You Think Marner Is The Problem?

TORONTO (June 14) — With the longest–ever Stanley Cup drought guaranteed (next May 2) to reach 58 years, the Toronto Maple Leafs, today, have only three defensemen of National Hockey League caliber under contract.

None will threaten to win the Norris Trophy.

Yet, all we can seemingly talk about is Mitch Marner.

A quick glance at soon–to–be–shuttered shows that Morgan Rielly, Jake McCabe and Simon Benoit form the incumbent trio heading into next season. With minor–leaguers Connor Timmins and Cade Webber also still signed. Tim Liljegren is a restricted free agent. All of T.J. Brodie, Joel Edmundson, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin can enter the open market if not retained prior to July 1. None comprise the essence of a Stanley Cup blue line. The Florida Panthers are again proving that championship hockey teams are made up of generally large skaters, all of whom buy into a stout defensive system. Not teams with smallish forwards and fancy goal–scorers that can be neutralized early in the playoff slog. As such, a lot of the blabber surrounding Marner is just that. The actual and substantive issue with the hockey club is precisely as it’s been forever: The glaring lack of a Norris Trophy candidate… and the unwillingness or inability to play strong team defense when it matters.

Neither Mitch Marner’s presence, nor his absence, can alter such a deficit. The two most–important segments of the roster — goaltending and defense — have been overlooked for ages by Maple Leafs management. Until the patch of ice behind the center red line becomes a priority, we’ll continue, every summer, to have this conversation.

Also, as every year, enforcements can be pursued in free agency. But, general manager Brad Treliving (as of today) has seven roster openings to fill with $18,830,333 in cap space. That equates to $2,690,048 per player — adequate, on the surface, to fill out the 23–man inventory. But, less adequate when we consider that Treliving must sign at least one goalie… and, minimally, two defensemen of NHL quality. Where does he find money for that… and the other four roster spots? We keep hearing and reading about the Leafs poaching such potential free agents as playoff star Brandon Montour of Florida, whose Average Annual Value will surely exceed the $3.5 million on his expiring pact. Veteran Brett Pesche of Carolina could also be available at a raise from his $4.025 million salary. Nikita Zadorov of Vancouver made $3.75 million last season. Chris Tanev of Dallas pulled in $4.5 million. Which is less than the amount these defensemen should command; doable, perhaps, for Treliving until the inevitable bidding war ensues, thereby driving up the cost. With no guarantee, of course, that Toronto will prevail.


Ultimately, the Leafs will make it work. But, to what end? Does Treliving over–commit to aging defensemen this summer, or fill out the roster with role players, understanding that another $21.5 million comes off the books next off–season with Marner and John Tavares? That’s why I’ve referred to 2024–25 as kind of a throwaway exercise for the Blue and White. Not that the team can necessarily afford to waste another prime year of Auston Matthews and William Nylander. But, neither can it make any Stanley Cup noise in the absence of a kingfish on the blue line… and (sigh) a bona fide, legitimate, no–gamble figure between the pipes. Adjectives that do not yet apply to Joseph Woll in a brief career constantly interrupted by injury. Joe seems to have potential… but he’s a China Doll.

How can the Leafs rely on him to stay healthy for even half a season, let alone eight months?

A proven No. 1 goalie will have to be obtained via trade. If, in fact, the Leafs have anything to offer. No traction will evolve should Treliving refuse to discuss Matthew Knies, Easton Cowan or Fraser Minten. Among available players, none on the current roster are worth much. The core figures are locked in. The support staff is interchangeable, as every year. You want Jake Markstrom? You ain’t getting him for Nick Robertson. Promise.

These are the issues encountering the Maple Leafs. Not whether Marner stays or leaves before next summer. Management was imprudent enough to provide Mitch full control over his immediate future. As with all of its good players, the team relinquished the right to manage. Trust me, Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas did not sign off on Marner’s first NHL contract at gunpoint. They willingly fell at the knees of Mitch’s agent, Darren Ferris.

The club is paying that deed right now.

And, it still isn’t the most–pressing issue of the 2024 off–season.




