So, What Is Mitch Thinking?

TORONTO (June 7) — Nothing about the apparent strategy of the Maple Leafs, beginning next month, should come as a surprise to beleaguered star Mitch Marner. Whether he accepts the strategy is a different matter.

Timing, economics and a tepid playoff résumé have combined to place Marner a distant third among the elite draft picks of 2014–15–16. Auston Matthews and William Nylander were locked down by the club in the past ten months, while John Tavares will likely play out his final season in a Leafs jersey. Marner, expecting a raise from his $10,903,000 annual stipend, won’t get it from his current team. There isn’t enough reasonable cap space (even with the figure rising, next year, from $83.5 million to $87.675 million) for the Leafs to spend $11–plus million on a third scoring forward that withers in the Stanley Cup chase. But, remember, the player has complete control thanks to an absurd concession that provided Mitch a full no–movement clause in the final two years of his first National Hockey League contract. There is generous. Then, there’s preposterous. Marner’s pact leaned heavily toward the latter. We must also keep in mind, however, that there is no team compensation during the playoffs.

Salaries are disbursed over the six–month–long regular schedule, during which Marner has handsomely rewarded the Leafs with point totals of 99, 97, 94 and 85. So, it isn’t unreasonable for Mitch (and agent Darren Ferris) to contend he is owed a salary increase in his second NHL contract. Starting, likely, somewhere between the $11.5 million Nylander will make and the NHL–leading $13.25 million salary of Matthews. It cannot happen in Toronto.

Not if the club’s brass is serious about finally shoring up the blue line and roster–depth beneath the Core–4. Both absolutely essential, with this team, before it can pose a Stanley Cup threat. That plan does not include committing another contract in the double–figure millions to Marner. Which has evidently been made clear to the player and his agent. At least not anytime in the immediate aftermath of the allowance, beginning July 1, for Marner to sign an extension. Last year, it wasn’t until Aug. 23 that Matthews committed to the Leafs. Negotiations, however, had been in full bloom since Canada Day. Unless there’s a startling change in the new philosophy, none of Keith Pelley, Brendan Shanahan or Brad Treliving will be sharing lunches with Marner and Ferris after July 1 this summer. The Leafs are reportedly going to see “how next season evolves” before considering contract dialogue. As if Marner will surprise the club by accruing close to 100 points yet again. No, this was the Leafs clearly implying that Marner’s future, beyond 2023–24, belongs elsewhere. That the team will not be able to afford his asking price.

The Toronto strategy will therefore revolve around determining whether Mitch wants to begin that journey before the NHL trade deadline next March. Another way of suggesting the club will ask Marner if he’ll waive his no–movement privilege, likely for a list of 10 cities to which he’d accept a deal. Under ordinary circumstances, this wouldn’t be unusual. In the current case, however, nobody other than Mitch and his closest allies has even a clue about his mindset. Last we saw of No. 16 was during the end–of–season confab (above) with reporters. During which he curtly emphasized a desire to remain in Toronto. Was it a legitimate aspiration… or was Marner instructed to make such a statement, thereby reminding all involved who has the final and ultimate say in any possible transaction?

Again, only Mitch and his tightest circle can know for certain. And, nary an information leak has occurred. Yet.

That will start happening if the Leafs and Marner develop acrimony. Which is entirely plausible, given the player’s all–star performances during the 82–game season. If Mitch and Darren get their backs up, they can close off any communication with management, thereby allowing Marner to walk for nothing, next summer, as an unrestricted free agent. It’s the reason no one can figure why Shanahan approved of Kyle Dubas adorning the player two years of managing his own career. And, we wonder: Are the Maple Leafs walking on eggshells around Marner? Or, has management grudgingly accepted the player will do as he pleases during his final season under contract? Thereby diminishing the potential of a trade. And, not particularly caring which path Marner or Tavares choose.

Only that nearly $22 million will spring open, allowing Treliving to sorely balance his roster.

My sense is there will be friendly discussion between the sides, if it hasn’t already occurred. The entire scenario is dependent on Mitch’s state of mind — whether he’s ready to move on after next season… or will stick it to the Leafs, as per his contract, for making him the odd man out. At the moment, we can merely speculate.

The wild card, as previously written, could be new coach Craig Berube, who isn’t the soft, mushy type. Will Marner, Matthews and Nylander — naturally layback — assimilate to tougher love than Sheldon Keefe could provide in his circumstance with the Leafs (which often involved softening criticism toward the star players)?

Time will tell. How much time is the question.


