Toronto Star


Six-year contract makes Leafs whole, but Nylander just first test for Dubas

- Bruce Arthur

William Nylander is due back in town today, after Leafs GM Kyle Dubas finds a way to work within the salary cap. Bruce Arthur,

Kyle Dubas won, because William Nylander didn’t lose. With every day that passed and every minute that ticked away, this negotiatio­n had the makings of a potential disaster. With two hours to go, it could have ended in ashes. Nylander’s only real leverage was Pyrrhic: threaten to sit out a season for a team that can contend for a Stanley Cup now. The Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, had all the cards except that one, but had to hold the line on salaries, because the NHL is designed to punish too much talent in one place at once.

And the Leafs and Nylander walked right up to the deadline, filing Nylander’s six-year deal with an average cap hit of $6.97 million (all dollars U.S.) with five minutes to go. Toronto’s first-year general manager got his talented winger back on a team with the league’s second-best record after a 5-3 win in Minnesota Saturday night, despite having missed superstar Auston Matthews for 14 of the first 26 games. And despite, of course, missing Willy. The Leafs won, and didn’t lose.

“I just think that in the end we found a way,” said Dubas to reporters in St. Paul. “We have a cap situation which allowed us to structure it this year the way that we did, and be able to compromise with William on what they wanted, and also for us in (years two to six) of being at a number … for us to become a consistent team that’s in the hunt and contending year-in and year-out. We could certainly fit that in and have him be a part of this for a long time, especially with the others on the horizon. So that was the way that we approached it, and we didn’t really stray from that.”

Nylander didn’t lose, either. Unlike most hockey players, he tried to fully exercise his contractua­l rights under a hard-cap system. He pushed it as far as he reasonably could. His problem is that he is at best the sixth-most important player on this team, after Matthews, Mitch Marner, Frederik Andersen, Morgan Rielly and John Tavares.

And as he sat, they enjoyed a league at its highest level of scoring since 200506. Kasperi Kapanen scored at a 30goal pace in his place. Mitch Marner raises his price tag with every jawdroppin­g game, and Matthews, when healthy, is a supernova. Toronto didn’t appear to need Nylander. They could have tried to crush him, for the good of mother salary cap.

But in Dubas’s first showdown the Leafs managed to find a path to a victory, with the last conversati­on coming at 4:15 p.m. Eastern, 45 minutes before the deadline. It was hard. Nylander’s father, Michael, went through seven different agents during his 15-year NHL career, and once agreed to a contract with Edmonton before signing with Washington later the next day. Some families have traditions.

So Toronto will pay Nylander $10.2 million this year, prorated at $6.77 million, plus a $2-million signing bonus. The second year is almost all signing bonus. The average on the contract stays under $7 million.

And in the end, the Leafs got everything they needed. Nylander can slot in with Matthews and either Kapanen or Patrick Marleau on a top line. Marner and Tavares stay with Zach Hyman, and the third line gets Marleau or Kapanen.

“We have shown that when it comes to making sure everything fits our economics, we’ll go to whatever length we have to.” KYLE DUBAS LEAFS GM

The Leafs were third in the league in goals per game before bringing back Matthews and Nylander.

But Nylander is also paid 42 per cent of the contract in the first 11 months of the deal. That’s an escape valve. If the cap squeeze forces hard choices, Nylander becomes the easiest piece on the roster to move for value.

It may yet come to that. Matthews, unless he accepts a discount, is a $12-million to $13-million player. Marner, unless he accepts a discount, is at least a $10-million player, and if Matthews played for another team, it might be more.

It might be anyway — as one prominent agent not affiliated with either player said Saturday, “I think Marner’s just as good.” Going into Saturday night, Marner was eighth in the NHL in points per minute. Matthews was seventh. They combined on Toronto’s first goal, and Marner added another assist.

Add Tavares at $11 million, and a combined $19 million for Rielly, Andersen, Nazem Kadri and Nikita Zaitsev, and that core could come in at about $60 million for eight players in 2019-20, plus the last year of Marleau. Kapanen is a restricted free agent next summer, too. Jake Gardiner staying seems a long shot, unless he takes less too. The problem with having talent is you have to pay for it.

Which is why Dubas had to win. Not just to keep costs down, but to show he would go to the deadline and not blink. Nylander called him, to be clear. Matthews and Marner are up next.

“That’s our full plan, to have everybody available for the first day of training camp,” said Dubas.

“We have shown that when it comes to making sure everything fits our economics, we’ll go to whatever length we have to. But our goal is to have everybody settled as soon as they can be. That will allow us to have the best plan for the remainder of the year.”

But you can’t do this with Matthews and Marner. Agents around the league are raising the spectre of an offer sheet from Arizona or the Islanders. The Leafs just have to pay those guys. Nylander is signed, but he has been surpassed, unless he lights up the world this season. Matthews and Marner are the show.

Eh, they probably trade him. They may not have to, but they can, and if he brings back a defenceman all the better.

The first big hurdle for the Leafs has been cleared. They’re finally the team they can be. They get to chase a Cup, whole.

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 ?? MARK BLINCH GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO ?? William Nylander will rejoin the Maple Leafs on Sunday after months of contract wrangling. You might have heard about it.
MARK BLINCH GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO William Nylander will rejoin the Maple Leafs on Sunday after months of contract wrangling. You might have heard about it.
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