Marner And The RFAs: They Want It All. They Want It Now
Mitch Marner has signed. Someone wake Lord Stanley in heaven. A parade is a-coming.
Okay, that might be a tad optimistic. But the hopes for any playoff success in Toronto hinge on Marner, who may not get the headlines but is the key to the Male Leafs offence. Just sayin’.
Marner’s signing ended a long cold war over the spring and summer over whether the restricted free agent would attract an offer from a competitor to spring him from Hogtown. With so many young players to secure on long-term deals, Toronto was strapped to accommodate them all under the salary cap. But they got it done. Six years at an average annual value of $10.893 million
As a result of the Marner signing, four players— Marner, Auston Matthews, Michael Nylander and John Tavares— have about half of the Leafs’ entire salary cap tied up. Getting enough other quality players under contract will be the answer to whether the Leafs ring the bell for the first time since 1967. Or whether they get their bell rung.
Marner joined young RFA players such as Matthew Tkachuk, Nylander, Sebastisan Aho, Mikko Rantanen, Brock Boeser— among others— in establishing a new salary threshold for players coming off their rookie contracts. Some have signed. Some still hold out.
But if the situations have one thing in common it’s the attempt by elite young players to stretch the CBA to accommodate their status as the stars of the game. The CBA wants these players to wait to get paid the big money on their third contract. The RFA class want to grow their brand now, but they can’t while trapped in the current NHL CBA. In a violent sport where it can disappear overnight. As Freddie Mercury sang, the young guys want it all, they want it now.
As NHL players watch stars in NBA and MLB push their salaries to $30, 40 or 50 million a year many are wondering why their value should be suppressed. In the past the NHL Players Association was successful in pitching a one-for-all/ all-for-one philosophy among its members. Sure, Sidney Crosby takes less than market value but then there’s money left over for the grunts on the third and fourth lines or for the veterans trying to squeeze out a final contract.
The sacrifice was abetted by what the legendary writer Roy Macgregor described as hockey’s ”modesty gene”. From Gordie Howe through Wayne Gretzky to Crosby the bell cows of the NHL players have buried their own ambitions for the god of “The Game”. It guided them through several lockouts in the post-Alan Eagleson NHLPA era.
Naturally owners loved it as players were their own worst enemies. But there is evidence in this RFA raffle that this modesty is about to start changing.
Despite the best efforts of owners to tie players down under strict caps, elite NBA players such as LeBron James and Steph Curry have begun assembling super teams to win titles. Taking slightly less to create a powerhouse they dominate the leagues for three or four years then move on to another promising situation.
As Toronto Raptors fans know all too well, Kawhi Leonard used the cred generated by leading the Raps to an NBA title over Curry’s Golden State Warriors to leap to the L.A. Clippers along with Paul George to create another possible steamroller team. While they take somewhat less in salary, the amounts they earn are still pushing the $30- 50 million level.
It’s a similar situation in MLB as rich teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers stretch the luxury tax to assemble star teams that win over 100 games in a season and then prosper in the playoffs. While traditional fans balk at this trend, TV networks, advertisers and the marriage with betting sites all show that the public in general is behind the “hot” teams, watching them in the millions and buying their products.
This shift highlights the attitude of younger consumers who are less interested in the crest-on- the-chest loyalty. Their interest lies in merger of sports celebrities and the star-making machine of the culture industry. They have no interest in Columbus versus Winnipeg on a freezing February night unless something more than a score is produced.
While Crosby is a star within the NHL’s tighknit culture, the casual fans are more interested in P.K. Subban being seen with Lindsay Vonn at the U.S. Open tennis Finals. The future of remuneration in a digital sports world will depend on hits online rather than hits on the court or the ice.
Leaving NHL superstars— who bring in the money— wondering why they’re still falling on their swords to preserve millions for the foot soldiers— who bring in none. While the NHL and NHLPA have agreed to extend the current CBA till 2022, the union is being roiled by internal dissent over the leadership of Donald Fehr.
None of these changes will be initiated by the ultra-conservative NHL— not so long as Gary Bettman draws breath. But they will be imposed by a digital future that puts style ahead of substance. It’s no reach to suggest that in 25 years the stars of sport will be hologram characters with the faces of real players licensed for eSports games.
So good luck to the Leafs this season. Enjoy Marner, Matthews & Co. while you have them. It won’t last forever.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available on brucedowbigginbooks.ca.