Pressure Mounting On The Leafs

TORONTO (Aug. 16) — It is mid–August and relatively quiet in the hockey world. As such, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs likely cannot feel the burden that is beginning to crush their favorite team. But, it’s there. And gaining weight by the hour. Training camp starts in less than a month and the Maple Leafs’ best player remains without a contract. As the days and weeks toward the 2019–20 National Hockey League season evolve, so, too, will the hammer being held by Mitch Marner and his advisers, led by agent Darren Ferris.

You see, the Leafs have not encountered such a dilemma in the salary–cap era, which began in 2005. Yes, William Nylander took general manager Kyle Dubas to the eleventh hour in a similar circumstance a year ago — the restricted free agent signing moments before the Dec. 1 deadline for sitting out the entire schedule. It is, however, one thing for a peripheral player such as Nylander (who generally disappears when the going gets rough) to miss the first two months of the season… and quite another for a dogged, creative presence as Marner to do the same. Without their most–indispensable performer for, minimally, the first 28 games, the entire Leafs’ season — and the employment of coach Mike Babcock — would be jeopardized.


Taking it a step further, which party becomes most–constrained by the unlikely (at this point) event of Marner sitting out the entire 2019–20 schedule? The player or the team? Sure, Marner would lose multi–millions in salary and a precious season of his career. At 22, however, he’ll have oodles of time to recoup such a deficit. The Leafs, on the other hand, may not qualify as a playoff team in Marner’s absence. John Tavares would be 30 and Frederik Andersen 31 (in the final year of his contract) by the time Marner presumably returns for the 2020–21 schedule. The Stanley Cup window so many believe is infinitely open for the Blue and White will have narrowed. Perhaps significantly. That’s what the Leafs risk by playing hardball with their leading scorer (94 points) of a year ago. At no time has the club approached a season with its best player on the lam, so to speak, and with the legitimate peril of pursuit by rival teams. This is serious stuff.

Many observers believe that Marner will sign with the Leafs just prior to their regular–season opener, Oct. 2, at home to Ottawa. But, why? Simply because Dubas acquired the necessary cap–room to accommodate the first year of a new deal (by obtaining, from the Vegas Golden Knights, the dormant contract of David Clarkson; on permanent Long Term Injured Reserve)? How would that sway the Marner camp? If the Leafs aren’t willing to tender a pact nearly identical to that which Auston Matthews signed last Feb. 5 — shorter term (five years) and worth $58.17 million — it’s almost–certain that Marner will be absent once the schedule begins. Presumably, the Leafs have offered maximum years (eight) and roughly $9 million per season. We can also presume, with confidence, that the slick forward wants less term and more dollars, thereby setting himself up for unrestricted free agency by 27. That way, like Matthews and Tavares, he’ll procure two lucrative contracts while in his prime. It makes perfect sense… for the player and his handlers.

If the Leafs are holding out to the last minute (prior to the regular season) before meeting Marner’s demand, there’s the risk of an offer–sheet. Suppose a rival team comes forward with maximum term (seven years) and dollars ($11–$12 million)? Would the Leafs instinctively match, thereby rendering obsolete the summer–long contract dance? Or, would Dubas attempt to trade Marner? The Vancouver Canucks, among other teams, have shown interest in both scenarios. Would the Leafs accept, let’s say, right–winger Brock Boeser in a one–for–one swap? Boeser is also 22; plays the same position as Marner, and has unlimited upside. While Boeser, however, was putting up 55 and 56 points the past two seasons, Marner countered with 69 and 94. Even Elias Pettersson of the Canucks, who won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year, amassed 28 fewer points than Marner. Could Vancouver, therefore, be a legitimate trade partner for the Maple Leafs?


BROCK BOESER OF THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS PREPARES TO SHOOT DURING THE NHL ALL–STAR SKILLS COMPETITION LAST FEBRUARY AT AMALIE ARENA IN TAMPA. JASON BEHNKEN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

What about Lou Lamoriello? Would the former Toronto GM, now running the New York Islanders, spring a monster offer–sheet for Marner on the Leafs? Perhaps in “retaliation” for his ex–team spiriting Tavares out of Brooklyn last summer? It’s hardly out of the question.

Which is why the pressure is increasingly mounting on the Maple Leafs — perhaps quietly at the moment, but without a doubt. Restricted free agents don’t normally hold the hammer in contract negotiations. But, this is hardly a “normal” situation. Mitch Marner is the Leafs’ best player, with an ability to alter the club’s immediate future (and that of his coach). An easy or predictable resolution doesn’t seem likely.

