The Toronto Maple Leafs are close to making a roster move that will be one of its most controversial in years. Despite a debut season that has seen him chase Calder Trophy consideration and seen him eclipse freshman records, The Leafs Nation has learned that 19-year-old Mitch Marner will be loaned back to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League on Saturday afternoon.
The move sounds shocking at the surface, due to Marner’s performance throughout the year. In 71 games, the Thornhill native has scored 17 goals and a team rookie record 41 assists on a line with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk that has exceeded all expectations. But points aren’t the issue, according to our sources within the Leafs organization.
Presently speaking, the Leafs are proud of how Marner has produced to help the team get to within grasping difference of a clinched playoff spot, but are concerned about his playstyle and physical readiness to play postseason hockey. It can be argued that he’s already feeling the crunch, given that he’s scored just two goals in his last 17 games. Either way, the team feels the need to play a more serious game come springtime, and things like having options on the penalty kill and in the faceoff dot that are defensively responsible are what wins you championships. With that in mind, the Leafs feel that veteran Ben Smith is getting the short end of the lineup stick, drawing in for practices but less frequently than ever for games.
It’s believed that Sergei Kalinin will be called up to be Toronto’s “black ace” option after Smith’s integration back into the lineup. Josh Leivo is also an option if he heals up and the team needs scoring; it should be noted that his even strength points per sixty minutes is nearly 50% higher than Marner’s this season.
The move also better sets the team up for the future. The source says that assistant to the GM and CBA Expert Brandon Pridham has been looking for ways to maximize resources for next season, and found that by sending Marner down now, the Leafs avoid having his Schedule A bonuses count towards the Salary Cap and also open up a bonus protection in June’s Las Vegas Expansion Draft. The Leafs expect to use the spot on Eric Fehr, who impressed in his debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier this month but injured himself in the process. The Leafs would like to see more out of him, and this will ensure that they can.
The Leafs held off for as long as they possibly could to make this decision. While they would have preferred to wait until the next round of the OHL playoffs to make the move (the Knights beat the Windsor Spitfires tonight but still trail 3-2 in their series), the cutoff for assigning eligible players to Major Junior is at 3:00 PM Saturday. Expect the Leafs to make their official announcement close to that deadline.
But perhaps this was meant to be. By joining an uphill battle like this one, Marner can prove to the organization that he’s got the mindset to play playoff hockey at the NHL level. If the Knights get eliminated, he’ll be unable to rejoin the Leafs this season, though this does enable him to join the Toronto Marlies for their Calder Cup push as a fallback.
Personally, I feel that a move like this makes no sense. Marner is plenty capable of handling big game NHL hockey and is significantly more likely to contribute to the team than his fourth line, role player counterparts. Even Leivo likely has a hot stick helping him, so I wouldn’t consider him a sensible alternative. I also can’t see the cap and expansion gain to be meaningful enough and can’t imagine Marner has anything left to prove in junior. But our source was insistent that the team is making the right call.
“At the end of the day, you’re just going to have to trust us with this one,” the source said. “We know it’s an unusual situation, but we’ve done our due diligence and believe that this is the best decision from an on-ice and asset management perspective.”
“Would there be less skepticism if we did this in, say, mid-October instead of April? Perhaps. But given the situation, we’d be fools not to do it now.”