TORONTO (Sep. 29) — Even a casual fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs should be able to answer this question rather quickly: What do Dave Keon, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin have in common? No, they all were not captains of the Blue and White. Neither are they all members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. And, they certainly have not all won the Stanley Cup. What they share is being — for a period of time — the best player on the Maple Leafs. And… getting either traded or unloaded before finishing their careers in Toronto.
Which begs the question: Who is the last elite performer to begin and end his career in a Leafs uniform? In the National Hockey League of unrestricted free agency (since 1995), such a circumstance is almost unheard of. Daniel and Henrik Sedin (with Vancouver) and Shane Doan (Winnipeg/Arizona) are virtual relics. It was, however, somewhat common in the pre–expansion era (prior to 1967–68). George Armstrong (1950–1971) and Ron Ellis (1964–1981) accomplished the feat here in Toronto. Both were very good players, but not considered stars. For the answer, locally, we must go back 63 years, to 1956–57, when Ted Kennedy retired after 14 seasons. Given that Kennedy only once registered a point–per–game (60 in 60 in 1946–47), some may argue that Syl Apps should receive the nod. Apps scored at a point–per–game or better in six of his 10 seasons as a Maple Leaf (1936–1948, interrupted, for three years, by service in World War II). Whatever the case, it hasn’t happened with a Toronto player in the lifetime of most people that are reading this blog.
Neither is it likely to change in the foreseeable future. Auston Matthews can become an unrestricted free agent after the 2023–24 season, in the biological prime of his career (age 27). It is impossible to predict whether Matthews will stay with the Leafs. In the interim, the trend of discarding the club’s most–gifted player will continue only if Kyle Dubas is silly enough to trade Mitch Marner. Given the Leafs salary cap situation and acute roster imbalance, a large contract will need to be sacrificed before the club can legitimately move forward. And, certainly if Dubas has eyes for pending UFA Alex Pietrangelo of St. Louis.
MAPLE LEAFS GENERAL MANAGER KYLE DUBAS MUST ASSURE THAT THE GIFTED MITCH MARNER — FOR YEARS TO COME — WALKS INTO THE HOME DRESSING ROOM AT SCOTIABANK ARENA.
Matthews isn’t going anywhere until he can make a decision four years from now. And, the pact awarded John Tavares in 2018 is, rather grievously, untouchable for the next five seasons. That leaves Marner and William Nylander among the top–earning skaters that Dubas can trade. To this point, Marner hasn’t earned, as a playoff performer, his $10,893,000–per–season cap hit. Neither has Nylander at $6,962,366. But, Marner is a talent in the realm of Mahovlich, Sittler, McDonald and Gilmour. The Mahovlich (March 1968) and McDonald (December 1979) trades were of particular harm to the Blue and White. The Leafs did not begin to excel for nearly a decade after sending Mahovlich to Detroit. And, the absurd removal of McDonald, also executed by Punch Imlach, destroyed the franchise for the entire decade of the 1980’s. It is my forceful opinion that the Leafs would similarly rue the trading of Marner. Even with his enormous cap hit.
Marner has more of a competitive instinct than Nylander, whose shot may be second to Matthews on the team, but plays mostly on the perimeter. While averaging nearly a point–per–game (291 in 300) with the Leafs, Marner accrued 161 points in 141 games the past two seasons. In 2018–19, he became the first Toronto player in 22 years (since Mats Sundin in 1996–97) to amass more than 90 points. His 68 assists were the fourth–most in franchise history, surpassed only by Gilmour (95 and 84) and Sittler (72). An ankle injury incurred against Philadelphia at Scotiabank Arena last Nov. 9 cost Marner 11 games. Had he been healthy for all 70 Toronto matches, he would have again threatened the 90–point mark. And… Mitch is still only 23.
This is not a player you trade. Instead, you built roster balance around such a skilled performer.
A potential fly in the ointment, however, is the imprudent vow — made by Dubas — that he would not trade Nylander as GM of the Leafs. That promise, of course, and $3.25, will get you a one–way ride on the TTC. It therefore depends on how stubborn Dubas remains toward the Swedish forward he signed to a six–year deal in December 2018. Nylander has plenty of trade value, even if the Leafs cannot receive a commensurate salary. He could surely fetch a first–round draft pick and/or a top prospect. The roughly $4 million difference between his cap hit and Marner’s isn’t worth Dubas unloading the latter. Not even close.
For a team not choked off by the cap, Nylander is a player you potentially build with. Marner, as mentioned, is a player you build around, regardless of cap situation. For the moment, I’ll assume Kyle Dubas concurs.
FROM THE MAGAZINE VAULT
These hockey issues, in my collection, date from December 1965 to December 1969.
DECEMBER 1966: LEFT–TO–RIGHT — ALEX DELVECCHIO (10), VERN BUFFEY, GORDIE HOWE.
DECEMBER 1965: GORDIE HOWE, BILL GADSBY. JANUARY 1966: FRANK MAHOVLICH.
FEBRUARY 1966: STAN MIKITA. MARCH 1966: ROGER CROZIER.
JANUARY 1967: LEFT — GUMP WORSLEY. RIGHT — GERRY CHEEVERS.
MARCH 1967: BOBBY ROUSSEAU. APRIL/MAY 1968: THE STANLEY CUP.
JANUARY 1969: CESARE MANIAGO. NOVEMBER 1969: HABS vs. BLUES.
DECEMBER 1969: KEN HODGE.