Mitch Marner: Trade him, let him walk, or keep him forever?

Photo credit:Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
5 months ago
This isn’t a post for die hard Mitch Marner fans. I know where you stand and in many ways the things you have to say about Mitch are unquestionably true. He is an absolute elite talent and one of the top wingers in the game. He has the ability to set up plays that few people in the world can make and he’s someone you can generally trust in all situations, and he’ll finish the year with 25+ goals and 90+ points. Yeah, Mitch Marner is one hell of a player.
This isn’t a post for people who have been calling Mitch Marner “pillow soft” for the entirety of his time with the Leafs either and demanding he be traded. We’ll certainly explore some of those ideas including the decline in his defensive numbers this year and how his playmaking loses some of its muster when everyone knows he’s looking for Auston and no one else, but the reality is he’s a supremely talented player and if the Leafs moved on from him, they’d be worse. Of course, they’d also be different, and I can appreciate the allure of the mystery box as well.
Mitch Marner is absolutely a complicated situation and with both Auston Matthews and William Nylander signed, and John Tavares likely to return as a cheaper option (or not at all) the core four forward that now has their future spotlighted is Mitch Marner and the 2023 playoffs and the 2023-24 season haven’t been as kind to him as his boxscore numbers show.
Recently in an article for The Athletic, Shayna Goldman highlighted the biggest differences seen with Mitch this season:
…the Leafs creating less in Marner’s minutes compared to previous seasons, but it’s also relative to his teammates this season. He’s rarely had a negative influence on his team’s expected goal creation, but this year it’s down to minus-0.17 per 60.
Shayna also highlights the drop in point production and that Marner is still achieving results, but they are masked by situation and increased icetime.
The article doesn’t touch on the decreased success on the penalty kill, but newcomers to the PK like Noah Gregor, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, etc. have all outperformed Marner and Kampf allowing fewer GA/60. This is also heavily influenced by Marner more often seeing the opposition’s top powerplay unit, but that key area of success for Mitch has dried up this season. As has his overall defensive play:
Considering that Auston Matthews is in the 96th percentile this season, and Marner was in the 93rd percentile last season, with Selke considerations, this is a very notable drop off and one that opens up some discussion around how committed the Leafs should be to Mitch Marner going forward. Again, if you are looking at his offence and still very respectable defensive outputs, the answer should absolutely be, “yes, you keep Mitch Marner, why even question it? ” But the reality is it isn’t about looking at Mitch Marner in isolation, it’s about looking at what is best for the Maple Leafs going forward and that water becomes muddied with things like salary caps and changes in organization philosophy.

The Salary Cap

We’ll start with looking at the obvious one first and that’s the salary cap. If you don’t overthink it too much the Leafs have around $22M in cap space next season with Mitch Marner signed. As the roster sits today the Leafs have 12 NHL players signed and have notable re-signs or replacements required for Bertuzzi, Domi, Brodie, Samsonov, Liljegren, and Klingberg. Simply put that’s 3 top four defencemen, 2 top six forwards, and a tandem goaltender. And if the Leafs went with the minimal 20 player roster, they’d be able to spend around $2.75M per vacancy or $3.3M per vacancy if you assume that Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan address a couple of the roster holes. Now the Leafs can certainly work with that and I’ve ignored the multitude of other options the Leafs could take on to shuffle players around to make things work but the reality is the Leafs would very much be coming back with Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly as who they are living and dying by and the hope would be for breakout performances from some of the new faces.
A year out when Marner’s contract expires the Leafs will likely be faced with a raise for Mitch, but a decreased amount spent on John Tavares. The catch being that the Leafs will also need to plan around a smaller role for Tavares as well. Even if Marner is looking “small raise” of a couple million dollars to keep him out ahead of William Nylander, the Leafs would be dealing with addressing other roster holes in a free agent market that would certainly experience increasing paydays and would have the next Woll contract and Knies contract that would need to be factored in as well potentially. At least for the next two summers the salary cap doesn’t allow for the Leafs a chance to get ahead as much as it allows the maintenance of the status quo. Maybe three summers from now the Leafs can unlock more of their true spending potential but it becomes a question of patience and aging, and I’d suggest the Leafs might be better off with more aggressive implementation of change.

Organization Philosophy a.k.a. the Shanaplan

The Leafs did a lot of things right with their Shanaplan approach and in some ways they became a victim of things beyond their control. The Leafs locked into a core at competitive rates that would keep them happy not knowing that the salary cap would go flat due to a global pandemic. Asking hockey men to plan for players aging seems to be asking a lot of them, asking them to anticipate a global crisis is beyond absurd. The fact that the salary cap is rising just in time for the Leafs to spend all of their newly found available money on the core once more is a mixed blessing in that retention is possible but once again the ability to improve the roster through spending is stalled.
The Shanaplan was about Toronto having the luxury to go all-in on skill and if you are going to overload on one thing, that’s certainly the thing to target but the team has struggled to build a supporting cast that allows for confidence in defence, goaltending, physical play, or secondary scoring and that helps make a case for balance as opposed to being top heavy.

