The Maple Leafs have their problems, but paying their good players isn’t one of them

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The free-agent apocalypse that was going to arrive in Toronto next summer has apparently disappeared. Before last summer, Auston Matthews and William Nylander were a season away from unrestricted free agency, and John Tavares and Mitch Marner were two years away. The latter two are still in that spot, but now both Nylander and Matthews are locked up, with the news today that the Leafs inked Nylander to an eight-year, $92 million extension that kicks in next season.

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This will lead to a lot of focus and a lot of barbs aimed at THE BIG 4 come the spring, as they’ve collectively come up with one playoff series win in their entire time together. When a player is paid the most, they’re always in the spotlight, that’s how it goes. And when it goes wrong in April or May, as it likely will because it only goes well for one team, you can bet all the scribes and radio hosts in The Six have their targets already picked, their monologues written, about how Matthews and his 70 goals this year isn’t a winning player or that having stars is not a way to win a Cup, and a team has to do it through a collection of guys no one’s ever heard of because “they want it more.” It’s coming.

It’s also horsesh*t.

The Leafs’ problems aren’t because they have too many top-tier players. And Nylander’s contract isn’t going to be any more of a millstone than any other players who are making eight figures across the league, as long as they produce like those players. Nylander certainly has this season, despite his lack of previous individual accolades. Matthews may take a run at 70, but it’s Nylander who is top-five in scoring while playing on the second line with Tavares and an if-he-only-had-a-brain Tyler Bertuzzi. Watch the Leafs any game and see who jumps off the screen every shift. It’s Nylander.

While the Leafs will be the only team with four $10+ million players, there are a couple factors to remember. One, the salary cap will finally go up after this season to provide a little more breathing room. Two, TJ Brodei’s dumpy ass will come off the books for $5 million of relief, and so will the unconscionable contracts to Bertuzzi and Max Domi for another $8 million of space. That should be enough to do whatever needs to be done.

And one need look no further than contracts handed out to doofuses like Bertuzzi or Brodie or Domi to understand why the Leafs never get to the business end of the playoffs. Sure, Matthews and Nylander and Marner haven’t produced regular season numbers in the playoffs, or rarely have, but that’s how the playoffs go. Rarely do the stars produce for every game through four rounds. At some point, the backing crew has to come through. The argument has always been that the Leafs are paying those four players too much to get that type of player or a few of them. But Bertuzzi is making $5 million. So is Brodie. Domi is making $3 million. There are plenty of other players at those prices who can produce in the spring. The Leafs, whether it was Kyle Dubas as GM or now Brad Treliving, just haven’t been able to find them.

No matter what they’re paying Nylander now, he can’t make their defense faster and the Leafs have always opted for plodding road graters behind Morgan Rielly, who might not be a No.1 d-man anyway. The Knights boasted Shea Theodore on their second pairing. The Avalanche had like four puck-movers in 2022. The Lightning had Mikhail Sergachev behind Victor Hedman. It’s not a hard formula to crack. And yet the Leafs keep tossing the likes of Jake McCabe out there with a straight face. Or maybe they have the right idea and the wrong solution, like the rotting corpse of John Klingberg, whom they had to embalm a quarter of the way through this season.

The Leafs also haven’t been able to produce anyone to contribute through their own system, and cheaply, since that first wave of kids produced these stars that they’re now paying. Matthew Knies is about the only one. Even if they’re drafting in the 20s most years and given up picks for deadline pickups, a team has to hit on some of them. The Leafs haven’t.

The Leafs have what every other team is looking for, and that’s really good players. Teams tank for the right to draft just one of the four the Leafs have. Rebuilds are about collecting top-end picks to get more of them. All the other questions don’t matter until a team has the top ranks filled out.

Nylander won’t be the Leafs’ problem no matter what happens in the spring. Whatever else they might do, the Leafs are right in figuring that much out.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky @Felsgate.bsky.social

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