Considering that the Toronto Argonauts, in the past decade, have furnished the rest of the Canadian Football League with starting quarterbacks and Grey Cup champions (Zach Collaros, Cody Fajardo, MacLeod Bethel–Thompson, Trevor Harris), perhaps the club does not require a pivot to replace the suspended Chad Kelly for, minimally, half the 2024 schedule. You will notice, however, the dearth of fan and media attention for Sunday night’s season opener against the B.C. Lions. Which wasn’t supposed to be. Not after a remarkable, 16–2 regular season and a near–sellout at the Canadian National Exhibition for the Eastern playoff final against Montreal.

But, the hope and excitement of that cool November afternoon at BMO Field has evolved into a tumbling nightmare for the Double Blue and their fans. First, the still–mystifying collapse of Kelly against the Alouettes; the CFL’s most outstanding player–to–be looking as if he’d never touched a football (the Argos were embarrassed, 38–17). Then, the two–day gutting of last year’s burgeoning club, as the Boatmen lost four of their most–dynamic and identifiable figures (apart from Kelly): fullback A.J. Ouellette, elite kick–returner Javon Leake, kicker Boris Bede and star Canadian slotback Kurleigh Gittens Jr. Then, of course, the allegations surrounding Kelly and his dalliance with a female strength and conditioning coach the club later terminated. The CFL found enough evidence internally to remove Kelly’s playing privileges for at least half the coming season. To suggest, then, it’s been a lousy winter and spring for the Toronto team that can least afford damaging optics is rather an understatement.


Now, the Argos are two days removed from their 2024 schedule opener… and only season–ticket holders (myself among them) appear to know. If not for television partner TSN and fellow CFL enthusiast Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun, nothing would be said or written in the mainstream media. There is no build–up, locally, for the match. Which is at least partly the result of unproven Cameron Dukes and the CFL’s bouncing ball, Nick Arbuckle, starting as the club’s quarterback tandem. Even if Kelly were active, and as most fans know, anything Argonauts is a tough sell these days. Doubly so after Kelly’s deplorable effort in the Eastern playoff match; triply so, now, with a pair of journeyman passers. That’s how it appears, anyway.

What we don’t yet know is whether Dukes can emulate Collaros, Fajardo and Harris — all of whom excelled in starting roles after their Toronto apprenticeships. It had to be particularly galling for the Argos to watch Fajardo wipe them out in the Eastern final. Cody had been the back–up to Ricky Ray from 2015–17. Collaros, whom the Argos twice unloaded, is a future Hall–of–Famer and two–time Grey Cup champion in Winnipeg. And, Harris, 35, is expected to lead a major renaissance for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, a team deep in receiving talent and now bolstered by the pugnacious runner, Ouellette, who became a near–cult figure toward the end of last season.

By moving forward with Dukes and reacquiring Arbuckle (who started the 2021 season at quarterback for the Boatmen), general manager Mike (Pinball) Clemons and player personnel guru John Murphy are hoping there’s some “back–up” magic in the unheralded Kentucky native who stood in adequately for Kelly when the Argos were in late–season cruise control. Which could be plausible, given the elite passers Toronto has donated to the rest of the league. In the bigger picture, however, can the Argos attract fans to BMO Field to watch a virtual unknown at the game’s most–seminal position? As written, it sounds like an impossible sell in this sports city. But, we’ll see.

THE BIG OPTION? After this season, and barring a miraculous rise through the playing ranks, Nathan Rourke will have plenty of motivation to return to the Canadian Football League. Will the Argos be interested?

Rourke had better start throwing some passes in anger. Soon. This is, effectively, the third season of inactivity for the 26–year–old since he seemed destined, in 2022, to rewrite the quarterback record book in the CFL.

While lighting up defenses for the B.C. Lions, Rourke sustained a Lisfranc sprain of his right foot against Saskatchewan in Week 9. At the time, he was atop the league in passing attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, yards per attempt, passing touchdowns, and quarterback rating. B.C. was 8–1. The foot injury caused him to miss eight games; he returned for the season finale. After a Western semifinal victory over Calgary, Rourke and the Lions were defeated by Winnipeg, which then lost the Grey Cup to Toronto. He threw for 3,349 yards while completing an eye–popping 78.7% of his passes. Included were 25 touchdown strikes against ten interceptions. Though not seeing game action, the 6–foot–2, 209–pound passer earned $519,668 USD (equating to $713,616 CAD) last season on the practice squads of the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots. After signing in the off–season with the New York Giants, Rourke will pull in a whopping $915,000 USD ($1,256,103 CAD) for remaining inactive. Kelly’s annual salary as the highest–paid player in the CFL is $621,666 CDN. A stipend Rourke could easily earn here in Canada. The cash difference between the pacts is $542,487 CAD. Which is hardly pocket–change. But, enough to throw away the prime athletic years of your life?

