Trending Topics: You have to take the Leafs at their word

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/7109/" data-ylk="slk:Auston Matthews">Auston Matthews</a> and <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/6374/" data-ylk="slk:William Nylander">William Nylander</a> are re-signing priorities for the Maple Leafs. (Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)
Auston Matthews and William Nylander are re-signing priorities for the Maple Leafs. (Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

By all accounts, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ leadership group laid every card in the deck on the table in courting John Tavares.

Whatever Tavares wanted to know about the team’s present and future plans, Kyle Dubas and Co. were more than happy to accommodate him. This is an interesting strategy because, if he hadn’t chosen Toronto, in theory, he would have been able to tell the GM of his new team, “Here’s everything Toronto wants to do for the next five years.”

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But perhaps because of that honesty and certainly in large part because of how clear and achievable the vision the Leafs laid out was, Tavares chose his childhood team and created an elite power in the league in one fell swoop.

A big part of that future plan, presumably, is how the club will handle the pending restricted free agency of its elite young forwards. William Nylander is currently out of contract and likely due a nice raise from his entry-level deal; he is on two consecutive 61-point seasons and will be paid commensurately, after an adjustment for the fact that he’s an RFA. I wouldn’t want to try to nail down the number too much, but he’ll almost certainly make north of $5 million against the cap on what I’d expect to be a long-term deal.

Next summer is the real problem, of course, when the Leafs will have to pay Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — both of whom produce even more than Nylander — as well. Marner will cost probably a little bit more than Nylander but perhaps not much, barring an explosive offensive season this year which is certainly possible. Matthews will be able to command an eight-figure salary.

This has naturally led to a lot of fretting about how the Leafs will make it work, and it’s understandable for people to wonder if they can at all. After all, Toronto has a lot of money tied up in guys like Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev who don’t pull their weight (AAV-wise), and in theory, they can jettison those players in one way or another.

But with all that concern for how he’s going to be able to pull off this kind of deal, Dubas has been steadfast: “We can re-sign all of them, and we will.” Literally, every Maple Leafs decision-maker asked about it has expressed utter confidence in this approach. It’s not even being discussed as a vague or likely possible outcome. They’re just straight-up saying it’s going to happen.

How all that comes to pass is obviously up for interpretation, but it’s rare we see statements with this total absence of equivocation or outs being provided. Effectively, Dubas is handing Brendan Shanahan a filled-out pink and saying, “If I can’t keep the Nylander/Marner/Matthews/Tavares group together next summer, feel free to use this.”

Because to come out and say the things he’s now saying with so much force and confidence — and certainly with Shanahan’s full backing — that to not get it done has to be pretty close to a fireable offense.

That doesn’t mean the decisions won’t be tough, though. There was some amount of concern (though not this much) about how Edmonton would make it work with all their talent, such as it was, when Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had their big raises kick in. Peter Chiarelli’s answer was to trade Jordan Eberle and further hamstring his own team.

Now, that’s not a good answer, mind you, but it’s an answer. One doubts that Toronto would be so foolish as to make a trade like that, but if they have to trade Nazem Kadri, find a buyer for Freddie Andersen when Garrett Sparks is ready, or let Jake Gardiner walk in free agency to keep those four forwards together, that’s the cost of doing business. But unlike the Oilers, the Leafs don’t have a ton of money tied up in depth players. That will be even less of a problem when Ron Hainsey comes off the books next summer.

Obviously, none of us know what the salary cap is going to look like next summer, but I wouldn’t go around expecting an increase on par with what we saw this year. Likewise, it’s impossible to predict whether Nylander, for example, gets hurt this season, that might affect his cap number. If Marner only puts up 55 points or something (also unlikely) that could impact his salary as well.

Moreover, who’s to say that all three taking some level of a hometown discount to keep the band together hasn’t been discussed? I wouldn’t expect any of them to take substantially less than their market value, but if the team can get all three to do that collectively, that would be a big help.

It’s not unheard of for guys to do that, either. San Jose built its great core and kept them all together for years, remaining competitive the whole time, because of solid management decisions farther down the roster to keep costs down. Toronto will need to make similar decisions and find landing spots for at least one or two guys, but the idea that they would let one of these three pending RFAs go elsewhere at the expense of keeping 52-year-old Patrick Marleau is absurd.

Again, it’s more than fair to wonder how they make it all happen, and there’s certainly an element of “show me” to it. But at some point when the Leafs’ front office universally says, “This is 100 percent going to happen,” you have to believe that they’re not lying to you or about to do some sort of semantic sleight of hand.

What further proof of this do you need than Tavares’s commitment to the team? He could have made more money for a longer time in Brooklyn. He could have gotten a comparable deal from Tampa or Dallas. But he chose Toronto and was not shy about saying that it was because their plan for the seven years of his deal was spelled out clearly and effectively.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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