With the Toronto Maple Leafs eventually having to sign their young players to new deals once their entry-level contracts expire there’s been a lot of talk about how to go about it. In addition, the Leafs’ top goalscorer James van Riemsdyk will be a free agent at the end of the season and management will need to sit down and figure how to handle matters. This is basically because they’re going to have to re-sign forwards Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner and give them all hefty raises.
Matthews is generally regarded as the club’s franchise player after being drafted first overall in 2016, but there are numerous hockey people who believe Marner may be his equal or even a more valuable player. Some of them are suggesting the leafs offer both players the exact same contract once they start negotiating with the youngsters. Both players enjoyed fine rookie seasons in 2016/17 with Matthews leading the team with 40 goals and 29 assists for 69 points and Marner not far behind him with 19 goals and 42 assists for 61 points.
This season, Matthews has missed close to 20 games, but still has 31 goals and 26 assists for 57 points in 59 games and is plus-23 while averaging 18 minutes and 13 seconds of ice time. Marner has 22 goals and leads the team in assists and points with 47 and 69 respectively in 79 games, but is a minus-2. However, he averages just 16 minutes and 20 seconds of ice per contest. The two are both 20 years old, but play a different style of hockey. Matthews, a center, is 6-feet-3-inches tall and weighs in at 216 lbs while right-winger Marner is generously listed at 6-feet and 175 lbs. However, he was just 5-foot-7 and 130 lbs five years ago when the London Knights drafted him into the Ontario Hockey league.
Both players have helped the Leafs set new franchise records for wins and home wins in a season and Marner entered the team’s game on March 31stwith an 11-game scoring streak intact. Mark Hunter was with the Knights when Marner was drafted in 2013 and was also with the Leafs when he was drafted fourth overall in 2015. In between, he helped London win the OHL title and Memorial Cup in 2015/16. There’s no doubt Hunter had a lot of influence during the 2015 draft and at the moment the Leafs look like they certainly took the right player, even though many fans felt they should have selected a defenceman such as Ivan Provorov, Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski.
All of those players were taken after Marner, but Hunter appears to have known what he was doing. Marner has proven to be a highly-effective and exciting player who can produce at the top level with 41 goals and 89 assists for 130 points in his first 157 games. In comparison, Matthews has 71 goals and 55 assists for 126 points in 141 encounters The Leafs simply drafted who they believed to be the best overall player available regardless of position and it’s a decision that’s turned out well for them. Marner has also proven to be able to handle the physicality of the NHL, perhaps even better than Matthews has. The question the Leafs now have to ask themselves is how to decide who’s worth what when it’s time to negotiate new contracts.