A lot has changed for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the last five years.
In 2014, the team had collapsed in epic fashion for the third season in a row when Brendan Shanahan was handed the keys to the team and promised real and legitimate change. The Leafs selecting the smooth-skating, skilled William Nylander in that year’s draft was just a preview of things to come. Shanahan overhauled the hockey operations staff the very next summer; Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter, who had had very successful OHL careers with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds and the London Knights respectively, would split the role of GM, and Mike Babcock was named head coach. One of the first big tasks of the new brain-trust was to figure out who to draft in the soon-to-be-legendary 2015 Entry Draft. That draft was chock full of blue-chip prospects who could change the fate of a team and the Leafs had the fourth pick and knew they’d get one hell of a player. Edmonton had already snatched up phenom Connor McDavid with the first pick, Buffalo would take Jack Eichel with the second pick, and the Coyotes played it safe (but not necessarily smart) by selecting Dylan Strome with pick number three. Arizona’s want for that stereotypical big, number one centre left one of the greatest talents of the draft available on a silver platter for the Leafs. Hunter already had tons of knowledge on the player as he was a top talent on his Knights team, despite his diminutive size. He proudly stepped up to the podium and announced Mitch Marner as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And fans couldn’t have been happier.
As the Leafs attempted to bottom out that next season, the decision was made to send Marner back to his junior club in London. This opened an opportunity for him to represent Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships; Canada would eventually lose in the quarter-finals to the eventual champions, Finland, but Marner had a strong showing tying for the team lead in goals and points with Dylan Strome. However, there was another prize within grasp. Marner’s Knights would tie with Strome’s Erie Otters for the best regular season record in the OHL that year, and had eyes on winning the Memorial Cup. The two teams would roll through the first two rounds of the OHL playoffs and eventually faced off in the western conference finals. Marner scored five goals and seven assists, while Strome only had three assists as the Knights steamrolled the Otters with a quick four-to-nothing sweep. The London Knights would not lose another game en route to a Memorial Cup victory with Marner scoring two goals and twelve assists in the Knights’ 4-0 run through the Memorial Cup tournament. Local fan expectations were high, as there was reasonable belief that Marner was a budding star in the making.
The start of the 2016-2017 season was the real beginning of a youth movement for the Leafs. Marner would win a job playing alongside the offensively-talented James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, and would even find a spot quarterbacking the team’s best power-play unit. Marner was one of six rookies who became a starter on that year’s squad, including first-overall pick Auston Matthews, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev and Nylander. Marner tied for third in team scoring and was third in rookie scoring with 61 points (19 G, 42 A), which earned him a spot on the All-Rookie team alongside teammate and eventual Calder Trophy winner Matthews. The team would qualify for the last wild card spot in the East but would lose to the top-seeded Washington Capitals in six games, where Marner often struggled but managed to score a goal and add three assists. Marner and Matthews were now the most popular players on a young and exciting Leafs team; 16 and 34 jerseys were commonplace just as Maple Leaf Gardens was full of 17 and 93 jerseys a quarter century ago.
Marner was able to ride this momentum into the next season. Matthews, who led the team in scoring the previous year, missed twenty games due to injury and Marner was able to step up in his place. Marner eclipsed his previous years’ totals in goals (22), assists (47) and points (69), and would become the team’s leading point scorer. The Leafs finished third in the Atlantic division and ran into the Boston Bruins during the opening round of the playoffs, where the team would go on to lose in seven bitterly contested games. Marner was a one of the few bright spots for fans after another disappointing first-round exit, scoring two goals and three assists. Friendly debate surrounding whether Matthews or Marner was a better player was commonplace, with Marner’s defenders citing his craftiness, playmaking and strong two-way play as his best qualities.
Going into Marner’s third season, reality was about to set in. Mitch was about to go into his third and final year of an entry-level contract and was a season away from needing a new one. There was talk of Marner signing an eight-year deal at $8 million per, as Marner was getting ready to skate alongside his new teammate in John Tavares. Nylander was noticeably absent at the start of training camp as his negotiations on his second contract remained at a standstill. It was no secret that Nylander wanted around $7 million a season, but the Leafs refused to budge. All the while, the season would get underway and the Leafs were off to a hot start with Marner’s role on the team growing steadily with every passing game. Not only was he the first over the boards for the power-play, but now one of the first to come out for the penalty-kill. Not only did Marner perform satisfactorily on the PK, but by season’s end was arguably the best penalty-killing forward on the team. Nylander would eventually get his money and return to the team after signing minutes before the restricted free-agent deadline on December 15th.
Willie looked out of sorts in his first 19 games, scoring only three points, and his critics were firing on all cylinders, calling him greedy and self-centered for holding out, extremely disappointed with his profound lack of production. Matthews would avoid this problem altogether, signing a five-year deal worth over $58 million that would make him an unrestricted free agent in 2024. Marner would smash his previous year’s totals, finishing with 94 points (26 G, 68 A), but the Leafs stumbled down the stretch, and again finished third in the Atlantic with a match-up with the Bruins. The Hyman-Tavares-Marner line was given a tough task, being matched up against the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak “perfection” line. Marner’s line was not in peak form, and the team’s power-play failed to produce. Marner was only able to score four points (2G, 2A) in that series, and once again the Leafs were stymied by the Bruins in seven games.
The honeymoon with Marner was now officially over. A third first-round playoff exit for a third year in a row left fans bitter and on the offensive. I hear all the time how one of Marner’s comparables is Nikita Kucherov in Tampa Bay, who has a cap hit of $9.5 million and anything over that should be considered rightfully insane. It’s easy to forget that there’s no state tax in Florida, so the economics of the Leafs’ and Lightning’s salary cap situations are very different. That’s not to say the Buds don’t have advantages of their own, as with flexing their financial muscles to offer higher signing bonuses, and can front-load contracts with stunning ease. It’s easy to get lost in your own team’s problems, but when you take a step back, you realize there are a bunch of elite players coming off their entry-level deals and are still searching for their second contract. It seems like all these players are simply waiting for the first domino to fall, so that they could potentially use it as leverage in their negotiations. The only exception to this has been Sebastian Aho, who signed an offer sheet with the Montreal Canadiens, only to have it matched by the Carolina Hurricanes a day later. At the end of the day, the big issue is only partially about money, but it’s more about respect. Marner knows he’s more on the level of Matthews than Nylander when it comes to how innately valuable of a player he is. The Leafs have limited cap space, and fitting in Marner, along with Matthews, Tavares and Nylander was never going to be an easy task.
It’s not all bad news; there are options for Dubas and his management team. There was a scoop that Marner was not interested in an eight-year deal, and there is even talk that Mitch could sign a two-year bridge deal this summer. Marner and his camp would probably not take too well to being a casualty of the salary cap, so it’s going to be interesting to watch this saga play out. It’s pretty obvious that Marner will not be signing a five-year deal, as having Auston, Mitch and Willie all expire in 2024 would not bode well for the team. The Leafs cap situation would make a long-term deal very difficult anyways; Marner might have to take a two, three or four-year deal for the time being, and cash in later. He has been one of the most productive Leafs for the past few seasons and deserves every penny he’ll ever make in the league. In any case, let’s just hope that this negotiation doesn’t get ugly and bleed into the regular season like Nylander’s situation last year. Leafs Nation would consider that an unacceptable disaster.