Be Very Careful With Mitch Marner

TORONTO (May 29) — There’s a weird paradox surrounding Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs: He is the player the club can least afford to lose… but can most afford to trade. Let me try and explain.

As I’ve written in this space, only two skaters in the modern history of the Leafs — Borje Salming and Doug Gilmour — compare to Marner in the realm of pure hockey skill. This is no disrespect to such other Leaf legends as Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Mats Sundin… or Marner’s teammates, Auston Matthews and William Nylander. All great players; all but the latter two accomplished playoff performers. Neither has Marner distinguished himself in the post season, but the current group simply does not complement or feed off one another when it truly matters. If the Core–4 (and, hasn’t that term become tiring, along with “run it back” and the silly “all in”) stays together, nothing will shift. Seven playoff years of Nylander, Marner, Matthews (and six of John Tavares) has offered more than enough evidence, and impetus, for change. It says here, however, that offloading Marner — and keeping Matthews — will turn into the biggest Leafs mistake since Punch Imlach traded McDonald to the old Colorado Rockies in December 1979, triggering the most–forlorn decade in franchise history.

Unlike the other elite forwards on the current team, Marner can play equally well at both ends of the ice; witness his 99–point season and nomination for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the National Hockey League’s top defensive forward. Having just turned 26, he is still two or three years from reaching his biological prime in the sport.

Such a hockey gift, to any team, is extremely rare.

We exist, however, in a business governed by the salary cap — a payroll ceiling against which the Leafs have forever been squished. This can be alleviated only by trading one of the big four up front. Tavares is going nowhere, and people should get off his back about waiving the full, no–movement clause that accompanied, in 2018, his seven–year deal with the club. The Leafs happily adorned the unrestricted free agent such a privilege; they cannot ask him to shelve it for their convenience. Nylander offers the most bang for the buck — and the most flexibility heading into the final year of his contract. On July 1, a modified no–movement clause takes effect, allowing Nylander to submit a list of 10 NHL cities to which he could not be traded. That compares favorably to Marner and Matthews, who join Tavares in the full, no–movement category, also on July 1, just 33 days from now. Marner, however, has two years remaining on his current pact while Matthews enters the final season of his $11.6–million arrangement, a stipend that will unjustly (given his playoff infirmity) climb toward $14 million. Marner, at $10.9 million, isn’t likely to receive a similar boost, yet he’s the better all–round player. So, what to do if you’re Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who calls the shots irrespective of the person beneath him as general manager?

The path of least resistance, also known as the Leafs’ way under Shanahan, would be to retain the Core–4 and continue nibbling around the edges. This has been a losing proposition for the franchise in Stanley Cup toil, yet no one seems to care. It can only change under a new figurehead GM with Shanahan’s blessing. That Brendan — reportedly and foolishly — has somehow assured the failed nucleus it will not be touched, hopes for a Stanley Cup challenge remain negligible. If, however, Shanahan comes to his senses, he will fundamentally alter the composition and culture of the Maple Leafs. I will repeat myself: Were I running the team, and if it’s even possible, I would trade Matthews before July 1. Return is not as important as relieving the cap crunch and adding to the team by subtraction. As I’ve written here, the Maple Leafs will never challenge for the NHL title with Matthews as linchpin. He has neither the drive nor the determination to step forward when the stakes increase in the spring. Peddling, therefore, his final contract year and no–move clause will be extremely difficult. That and the peculiar spell he has cast on the franchise and its media cheerleaders indicates Auston will continue to “lead” the team to nowhere.

Marner offers a conundrum. He is too gifted to trade, yet his two years of contract control are more appealing. If the Leafs are to move Marner, they absolutely must make a hockey trade. Whispers abound that Shanahan (and, perhaps, Kyle Dubas beforehand) have chatted with Carolina about Marvelous Mitch. In my express view, any deal with the Hurricanes has to include defenseman Jake Slavin. Though not a big point producer, Slavin, 29, is rock–solid with and without the puck; always on the fringe of Norris Trophy contention. The foursome of Slavin, Brent Burns, Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce has provided Carolina a sound, if unspectacular, blue line. Slavin would immediately become Toronto’s top defenseman, slotted in nicely alongside Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie and Jake McCabe. I would be careful with Luke Schenn. Though he performed admirably in the playoffs, extending such aptitude may not be conceivable over six months and 82 games. Not at 34 years of age (as Luke will turn on Nov. 2). But, a top four of Slavin, Rielly, Brodie and McCabe would be the best the Leafs have offered in many a season.

There may be more components to a Toronto–Carolina swap, but Marner for Slavin would highlight the deal. The latter would have to agree to joining the Leafs; he has a clause that provides a 15–team trade list. From a cap perspective, the Maple Leafs would solidly win, though the Hurricanes are replete with space. Subtracting Slavin from the roster (according to would increase Carolina’s allowable territory (as of today) to a whopping $29,423,083. That would shrink to $18,520,083 with the addition of Marner, but still accord GM Don Waddell a sizable margin. The Leafs would acquire a front–line defenseman and open up $5,603,000 in cap room, increasing Toronto’s margin (as of today) to $14,746,550. Slavin, like Marner, is also under contract for two more years at an affordable $5.3 million. This would amount to a hockey trade and a reasonable financial swap for both teams.


But, the big question remains: What does Toronto lose, in the long run, by offloading its most–gifted performer?

Another vastly overused term in hockey is “generational talent” — applied, this year, to Connor Bedard. There’s no question that Marner remains in that exclusive category — more so, in my opinion, than Matthews, who provides regular–season goal scoring, but little else. The Leafs would move forward in the presence of another front–line center, one perhaps without Auston’s sniping ability, but the capacity (ala such playoff warriors as Matthew Tkachuk and Joe Pavelski) to elevate performance in the clutch. He is the player I would trade, if possible, before July 1. Marvelous Mitch, conversely, should be retained and re–signed… unless there are no other options.

