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Photo Credit: © Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Mitch Marner is Not (and Has Never Been) Disrespected

Throughout his first three seasons as a Toronto Maple Leaf, Mitch Marner accrued a level of goodwill amongst the fanbase that has rarely ever been seen. This Marner praise was practically universal in its scope, too. And why wouldn’t it be? The kid was so easy to love.

Within a city so acutely well-versed on eating its own, Marner was different. He was untouchable.

Not anymore, that is. That goodwill is gone.

Listen, we could argue for days over whether Marner is truly worth the outlandish price he’s asking for (spoiler alert: he isn’t), but that wouldn’t really accomplish much, would it? It’s a point everyone has hammered home all summer long. What more is there really left to say?

So, rather than banging my head against a wall for the *checks calendar* sixth month in a row, I instead want to delve into the reported foundation of “disrespect” the Marner camp has built their negotiating platform upon.

And by “delve into”, I mean “explain how it’s entirely fictional”.

Schedule B

Contract negotiation has never been easy for Marner. Not even from the beginning.

Once brushed off as pure speculation, the reported anger felt by Marner (or his camp) upon being denied the opportunity to earn schedule B bonuses back in 2015 is now, after today, confirmed to be a sticking point in his current talks.

You heard it straight from the source himself, even. (Hi, Paul!)

Should the Leafs have just given Marner’s ELC its “Schedule B”s at the time? Honestly, yes.

“Schedule B” bonuses are not irregular stipulations. In fact, these incentives are more or less standard procedure for top prospects in the modern NHL. Why was Marner expected to be any different? For what appeared to be no logical reason, the Maple Leafs were actively denying one of their best young players the same compensation opportunities as his peers.

Marner had a right to be frustrated. At the time, it was justified.

AT THE TIME, that is. You see, there was far more at play here than a stingy front office.

The Maple Leafs looked markedly different four years ago. Namely, Lou Lamoriello sat in the general manager’s chair and, by all accounts, was behind the decision to withhold Marner from his bonuses as a byproduct of his equally inexplicable and immovable principles.

In Lou’s mind, handing these bonuses out to his players only incentivized them to compete against each other. Hockey is a TEAM sport, dammit! It doesn’t quibble with abject luxuries like “personal gain” or “financial security”. And while a rational human might argue that rewarding players for goal-scoring actually motivates them to, you know, score goals, Lou is the Hockey Man™, after all. His word is law.

Marner wasn’t going to erode 20-plus years of stubbornness. In fact, so willing was Lamoriello to die on Mount Bonus that, back in 2011, he even managed to convince Adam Larsson — a former fourth-overall pick like Marner, by the way — to cave and accept an ELC lacking them, completely bucking the precedent at the time.

In a similarly unexpected move, Lamoriello then departed from his typical demeanour and lauded Larsson publically for putting the team above himself shortly after the deal was signed. Regardless of its merit, this issue clearly mattered to him.

What does it mean, though? Well, it provides context.

Yes, Marner was assuredly entitled to receive “schedule B” bonus opportunities. Players of his stature had done so for years. But that doesn’t mean the Maple Leafs made him the victim of the directed attack he’s painted it as, either. Lamoriello had just never handed out these bonuses before. Why would he start now?.

Really, all Lamoriello was doing here was making his own comparable. It’s funny how that works.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Maple Leafs no longer employ Lamoriello. He’s with the Islanders now, leaving Toronto back in May of 2018 and taking with him the laundry list of rules and regulations he lorded over the organization during his three years at the helm.

Therefore: the person responsible for Marner’s feelings of disrespect is gone. He has been for over a calendar year. And at a time when Marner must now negotiate for himself a new contract, the seat that once housed the apparent root of his displeasure is now occupied by Kyle “Mr Player Empowerment” Dubas, an executive whose organizational philosophy hinges upon a collective freedom of expression.

We’ll never know with abject certainty whether Marner’s “schedule B” embargo was a Lou-specific mandate. But if it was — and given the two decades of precedent on display, it’s not exactly a stretch — you’d think that any lingering feelings on the matter would be associated with Lamoriello, not the Maple Leafs.

Of course, that doesn’t appear to be the case. At least, not enough to shoot down the temptation of an offer sheet.

Ice Time

Another source of the Marner camp’s contention seems to centre around the topic of ice time; specifically, how little the team gave Mitch in his rookie year.

Let’s make something very clear right off the hop: the Maple Leafs have subjected Marner to few, if any, legitimate hardships during their time together. This bonus issue, though, is a rare instance that appears to hold water. Marner’s displeasure was at least derived from a situation that was tangible. He wanted something, had more than enough reason to want it, and the Leafs ultimately didn’t give it to him. That’s fine.

This supposed lack of freshman ice time, on the other hand, doesn’t pass the same test.

Marner’s rookie campaign with the Maple Leafs came back in 2016-17, a year that management had perceived to be the second of their overarching five-year rebuild. Of course, that’s not how things played out.

Those Leafs exceeded every expectation set before them, earned a surprise playoff spot at year’s end, and catapulted themselves into the contention window they currently sit inside thanks to the performances of their promising young stars — Marner included.

What made the 2016-17 Leafs so unprecedented, aside from their dramatic single-season turnaround, was how they deployed the eight (!) rookies littering their roster. Most teams — and especially those coached by Mike Babcock — don’t typically hand the keys over to the kids quite so soon. There’s usually an adjustment period at first, one comprised of some egregiously sheltered minutes to foster confidence and only then followed by an uptick in responsibility once it becomes clear that that trust has been earned.

The Leafs didn’t seem to care about any of that, to their credit.

