The biggest hurdle facing Leafs GM Kyle Dubas this summer may not be finding help on the blueline, it could be what to do with restricted free agent William Nylander on his next contract.
The 22-year-old put up another 61-point season playing mostly on the right side of center Auston Matthews. With John Tavares being added up the middle to go along with Matthews and Nazem Kadri, it gives Toronto one of the strongest center corps in the NHL and almost rules out any chance of Nylander moving permanently to the middle.
That means that in negotiations for a new contract, the comparables that will be used for Nylander will be wingers coming off their entry-level deals, but the question that Dubas and the Leafs face is whether signing the speedy Swede to a short-term bridge deal or a long-term extension is the best course of action.
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The pluses to a bridge deal are a lower cap hit and having more evidence to determine how good the player is after another couple seasons, as well as having the player under control as an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent after the bridge deal is done.
Nylander is not scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent until the summer of 2022, which means the Leafs could sign him to a two-or-three year deal and still be able to extend him afterward.
The pitfall of the bridge deal is if the player is too successful and has the leverage to demand a big payday on his next contract, instead of being in year two or three of a long-term contract. The PK Subban situation is an illustration of this point. After his ELC, Subban was looking for a long-term deal with Montreal, but the Habs finally got him signed to a two-year, $5.75 Million bridge deal. In year one of that deal, Subban won the Norris Trophy and it gave him the leverage to become the highest paid blueliner in the NHL.
Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov is another example. After scoring 65 and 66 points in consecutive years, the Russian winger signed the 23-year-old to a three-year, $14.3 Million bridge deal. He followed up with 85 and 100 point seasons and on Tuesday, Kucherov signed an eight-year, $76 Million extension with the Lightning (which is more than Steven Stamkos signed for two years ago).
On a long-term deal, the factors that should give an indication of what a price point would be is the points-per-game in the season before they signed their new contract and the percentage of the salary cap he is being paid.
Here are three comparables to Nylander:
Johnny Gaudreau(CAL) scored 78 pts (30G, 48A) in 2015-16 in 79 games (.99 PPG). The salary cap for 2016-17 was $73 Million and his six-year deal at $6.75 Million AAV was 9.2% of the cap.
Nikolaj Ehlers(WIN) scored 64 pts (25G, 39A) in 2016-17 in 82 games (.80 PPG). The salary cap for 2017-18 was $75 Million and his seven-year deal at $6 Million AAV represented 8% of the cap.
David Pastrnak(BOS) scored 70 pts (34G, 36A) in 2016-17 in 75 games (.93 PPG). The salary cap for 2017-18 was $75 Million and his six-year deal at $6.66 Million AAV represented 8.88% of the cap.
Nylander scored 61 pts (20G, 41A) in 2017-18 in 82 games, which is .74 points per game. This represents the lowest goal total and points of any of the comparables. With the cap going up to $79.5 Million for 2018-19, the fair % of salary cap for a long term offer would be at or slightly above Ehlers 8% figure.
At 8%, the AAV would be $6.36 Million per season. At 8.25%, the cap hit would be slightly over $6.5 Million.
One of the main determining factors is what Leafs management sees as the long term future of their forward group. If Dubas wants to keep the “big 4” of Tavares, Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nylander together into the next decade, then getting a long term deal done this summer for as economical a price as possible is the way to go.
If the Leafs sign Nylander to a bridge deal, then it gives them a top-six forward for a lower price for a shorter window and keeps their options open if they want to trade for defensive help down the road, as a player with a lower cap hit who is retainable is an attractive commodity.
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