All three of the Mitch Marner options can go right or wrong for the Maple Leafs

Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
14 days ago
Good luck trying to escape Mitch Marner talk for the next month. I spent May on a boat in the middle of the Pacific to try and run from the noise, but since coming back on land, the Marner conversation has been a shotgun blast to my ears. Given that the decision the Leafs will make on Marner will be their most significant decision regarding establishing the franchise’s direction, you can’t blame people for having an opinion.
The main thing going into this is that the Marner camp needs to be tuned out completely. If you are a Marner fan more than a Leafs fan maybe this doesn’t apply to you but none of this is about doing right by Mitch Marner. Kyle Dubas was about building partnerships with players and in theory that seemed great, but the Maple Leafs need a bit more tough love and no matter how talented Marner is, the Maple Leafs need to consider if spending north of $23M on the top two right wing roster spots is their best course of action. If they believed it was I’d imagine there would be more votes of confidence out there and the discussion would be more about contract extensions than potential trades. Nevertheless, extending Marner is a very real option for the Leafs and that’s the first one we’ll explore.

Re-signing Mitch Marner

Many answers to “How did the Leafs get into this mess?” begin with the current Marner contract. His contract was the last piece of big business before COVID-19 delivered Kyle Dubas and company a huge dose of buyer’s remorse. It’s not that Marner has ever been bad, in fact, he’s been about as good as you could ask for in the regular season and even while critics of his playoff appearances aren’t wrong to take issue, there needs to be a humble acknowledgment that paying Marner close to $11M a season doesn’t come with him magically putting on 20lbs of muscle, 2 extra inches, and redefining his game every May. Marner still plays his game and plays it well, it’s just less effective in a time of excessive line-matching, system prep, and tougher puck battles.
You could argue that Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs never found a way to put Marner in a place where he could be successful in the playoffs and that failing falls on the coach more than the player. That’s going too easy on Mitch, but there is a curiosity about how Craig Berube would deploy the current Leafs lineup vs. what we’ve seen.
The Leafs are also in a different salary cap reality than the COVID and post-COVID years have provided. The NHL is turning significant profits thanks to gambling revenue, expansion, and television contracts. The salary cap is increasing and suddenly paying 8-figures annually to star players is becoming the norm, as was expected when Marner signed. With John Tavares’ contract also expiring and not requiring the same financial commitment, the barriers to bringing him back shouldn’t be financial unless the contract ask is excessive (it very well could be.) The decision should be based on if he is still the best option for the Maple Leafs.
Re-signing Marner likely comes at a price tag of somewhere in between Nylander’s and Matthews’ cap hits, with a strong argument for it being much closer to Nylander than Matthews. Any attempts by Marner and his agent, Darren Ferris, to push the Leafs likely moves Toronto onto one of the other two options below.

Let Marner walk

This is understandably the least popular option while arguably being the most likely to occur. It is very likely that finding a suitable trade for Marner isn’t possible and it is also likely that a combination of the Leafs not wanting to give into Marner’s contract demands and the player’s desire to explore the open market to find the best fit for him will lead everyone to this point. Combine that with an active no-movement clause on Marner’s present deal and one more year of Mitch before seeing him walk is entirely likely.
The disastrous angle isn’t that Marner would be leaving for nothing in return. Believe me when I say that $11M in uncommitted cap space is one hell of an asset (in the right hands.) The disastrous angle is that it is the Leafs being non-committal and waiting a year before establishing the direction they want to go in. If Brad Treliving and Berube don’t see Marner in their best interest, it is worth moving mountains to find a way of getting him out of Toronto now. If they see Marner as an important part of the Leafs’ future, the best time to get him signed is on July 1st. There aren’t too many times in NHL history that waiting to sign a player has resulted in a better deal for the club.
The justifiable middle ground is Craig Berube wanting to try before they buy but there are a lot of risks that come with that.
The less justifiable reason is that Marner digs his heels in and won’t accept a trade to any location and either won’t negotiate a contract or put forth a reasonable contract demand. This is the approach that Marner camp seems to be leaning into as reports of contract and trade talks have been non-existent. You can’t fault the player and his agent for using this to their advantage and whether he likes it or not, Brad Treliving will need to be the party that establishes the intentions about Marner’s future publicly.

Is it time to trade Mitch Marner?

Trading Marner has the most vocal support behind it at the moment. Another failure to deliver in the playoffs is in recent memory and the need to improve defence and goaltending, while possibly having the cap space to retain players like Max Domi and Tyler Bertuzzi has appeal. I’m not sure whether that is still enough to justify shopping a player, and I have personally been trying to make a case for the Leafs shopping for the past three seasons.
Moving Marner shouldn’t be about Marner as much as it is about putting urgency to the Leafs going in the direction of a more balanced lineup. And there is a sense of irony in making this case at the point when the Oilers are proving that star offensive players can carry you to the Stanley Cup Finals even with defensive and goaltending shortcomings. (For what it’s worth, Mattias Ekholm doesn’t receive enough credit when it comes to the Oilers’ success.)
Moving on from Marner needs to be about the Leafs receiving a return that improves the team not rage quitting on a player. If moving Marner gives the Leafs a star goaltender, a top pairing defenceman, a 2nd line centre that could allow for more flexibility with John Tavares, or a combination of futures that can turn into one of those things along with the cap space to address those areas now, the Leafs should listen to offers. Of course, they can listen to those offers all they want but it won’t do them any good if Marner won’t go to that team. If he is willing to accept a trade he might limit the Leafs to only one team, and in that scenario, the Leafs need to weigh the value of what they are offered against having him for one year and $11M in cap space next summer. It’s entirely possible that the Leafs won’t see an offer that tops doing nothing. The Leafs don’t have to lose a Marner trade.
In reality, if the Leafs move Mitch Marner, they’ll lose that trade and they’ll have to be fine with that. Marner is going to go on to have a great career and while the Leafs might acquire someone who helps address a need, they probably won’t be a perennial all-star or it will require some work to get them there. The return on Marner will be the combination of that decent asset, flexibility, and the allowance for the organization to move in the direction that feels best for them immediately rather than waiting. If you can see all of that in the deal then you can at least talk yourself out of the fact the Leafs lost the deal.

So what’s the best option?

The easy answer and only correct answer is that it depends. All of the options come with toggles that impact the Leafs’ ability to improve their team and without a starting point when it comes to a trade offer or contract offer, the question is just whether or not you want Mitch Marner to be a Leaf next season. For me, that answer is also, “it depends.” I personally think the Leafs spend too much on the combination of Marner and Nylander, but I can also say that I don’t carry the confidence in Treliving to execute a trade or a contract of this magnitude.
If you want to look at this from an optimist’s perspective the Leafs will either have a 90-point winger or be heading in an exciting new direction next season. Of course, you could also be the pessimist and say the Leafs are running it back again or dealt Marner for pennies on the dollar. There is no right answer…yet.

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