MEDIA CREDENTIALS — 5

Continuing with a series of media admissions accumulated during my radio career at The FAN-590:

  
It was actually four years prior to starting in radio that I received my second–ever Leafs season pass (top–left), on behalf of the company that published game–programs at Maple Leaf Gardens. The 1984–85 Maple Leafs finished dead–last in the overall standings (20–52–8 for 48 points) and were thus able to select Wendel Clark of Saskatoon (WHL) first overall in the 1985 NHL draft. And, fast–forwarding 26 years, the final Leafs season–pass of my radio career (top–right), in 2010–11. I was let go by Rogers on June 1, 2011.

  
My first full season covering the Leafs for The FAN–590 was 1995–96 (NHL pass, top–left), after the 48–game, lockout–shortened schedule the year before. It was a very sad time, as my mother, Sandee, died of cancer on Jan. 1, 1996. Credential, top–right, for the 1991 Canada Cup tournament. I covered three of Team Canada’s games at Maple Leaf Gardens, including a 4–0 semifinal win over Sweden (Sep. 12).

  
The last two of 16 NHL drafts I covered for The FAN–590: June 26–27, 2009 (top–left) at the Bell Centre in Montreal. John Tavares (New York Islanders) and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay) were the top two selections. And, June 25–26, 2010 (top–right) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Taylor Hall (Edmonton) and Tyler Seguin (Boston) went one–two. Just more than three weeks after being let go by Rogers, I covered the 2011 NHL draft (bottom–left) for this website at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul MN. First two picks were Ryan Nugent–Hopkins (Edmonton) and Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado). I then attended the 2012 NHL All–Star Game (bottom–right) at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.

  
  
Had a wonderful experience in the spring of 2012 covering — for this website and XM–NHL Home Ice Radio — all 20 playoff games of the Los Angeles Kings, who defeated the New Jersey Devils in six to win their first Stanley Cup (top–left). The Kings romped through the post–season at 16–4, knocking off Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix along the way. My first NHL media pass of the new millennium (top–right), in 2000–01.

  
In my first full year at the radio station (1989, top–left), I covered Blue Jays games at spring training in Florida (thank–you, Howard Starkman). Seven months later, I went to Oakland (top–right) for the ’89 American League Championship Series. The A’s twice defeated the Blue Jays at the Coliseum, then took two of three at the new SkyDome to win the round in five. Oakland beat San Francisco in the “Earthquake” World Series.

  
It was another sad occasion on Sep. 22, 1992 (top–left) while covering a Blue Jays–Orioles game at Camden Yards. Midway through the match, my then–wife called to say my maternal grandfather, Al Robins, had died suddenly back home. Conversely, the most–triumphant moment of my radio career occurred less than two years later, before the 1994 NHL draft (top–right) at the Hartford Civic Center. Thanks to a player–agent named Gene McBurnie, I was able to break the news – live on the air with Dan Shulman and Jim Hunt – that the Leafs had acquired Mats Sundin from the old Quebec Nordiques for Wendel Clark.


Throughout the 90’s, The FAN-590 broadcast, live, the annual Molson (now Honda) Indy race at the CNE. In 1991, ’92 and ’97, I worked the pit area. Particular highlights (in ’91) were live interviews with actor/car owner Paul Newman (d. Sep. 26, 2008) and A.J. Foyt (now 84), four–time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

  
Clubhouse badges (top–left) from the 1993 American League Championship Series (Blue Jays over Chicago White Sox in 6) and the World Series (Blue Jays over Philadelphia in 6). The brown badge was worn the night Joe Carter smacked his walk–off home run at SkyDome against Mitch Williams to provide Toronto its second consecutive Major League championship. And, not a credential (top–right), but a souvenir seat–cushion distributed to media covering Super Bowl 27 in Pasadena (Jan. 31, 1993). It was the lone Super Bowl I attended for The FAN–590. Dallas shellacked Buffalo, 52–17, at the Rose Bowl.

  
The first of five Olympics I covered for The FAN–590 was my only Summer Games: 1996, in Atlanta — credential, top–left, and the back of a credential pouch (top–right) I wore throughout the Games.

  
Speaking of Atlanta, I always enjoyed traveling south to cover the Leafs and Thrashers at Philips Arena — credential, top–left, from 3–2 Atlanta victory in overtime on Mar. 29, 2007. The Thrashers re–located to Winnipeg for the 2011–12 NHL season and the Leafs played the “new” Jets for the first time (top–right) at the MTS Centre on New Year’s Eve 2011, losing 3–2. I covered the game for this website and the National Post.

  
In 2002–03, the Dallas Stars celebrated their 10th year since moving to Texas from Bloomington, Minnesota. Former Stars goalie Ed Belfour, who replaced Curtis Joseph as Toronto’s No. 1 goalie, returned to the American Airlines Center for the first time (top–left) on Nov. 8, 2002 and lost, 3–2, to the Stars. And, my credential (top–right) from the 2007 Stanley Cup final — the Anaheim Ducks, managed by Brian Burke; coached by Randy Carlyle, defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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