Without question, the Leafs need to be absolutely meticulous when bartering No. 16.


15 comments on “Be Very Careful With Mitch Marner

  1. I agree Mathews has got to go – will never win with him. Sadly he is a centre man which is harder to replace – but hey, he care=s more about fashion than winning. Main thing though is getting rid of Shanahan. Look at the Vegas Golden Nights, 6 years in NHL and 4 Conference Finals. Not afraid to trade great players to get the one’s they want and can make a difference (i.e. Eichel, Pietrangelo, etc.) Where does all this start – at the top of Management = George McPhee. Cause the ownership and him demand excellence and progress not stagnation (Leaf’s ground hog days). They have fired 2-3 coaches during the=se 6 year=s de=spite doing extremely well – why? Cause not good enough until they win Stanley Cup. But Shanny keeps year-by-year with the same stale core 4 losers. Why not – they basically sell-out, and make money with mediocracy so why change. Until this attitude changes Leaf’s are
    going nowhere. The dumb goal scoring song alone reflects their laissez faire attitude.
    C’est la vie!

  2. I’ve always felt that Marner is more valuable than Matthews. I think Matthews is incredibly talented and one of the top centres in the NHL, but Marner is just so dynamic and one of the top two-way players. Over the time they’ve been on the Leafs, any scoring drought by Matthews or Tavares has been addressed by putting Marner on that line. Marner makes everyone on the line better.

    I think that they all have time to get better in the playoffs, though I get the sense that Marner cares more about that than Matthews. I don’t think Gilmore was as driven in Calgary as he was in Toronto, which may partially be attributed to changing teams and feeling time tick away.

    I’ve also always felt that, with the possible exception of Arizona, Marner would be a bigger draw than Matthews in any market. I’ve been pulling for the Leafs for decades and still remember that non-call but, at this point, I think I’m done. I’m at the point where I’ll take pleasure in seeing how they circle the drain, because that’s theatre we can all count on.

  3. This article was painful to read. Matthews is 100x harder to replace than Marner. Marner is also by far the worst playoff performer on the team. At least Matthews will go out and throw a hit, Marner looks like a child trying to play against men. It looks like he’s never been in a corner in his life. I don’t care how many points Marner put up in the playoffs because anyone can see how poorly he actually plays every year. Top line centers do not grow on trees and even less of them have 60 goal capabilities.

    1. You’re an a-hole, but I’m going to reply anyway. You are right: It’s impossible to replace a $14 million player that cannot score a goal in five games of a playoff series. Can’t imagine how you’d feel about Invisible Auston had he scored once against Florida.

    2. From almost any perspective Matthews is the one to trade. If he isn’t gone by July 1, the team risks losing him to free agency; getting bupkis in return. Pay him $14M and then see if you can find a bargain basement goaltender capable of winning championships. For that matter, see if you can find the two rough and tumble D-men the Leafs are so sorely lacking. Matthews is the biggest question mark on this team, but is also the one who returns the most assets if he’s traded. There are less than 4 weeks to get that figured out.

  4. I don’t know what will happen, but I suspect Nylander will be moved, Matthews will be signed to a short contract at $14 million annually, Marner will be extended after Tavares’ contract expires, and Tavares will be shown the door.

  5. Marner will not be the lynchpin either. He is nowhere near Gilmour, yes he has size and similar skill but has not displayed playoff intensity.

    Trading 2 of the 3 is a bare minimum but if it were up to me I would seriously consider trading all three. They’ve all been overpaid and each is going to expect a raise. The current cap allocation (all on forwards) is the big problem and it needs to be fixed.

    Trading all three is a nuclear option and I know it will never happen but each of them would net a decent player, blue chip prospect and a draft pick(s). That plus the extra cap space and flexibility would exciting. Having young prospects, and lots of draft capital would be similar to what Dubas inherited, before he botched it.

    PS – Howard you should repost your article from just after the trade deadline. Dubas gutted this team and it’s worth an I told you so!

  6. All these so called superstars in the Leafs lineup have had multiple opportunities to show they can win in the playoffs and they haven’t. So trade two of them and be done with it, people keep saying you’ll be sorry! Well if they win somewhere else good for them, but one thing is abundantly clear, they can’t or won’t win here. So we are out nothing!

  7. If Stan Bowman has the job we won’t see a new GM until after the Stanley Cup has been awarded.
    It is hard to see any other team than Florida hosting it this year. They are a great team.

  8. Can’t believe that incompetent Shanahan is still in charge. First move should’ve been to ditch him and Dubas together and bring in someone like Cooper or similar resume as Prez and GM.
    Get ANYTHING in return for 34 and 88 now. I agree that cap space to sign less expensive young warriors is the primary benefit.
    Offer Marner a 5 year extension at his current salary. If rejected, then get rid of him, too.
    Rebuild with an eye on 2026, when it’s adios JT, hello McDavid.
    Or, just hire me for free and I’ll &$#@ do it.

      1. What’s become sadly apparent through Shanahan’s survival is that corporate access / schmoozing is more important to MLSE than team success. I’d call it a pathetic circle jerk outfit, but that wouldn’t be nice. The fans deserve way more than that.
        While I’m on a roll, my take on Dubas is that he’s very insecure. The bloated administration to surround him, Keefe and Spezza as security blankets, the strange press conference.
        That Shanahan can survive the massive Babcock, Dubas, and Core Four misjudgments is truly mind boggling.

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