Yesterday on TSN’s Insider Trading segment, Bob McKenzie shared the beautiful news that the Leafs are beginning contract negotiations with Jake Muzzin. Normally the idea of the Leafs re-signing a 31 year old defenseman, as well as the idea of Kyle Dubas negotiating any kind of contract would be a cause for panic, but if anything has been abundantly clear over the past month, it’s that the Leafs need (a healthy) Jake Muzzin.

What does it look like it would cost the Leafs?

Well, looking back at some unrestricted free agent top four defensemen, it’s pretty clear that Muzzin could wind up making almost anything…

Player Age Team Term Cap Hit Date Signed
Josi 29 NAS 8 9.059 29-Oct-19
Faulk 27 STL 7 6.5 24-Sep-19
Spurgeon 29 MIN 7 7.575 14-Sep-19
Gardiner 29 CAR 4 4.05 6-Sep-19
Myers 29 VAN 6 6 1-Jul-19
Stralman 32 FLA 3 5.5 1-Jul-19
Edler 33 VAN 3 6 20-Jun-19
Karlsson 29 SJ 8 11.5 17-Jun-19
Schmidt 27 VEG 6 5.95 25-Oct-18
Ellis 27 NAS 8 6.25 14-Aug-18
Hjalmarsson 31 ARI 2 5 1-Jul-18
Johnson 31 PIT 5 3.25 1-Jul-18
Green 32 DET 2 5.375 30-Jun-18
Vlasic 30 SJ 8 7 1-Jul-17

It’s safe to say that Muzzin is not Josi or Karlsson, but cases can be made for similarities to a lot of other players on this list. The two most recent precedents of Alex Edler (3 yrs @ $6M) and Anton Stralman (3 years @ $5.5M) probably are a good starting point for consideration when looking at defensively minded defensemen in their 30s who are quite good at their jobs. A case can be made for Muzzin being the best of the three however, and there in lies the dilemma.

Of the 30+ year olds on this list, the range in cap hit goes from $5M (Hjalmarsson) to $7M (Vlasic). Vlasic also was signed to the maximum term of 8 years back when the deal was done in 2017. I would say that Vlasic in 2017 is better than Muzzin is today, and that might be the saving grace for taking eight years @ $7M off the table, but it’s also interesting to see how a player like Muzzin, who has been on a team friendly contract for so long, decides to approach this negotiation.

That Tyler Myers deal

It’s hard to imagine that every potential unrestricted free agent defenseman isn’t using that as their starting point, all with the statement “I’m much better than Tyler Myers.” I’m not sure how far that will get anyone, but it’s probably not a coincidence that Spurgeon, Faulk, and Josi all signed for above that Myers contract, and coincidentally, all three are much better than Tyler Myers and in the cases of Josi and Spurgeon, much better.

The advantage of the Leafs will have in any deal with Muzzin is his age. Even Myers six year deal was signed when Myers was 29. He’d hit free agency at 35 and that would be that. Muzzin’s only 4 years away, and potentially the Leafs can negotiate the certainty of employment into the deal by offering additional term, but not increasing the salary a heck of a lot.

It’s all about the term (and front loading)

In reality, the Leafs should want Jake Muzzin for four more years, at most. That’s already pushing it, but we’ll throw that out there. Four years around the same cap hit as Jared Spurgeon has at $7.5M would be perhaps a bitter pill to swallow, but arguably one the Leafs would need to given that beyond Muzzin the blueline is questionable defensively at best. So let’s say the Leafs value the first four years of a deal at $7.5M and the last four average out to around $2M. The Leafs would be offering a deal for around $38M and a cap hit of $4.75M, that all of a sudden looks very reasonable, at least to the Leafs, but let’s say that Muzzin is betting on himself, and thinks he’ll be better, perhaps you can make a case for pushing that to a $42M deal over 8 years, and a cap hit of $5.25M. Still not a terrifying risk for the Leafs to take on, especially if the cap continues upward, and with new television contracts, expansion, and a new CBA, anything seems possible.

Even beyond that, if the Leafs front load the deal paying most of the money up front, and dovetailing as steeply as the CBA allows, the Leafs would produce a contract that is potentially quite marketable in the later years, and as long as Muzzin isn’t overly concerned about being bought out near the end of the deal, it potentially could have that eject button as well. If he doesn’t want that, I guess I’m back to the drawing board.

I’m dreaming

Yeah. Affordable isn’t necessarily something in the cards, and Vlasic is probably the case and point. If the Leafs can get Muzzin around the price of Vlasic or Spurgeon, they should probably still go that route, but hopefully keep the term down in the process. There is also the small matter of looking at the free agent crop for this summer. While Alex Pietrangelo is the standout name on the list, it’s not too difficult to make a case for Muzzin being the second or third most appealing name after him. Finding bargains has not been the strong suit of Kyle Dubas, and nothing about the Leafs current situation says that they will be standing pat with what they have with their blueline.

It would be nice to see the Leafs push for a team friendly deal here, and leverage Muzzin’s age and term to do so, but reality is they need him and they will probably pay a premium to keep him.