Of the five Leaf forwards with the highest average ice time that season, three of them were rookies and one of those three happened to be Marner. In fact, the 16:49 Marner saw on a nightly basis earned him the third-largest workload of the entire forward corps, exceeding those of similarly key pieces like William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk.

It’s not as if those minutes were increased gradually over the season, either. On the contrary, Toronto’s coaching staff threw Marner out for 17:36 in his first-ever NHL game — Matthews logged 17:37, if that matters to you — and proceeded to hold him under the 15-minute mark a mere 12 out of the 77 games he would play.

Were these meaningful minutes, though? If Marner was indeed a key pillar of the Leafs’ roster, one would hope they provided him with the necessary avenues to display his immense talent. So, did they?

The short answer: Yes. Yes, they did.

In 2016-17, Marner logged a total of 183:34 in ice time on the man advantage, a workload which put him on par with Bozak (184:52) and van Riemsdyk’s (197:48) and above that of Kadri (179:10), per Natural Stat Trick. Keep in mind, Marner was a ROOKIE at this time, an undersized teenager making his way in a league that had only just begun to transition toward that archetype.

In a different environment, there’s a good chance Marner is, in fact, withheld from the opportunities the Leafs otherwise afforded to him. Under a different management group, perhaps he falls victim to a set-in-his-ways coach not yet willing to adopt modern ideals.

Similar situations have happened before. Just, not to Marner.

In the years following his rookie campaign, Marner never finished a season lower than second on the Maple Leafs roster when it came to powerplay minutes. The team even went about gearing its situational attack to run primarily through him, installing Marner as the central distributor on their top PP unit while simultaneously heaping more responsibility onto his plate last season via a new role on the penalty kill, too.

Barring the unexpected discovery of a fourth realm in addition to those of shorthanded, power play and even strength, Marner plays a vital role in all three and, when it comes the latter two, has done so since he first entered the league.

Oh, and who can forget the fact that Marner happens to be coming off a career-best season in which, from the introductory press conference, the coaching staff placed him alongside a borderline generational talent in John Tavares.

The Matthews Comparable

This is the Marner camp’s final trump card.

Despite not playing an active part in the proceedings, Auston Matthews is otherwise considered to be the most important figure of the Marner negotiations. Every number, every stipulation, and every bonus structure presented to Marner and his representatives is run through the “Matthews filter” first before anything else, and then summarily rejected when it evitably (and rightfully) fails to hold up.

This is not speculation. This is a fact.

Of course, comparing these two cannot be done without first acknowledging that Matthews’ respective position, offensive production, and accolades put him in line for a larger compensation raise.

The NHL’s free-agent market is one that is, at this moment, designed to handsomely reward two specific archetypes: centres and goal-scorers. Matthews just so happens to check both boxes, having scored the most even-strength goals in the entire league since he first entered it, and doing it all while playing centre.

Marner, on the other hand, falls into hockey’s most plentiful position group and specializes in what is arguably its most widely-available offensive skill. To an outside observer, the argument for Marner to command a Matthews-sized paycheck simply doesn’t exist.

But the Marner camp is not an outside observer. Their perspective is on the inside. So, in order to get a true read on the matter, let’s look inward.

Here is a list of the five most common linemates Marner has been given throughout his time in the NHL: Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, John Tavares, Zach Hyman, and Patrick Marleau.

Comparatively, here is that same list, only applied to Matthews: Zach Hyman, William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, and Patrick Marleau.

Do you notice any differences?

Ignoring the obvious overlaps, the results here demonstrate a concerted effort by Toronto to surround Marner with a support staff of a top-ten NHL centre, a powerplay weapon, a 500-goal scorer, and a perennial 40-to-50-point centre. Matthews got Connor Brown.

In fact, given how the negotiations have played out to this point, one could even suggest that the Marner camp would be using his perennially subpar cast of linemates as yet another arrow in their arsenal of inferiority, were these roles reversed. At the very least, it’s an argument that holds merit.

Then there’s the matter of usage.

Over the past three seasons, the Leafs have used Marner more on the power play than Matthews, expanded his role to the penalty kill in a way they haven’t with Matthews and, in 2018-19, sent Marner over the boards for a full minute more on average than Matthews was — 19:41 for Mitch; 18:33 for Auston —  including more than two extra minutes during that infamous (and most recent) Game Seven.

Going purely off of the numbers, this does not appear to be a case of favouritism.

And yet, despite logging fewer minutes, playing fewer games, and carrying his own line made up of Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson at times, Matthews still managed to score more goals than Marner has at any point in his NHL career while also falling a mere two goals shy of Marner’s final total from his record-breaking final season in Junior.

But, what of the matters aside from hockey? Have the Leafs given both players equal consideration there?

Well, aside from initially easing them in as public figures during their shared rookie season, MLSE appears to have granted both Marner and Matthews equal leeway when it comes to pursuing income opportunities outside of the organization.

According to Forbes, Matthews has partnerships with Scotiabank, Bauer, Upper Deck and Fanatics. Marner, on the other hand, has compiled a roster of endorsement partnerships for himself the likes of which are unprecedented by a Leaf. He’s on every billboard, at every commercial break, and behind every sponsored Instagram post within the Greater Toronto Area. He’s earned it. No one will argue with that.

That being said, if this is a matter of unfair freedom, then Marner’s argument fails to hold up once again.

Negotiations are predicated upon the allure of leverage, and leverage rarely ever falls in line with the facts.

At this moment, neither one is on Marner’s side. The clock is ticking. At a certain point, regardless of the parties at hand, emotions must be pushed aside to allow reality to enter the room. Marner has now reached that point.

And if he intends to keep operating via his camp’s feelings of disrespect, then Marner may not like what his reality has to say.