The key, however, is a third National Football League season… after which a player is eligible for pension.

Chris Streveler chose this route and is now back with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. He spent three unfulfilling seasons in the NFL, bouncing between Arizona, Baltimore, Miami and the New York Jets. The average NFL pension is $43,000 USD ($59,038 CAD). Some make more; some less (not sure what Streveler will earn). But, it’s a nice chunk of change every year for the rest of your life (in 2021, the average CFL pension was $8,200 CAD).

As for making the Giants roster, Rourke has a slim chance. The bumbling team went 6–11 last season with Daniel Jones, Tyrod Taylor and Tommy DeVito splitting the quarterback duties. As of today, Rourke is listed fourth on the New York depth chart, behind Jones, former Seattle pivot Drew Lock and DeVito. He made it to third–string emergency replacement (and was in uniform) for the Patriots season finale, last year, against the New York Jets. At some point, however, Rourke will want to be listed No. 1 on a football depth chart. As he was in Vancouver two years ago. Which can likely happen for him only in the CFL. The Lions own his Canadian rights, but signed incumbent Vernon Adams Jr. to a three–year extension in February. Half of Adams’ $1,445,000 CAD salary is guaranteed, whether or not he remains on the roster. As written on the website 3–Down Nation: That cumbersome amount of dead money would seem to take the Lions out of the market for Rourke if he were to return to the CFL. A massive payout to Adams could leave the team unable to participate in a bidding war before 2027.

“I’m not expecting him back,” said Lions co–general manager Neil McAvoy.

Will the Argos make a pitch?

It obviously depends on how the Kelly situation unfolds. If the reigning MOP of the league is allowed to play after his minimum, nine–game sentence (he would be eligible to return for a home game against Calgary, Aug. 9); keeps his nose clean and begins to light up rival defenses, there will be little reason to pursue Rourke (who is five years younger). If Kelly is not cleared to return by CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie — or comes back and repeats any part of his ineptitude from the 2023 Eastern final — all of that will change. So… let’s get on with it.

PERSONAL NOTE: Lots of very good people work tirelessly on behalf of the Argonauts. Not the least of whom is Clemons, the most–revered figure in modern franchise history. Also, my pal and former FAN–590 colleague, Mike Hogan, who handles publicity and play by play on radio. And, Danny Webb, the club’s equipment guru since 1989.

For them and the others employed by the club, I’m hoping the recent firestorm will abate.

There is no team other than the Double Blue that tugs at my heartstrings.


From way back in 1972 (after my bar mitzvah). I still have a scrapbook from that dreadful Argos season that began with quarterback Joe Theismann breaking his foot in the opener against Montreal. Which led to a 3–11 blight a year after Toronto nearly won the Grey Cup. Beginning in 1971, Dad bought Argos season tickets in Sec. 12 of the uncovered, south bleacher at old CNE Stadium. Located adjacent to the west goal line, it was the best Dad could do in the years when the Boatmen routinely sold out the 33,135–seat facility. Late in the winter would come a ticket–renewal form in the mail (as below), listing that year’s schedule and a map of the stadium. In 1972, the Argos were popular enough to sell tickets for a Blue–White intrasquad game. Season subscribers had first dibs and Dad spent the $5.00 for both admissions (yes, times have changed). Here are some original artifacts:



3 comments on “So, What Is Mitch Thinking?

  1. What’s Marner thinking?

    “Hmmmm, another beautiful day here at the cottage with my beautiful wife. Just the beginning of another long and glorious summer. Hey, another multi-million dollar balloon payment drops into my account on July 1! I think I’ll go golfing today, but maybe I’ll play some video games first. This hockey-god gig is awesome!!!!”

  2. I vaguely remember the 72 blue-white game. Funny because I was such a fan. The 71 game was at Varsity. That I remember clearly. Love all your Argo memories. We too were in the uncovered side…section 5 near the 30 yard line. Such great times.

  3. Good arricle about Marner and the Leafs situation. There is oone additional factor though, unless anyone cannsay different. The only way for Matner to get an 8 year contract is by the Leafs agreeing to a trade and sign. He can only get 7 as a UFA. So then it could become how important that extra year of high salary is to him.

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