Every once in a while you just come across a headline that grabs you. On December 5, Sportsnet put out an article that reported that the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon agreed that he was on a team-friendly contract now, and he would sign another team-friendly contract when this one is completed. Why? Because he’s committed to his team and he wants to win with the teammates he has.
That strikes me as the kind of attitude that actually helps build teams that are efficacious and successful. And, the Colorado Avalanche proved that in Wednesday night’s victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although it was a really fine hockey game and either team could have won, in fact, it was the Avalanche that pulled out the victory.
Who’s to say that the kind of team-first mentality implicit in MacKinnon’s statement doesn’t go a good distance towards cementing the success of his team? I’m thinking it must. That kind of team-first philosophy motivates players to play for each other and to put their teammates first.
And, by contrast, who’s to say that the kind of personal avarice so implicit in the salary negotiations with the Maple Leafs stars (Mitch Marner and William Nylander come to mind first because their contract negotiations were so public) doesn’t go a long way into creating a culture on that team that militates against the team’s success at the expense of the team’s salaries?
What Wasn’t Said in Mitch Marner’s Negotiations
The upper limit of the National Hockey League’s salary cap is finite. In other words, there’s only so much money to go around when signing all the players on the roster of any NHL team. Specifically, in terms of the Maple Leafs, the roster contains four players who take up almost 1/2 of the entire just over $81.5 million salary cap’s upper limit. Those players are John Taveras, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander.
That also means that about 17 to 19 players have to split the other $41 million salary that’s leftover as part of the cap’s upper limit. In other words, there is no other way to build a team like the Maple Leafs without having an upstairs and downstairs salary-cap structure. By that I mean a few players live in the penthouse making oodles of money, and the rest live – well – somewhere else.
And in fact, it’s true with the Maple Leafs. The team is compiled of many players who are making the NHL’s league minimum; and, at the same time, a small number of players making maximum salaries.
What wasn’t said much during the Mitch Marler negotiations was that every dollar that went into his contract had to be taken from somebody else’s salary. Again, specifically, that meant with the Maple Leafs that useful players who could have added value to a team had to be let go so that Marner could be signed. Connor Brown, for example, is playing well in Ottawa.
But, Does the Maple Leafs’ Salary Structure Impact Team Chemistry?
Having coached and played on team sports before, one of the things I know is that if you hope to maximize team chemistry and health, you never throw your teammates under the bus. Regardless of the talent level of any particular teammate, in the end the team’s success matters the most.
What I simply cannot get my head around as a logical person who’s studied team-building and community-building as an academic area is how any single person – say Mitch Marner, for example, although it could be others too – can be both individually focused on his own salary and focused on team success both at the same time. And, I wonder if, in the end, that sort of selfishness (I’m not sure what else to call it) hasn’t led to the sort of disruptive lack of success we see on the Maple Leafs roster.
Examples from Other Teams
Let’s take a look at two other successful teams. One is the Boston Bruins; and, the other is the Colorado Avalanche.
In terms of the Boston Bruins, two of their stars – David Pastrnak and linemate Brad Marchand – both are playing on salaries that are lower than any of the four Maple Leafs big four. Pastrnak, who already has 25 goals this season, is signed at $6.67 million per season. Marchand is signed it $6.13 million.
In terms of the Avalanche, their standout Nathan MacKinnon has the third-most points in the NHL even though he’s basically playing on a line without other stars. MacKinnon is signed at $6.3 million this season. Last season MacKinnon had 41 goals and 99 points. That’s more than any of the Maple Leafs big four scored.
MacKinnon knows his contract is a bargain. As he noted, “Obviously it’s pretty (team) friendly now, but I was worth that at the time … I have no regrets.” But what does MacKinnon think about his team’s signing of fellow star Mikko Rantanen to a market value deal at $55.5 million per season? That’s more than $3 million more than MacKinnon makes each year.
His answer is odd in this day of high-salaried NHL players who threaten and hold out for more money. He noted about players making more money than he does, “We have guys that we wouldn’t (otherwise) be able to bring in.”
Then MacKinnon dropped a bombshell. He also said, “On my next deal, I’ll take less again. Because I want to win with this group.”
Considering the Big Picture
No doubt, when contrasting MacKinnon’s attitude with the attitude of some Maple Leafs players, McKinnon might seem naïve to many. Why sign for $6.3 million, when you could get $9.3? Certainly, that extra $3 million per season would go a long way in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, where both MacKinnon and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby live in the offseason. (I was being cheeky if you couldn’t tell.)
Here’s my question. Does MacKinnon’s attitude, as opposed to the attitude of Mitch Marner particularly, offer his team a greater chance of winning the NHL’s Stanley Cup?
Honestly, I cannot but think it does. As I noted, I simply don’t believe a star NHL player can pursue both individual salary goals and his team’s winning goals both at the same time.
I could be very wrong, and that might take a couple of years to find out if I am, but I’m certainly pondering the question as I watch what’s happening with the Maple Leafs this season. I’m also rooting for MacKinnon to have a great season.
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