes capable of handling starter duties in Toronto.

Beyond that, things get tricky. Which teams are going to be leaving proven top-six wingers unprotected in the draft? I suspect that’s a short list, and I also suspect Ron Francis won’t be too eager to cut a deal to acquire a player that he is only going to turn around and ship off to some other team.

How many early-round draft picks are the Kraken going to be willing to give up to get a player like Marner? The team has a full complement of picks to offer, and there will likely be draft picks acquired in deals with other teams as part of the draft. But with only 30 players in the organ-eye-zation out of the gate and a largely empty roster for the AHL affiliate, those draft picks are going to be precious and given up sparingly.

And, most importantly, are the Kraken willing to have one player — albeit a young, talented, and well-proven point-per-game player — gobble up fully one-eighth of the available salary cap for the following four years? We can be reasonably certain that the NHL will not return to cumulative profitability for at least another full season beyond the one upcoming, and perhaps longer. That means a flat or even a descending salary cap for the foreseeable future, and I suspect taking on a contract like Marner’s will be something they consider very, very carefully.

Dreams Vs. Reality

There is no doubt that having a player like Mitch Marner on the roster would generate huge interest around the NHL. That kind of marquee player puts the Kraken logo on the highlight reels nearly every week of the season, and at 23 years old Marner could be the very first Kraken-for-life guy in franchise history.

Not to mention it would blast Kraken/Marner jersey sales through the roof in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the league. And it instantly catapults the Kraken from, “Oh, look, another expansion team…” to “Holy crap, they got Mitch Marner!” before they even open the doors at Climate Pledge Arena. The buzz around the league would be massive, and somebody of that star caliber would bring new fans — especially young fans — into the fold in Seattle.

But the fact is, when the dust settles on this it’s not a very likely possibility. Too many moving parts, too many what-ifs, too many variables that have to break our way. Despite our dreamy optimism, we still look at acquiring Marner as a long shot — however, not nearly as improbable as we would have thought a month ago.

There’s still a lot of hockey to play between now and the time this might come to pass, and we didn’t even mention that Marner might get shipped off to one of the other 30 teams in the interim. But we will be watching this rumor very closely as events transpire, and will update you if and when something breaks.

Author: Tim Currell

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