JUNE 14, 1994: It remains among the top half–dozen memories from my 23–year term, mostly as a hockey reporter at Canada’s first all–sports radio station. We were still The FAN–1430 on this night in 1994, less than two years after Telemedia Communications Inc. of Montreal gambled on the niche format (Rogers Communications would purchase the radio station in the summer of 2002). I was in New York for Game 7 of the best Stanley Cup final I covered during my career. The Rangers had coughed up a 3–1 stranglehold against Vancouver, advancing to the Cup final for the first time since 1979 by knocking off New Jersey to end arguably the most–compelling playoff series in modern NHL history (Stephane Matteau stuffing a forehand wraparound, in double–OT of Game 7 at the Garden, past Devils rookie Martin Brodeur). Vancouver had eliminated the Maple Leafs in a much–less–dramatic, five–game affair. Now, with everything on the line, the Rangers nursed a 4–3 lead into the dying moments of another Game 7. Sometime midway through the third period, word filtered through the auxiliary press box at the Garden that the former wife of football star O.J. Simpson (and a companion) had been found dead in Los Angeles.

After a brief “hmmmm, that’s interesting,” we returned our attention to the ice.


The auxiliary holding (I recall sitting with Bob McKenzie of TSN) was up behind the goal the Rangers defended in the first and third periods. Sightlines at Madison Square Garden were brutal, so I decided to wander down to an area between the benches, roughly 20 rows from the ice. I wasn’t worried about standing, as every other person in the arena was on his/her feet. It was from there that I heard a sound which will never be duplicated. With goalie Kirk McLean on the bench for an extra attacker, the Canucks desperately swarmed around Mike Richter in the Rangers net, clamoring for the equalizer. On several occasions, the home team had possession but failed to clear.

Then, with 10 seconds to play, Brian Leetch swept the puck out of the zone and into Vancouver territory.

At that very moment, and if you can imagine, 18,000 hysterical hockey fans involuntarily stomped their feet at the same time in utter and breathtaking relief. Again, it was a sound felt more than heard, as the Garden shook and rumbled beneath me. The building quieted, however, when noticing the Rangers had been whistled for icing. With 1.6 seconds left on the clock, Craig McTavish beat Trevor Linden on a faceoff to Richter’s right (in the far corner to my left). Mark Messier began leaping up and down on his skate–blades. It was over. No more derisive chants of  “Nineteen–Forty!”. But, that collective stomp in the Garden, seconds earlier, is the sound I’ll always remember.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

The “hmmmm” reaction at the Garden over the O.J. Simpson rumor evolved into an international spectacle, as the former Buffalo Bills running back was charged with murdering his ex–wife, Nicole, and Nicole’s friend, Ron Goldman. The first news magazines covering the story appeared the following week (below, in my collection). Time (left) was bitterly accused of darkening Simpson’s cover image to make him appear more menacing.


6 comments on “You Think Marner Is The Problem?

  1. More and more I am thinking that unless things change in the next year or 2, the biggest mistake of Shanahan’s rein is that he didn’t keep Uncle Lou in the GM chair. He knows how to negotiate contracts. How good was Dubas at that? He certainly wouldn’t have made this mess of 4 players taking up half the payroll.

  2. no, i think the salary cap allocated to the top four is the problem. Marner just so happens to be the one up for renewal. we gave him the huge contract last time, instead of a bridge deal, now he wants to take the leafs to the cleaners again? let his agent ruin the impression marner makes on people for all i care. listen for a deal, if you get one that makes sense do it, if you dont, run it back. its exactly what they are doing.

  3. The construct has been wrong for years. Maybe Babcock had something when he wanted to draft hannifan rather than Marner.

    Look at the last three cup winners. All had a top goalie – Norris level goalie and 1-2 top forwards. Florida today have Babrovsky, Montour, ekblad, Forsling, Barkov, Bennett,Reinhardt, tkachuk. Leafs have nothing close. I’d take their top five over the leafs top five (as that is all we got) all day long.

  4. And yet NOBODY is willing to talk about the fact that Mathews has been pretty much just as invisible come playoff time as Marner, nor have I seen any stats regarding how many of his 69 goals came in bunches and against non-playoff teams.
    Of the 2, I understand that a #1 centre is far more important than a water bug winger, even one with impressive stats but this collection of players has NEVER been even competitive enough to win the 2nd round.
    Without some legitimate, properly sized, physically willing, and competitive defencemen ready to step into the lineup there is NO WAY they’re SC competitive during Mathews next inflated contract.
    Bobrovsky is excellent, but he’s been unbeatable because of the defense (and entire team) in front of him, not in spite of it as has been the case when the leafs have had excellent goaltending recently.
    Frankly, this finals particularly has truly illustrated how far the leafs are away from being good enough.
    It’s depressing and I think hopeless given their current roster, prospects, draft picks available and drafting philosophy. This year they’ll take another left winger with “intangibles”, ignoring size and defence still available as usual. Hopefully Treliving can exert some influence, but I doubt it.

    1. I have said it before and I will say it again. One of Marners problems is sniffing smelling salts (ammonia) before every game. It fries your brain after awhile.

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