The “other” factors

When talking about Mitch Marner there is also the challenge he faces when confronted with criticism that never seems to be an issue for Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, or John Tavares, nor was it much of an issue for past stars like Phil Kessel or Mats Sundin. Marner seems to take issue with criticism whether it was the recent defence of Samsonov saying that “it’s not fun when everyone is against you” fully ignoring the fact that people rightfully have high expectations of this team or stating that they’ve been “playing excellent hockey” when consistently blowing two goal leads, or the extent that the Leafs players and organization went to shield Marner from criticism during the playoffs. While I don’t think you can call an elite NHL player anything other than driven, his responses come across as excuses and lacking interest in going beyond what he is currently giving. That might not be the best reason to give up on a star player, but it is undeniably why there will be fewer people in the comment section disagreeing with a post exploring the idea of a Leafs team without Mitch Marner.

The no movement clause

Marner doesn’t have to go anywhere if he doesn’t want to between now and the summer of 2025. And while this is being written with certainly a hint of the Leafs should begin listening to whether teams are interested in Marner heading into the trade deadline, the reality is that the no movement clause and $11M of salary make it something that is doable in a way that doesn’t make the Leafs significantly worse heading into the final stretch of the season and playoffs. Marner is something to revisit in the summer and potentially after Darren Ferris has communicated his expectations for the next contract.
The Maple Leafs have put themselves in a situation where they have Matthews, Rielly, and Nylander under contract and the pressure is lower for what comes next with Tavares and Marner. If Marner and Tavares don’t handcuff the Leafs from a salary perspective moving forward, the aged core might still make sense.
If things don’t look so rosy, Marner wouldn’t be the first player with a full no movement clause to be traded and there is a lot the Leafs can explore in that regard.
If nothing can be worked out on a contract front or a trade front, Mitch Marner going to the end of the term of his deal and departing isn’t the end of the world for the Leafs either. While it would be nice if there was a path forward that resulted in the Leafs getting a return on Marner (if he wasn’t signed by the Leafs), simply acquiring that amount of cap space and flexibility is in fact one of the main things the Leafs should be seeking anyway. Assuming a $12M contract minimum, the Leafs could potentially bring in two very good defencemen or three very good players with that space, and while the Leafs wouldn’t have a winger of the same calibre of Mitch Marner, finding capable top six wingers for around the $4M mark hasn’t been impossible, seeming the Leafs could further hedge their bets and lock Max Domi in around that value with term with the intention of making him Matthews set up man.

It’s not so cut and dry

Up until this point I’ve told the story that moving on from Mitch Marner is the path to roster overhaul salvation and the reality is moving on from Mitch does give the Leafs a lot more flexibility in that regard, but it doesn’t mean that an overhaul can’t be done other ways. Using Marlies, PTOs, or Gregor/Benoit type contracts fills in some of the roster availabilities the Leafs have next season. Benoit and Liljegren should come in at affordable deals as well if the Leafs are willing to wait for arbitration, Minten, Cowan and others could challenge for NHL jobs, and rolling the dice on goaltenders is risky but has the potential to save some money as well. If the Leafs move on from Kampf and Reaves, the Leafs could be looking at around $16M to address two defensive spots and two top six forward spots. That might be preferrable to $27M and having to fill three top six forward spots, and two defensive spots knowing that you are also down Mitch Marner. $4M per vacancy vs. $5.4M per vacancy knowing that Marner is one of the players you are replacing is a tough pill to swallow when you consider that Tyler Bertuzzi is what $5.5M gets you in free agency. Having money to burn is a curse because people will feel comfortable for asking a lot more of it when you have it and has Brad Treliving demonstrated the ability to use his budget wisely?
It’s not as simple as that as the return in a trade for Marner would be what would close the gap on falsehood that the cap space is its own reward. Either prospects ready to play or high end draft picks that could be ready in short order or even picking up a player who might not otherwise be available through free agency for a while and play beyond the cap hit would make a deal worth exploring but again, the limitations of where Marner would accept, if he’d accept any movement at all cuts into the notion that it is a simple path forward.
What ultimately makes the most sense is the Leafs begin discreetly finding out where interest lies around the league and sit on that until they can exchange contract offers with the Marner camp. Depending on the level of ridiculousness involved there and history shows that it will be ridiculous, the Leafs can essentially enter the win/win scenario of either working to retain a superstar or dealing a player whose contract demands were unacceptable.
Data from Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Capfriendly and Hockey Reference

Check out these posts...