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Is this the end for Mitch Marner?

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Get past the baying for blood and consider the big picture. Can the Leafs afford to keep Marner?

Toronto Maple Leafs fall to the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in game seven in the first round of the NHL play-offs Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Late in Game 7, when we all knew it was hopelessly lost, Sportsnet showed a close-up of a very sad Mitch Marner. That’s when I turned it off. I made the dramatic pronouncement that they don’t deserve a witness to their pain, they were just that bad. I haven’t changed my mind on that.

We have to get some things out of the way first. A lot of what we all feel about how a player played in a playoff series is about shooting percentage. Did he score, in other words, or in Marner’s case, did Auston Matthews. They didn’t. The Matthews line was still one of the best lines in the playoffs offensively, but that’s driven by the early game results, and they dwindled in effectiveness just when they were needed most. That’s what pains us today, not just the shooting percentage.

There’s other things that rankle, that puck over the glass, the penalties, the moribund power play.

Most of the time I consider Marner the player and Marner the contract as two different things, but Fulemin said something about how there comes a time when you have to justify the number when it’s $11 million. Marner hasn’t. I never expected him too, but he has slipped back under the bar of “as good as Nylander” and has been revealed as a player who doesn’t offer much on his own. As a duo, Matthews and Marner work well, but then, so did Matthews and Nylander.

With a time machine, I would be more certain in my Top 25 Under 25 voting, and I’d have put Nylander over Marner. I came so very close last summer. But then this season, in the regular season, I thought Marner was great, a serious force on the ice. I scoff hard at this special chemistry stuff that posits that he and Matthews are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s just a convenient footnote to the Babcock was wrong about everything narrative, and it isn’t real. But they were great this season, and the points are enough to show that.

But because I thought Marner was very good, and he was really not that in the playoffs — pick any year — I’m not 100% sure about my take on him. Was he just made ineffective by heavy checking and the change in what gets allowed around the crease in the playoffs? Even if that’s all that’s at play here, that’s still a problem because the Leafs can’t move to a different league.

I think it might be the end for Marner on the Leafs.

When it all goes horribly wrong, when a team does what the Leafs just did... hang on, let me lay that out first...

What the Leafs did

They were heavy favourites to win this playoff series in a way that would be unprecedented if the Colorado Avalanche hadn’t been even moreso. The Leafs had the series on their sticks, they had good enough goaltending going into Game 5, they had injuries, but they had enough depth. They were enough, more than enough, and they let it flutter away like a rich man who doesn’t notice the bills flying out of his wallet on a windy day.

This wasn’t that coinflip series against the Bruins. This wasn’t the series against Columbus where Cody Ceci was the only hope on defence. This was a genuinely good team, not just on paper, shitting the bed, live on Hockey Night in Canada.

Three games in a row.

I don’t want to overstate the weakness of the Canadiens because they had strengths in systems, depth, and Carey Price sure showed up. But they shouldn’t have won. This was not a hockey is 50/50 sort of deal, this was a series given away through multiple failures at the player, coaching and management level.

And when that happens someone has to pay.

Hockey is showbiz. And it’s increasingly showbiz in the off-ice, offseason shenanigans realm. There is a narrative demand here (don’t forget this monstrosity of a team throwing it all out the window is being filmed for Amazon Prime). The narrative demands a sacrifice. You can’t cheerfully run this team out again next year for the rubes to sit and watch and cheer for. Well, you can. But you’d be someone akin to Harold Ballard, counting on the bottomless well of Leafs fans to buy tickets, if you do it.

Some head has to roll, and unless it’s another Red Wedding, a second blood letting of the scale of the big change that saw the team become what I call the New Maple Leafs — if it’s not that extreme — it’s going to be a player.

It’s not going to be Dubas or Keefe

I think Kyle Dubas linked himself very firmly to Sheldon Keefe when he hired him. Look, you can’t be publicly sanctimonious about your fair hiring practices when the choice of coach was a foregone conclusion, and you didn’t even pretend it wasn’t, and not be knitting your reputations together forever. If there’s any special chemistry in the Leafs it’s Dubas and Keefe.

It’s not going to be one of them who goes. It’s two or zero, and I’m betting zero.

Why it might be Marner

I said this in the Summer T25 about Marner:

$11 million is a lot for a winger. I am very sure Marner is not worth that cap hit, and it didn’t take a pandemic-flattened salary cap to make me feel that way. Look, I’m not saying he’s Connor Brown. But somewhere on the continuum of Brown to Ovechkin lies Marner, and the dispute is really about how high up he truly is and how much a lot of assists are really worth — not just to argue about how good he is, but to answer this question: Can the Leafs afford him?

...

[W]ith the salary cap unlikely to rise much, possibly for the entire life of the new CBA, Kyle Dubas is going to be thwarted in making moves he wants to make that will improve the team, and it will be really obvious where an extra four or five million in cap space could come from. It’s going to annoy him.

...

Of all the wingers making over $9.5 million in the NHL, Marner gets the lowest proportion of his points off his own stick at 29%. Artemi Panarin is at 36%, Patrick Kane is at 38% and Nikita Kucherov is at 40%. Alex Ovechkin is 55%. Marner also has the least amount of games played, so this might rise in time, but if it doesn’t, if Marner becomes the highest paid and least personally productive winger in the elite category, the Leafs may feel more motivated to find a way to do without him.

Marner’s percentage of goals to points is still 29% after this season full of claims of shooting more and scoring more. He had four assists in seven playoff games.

Elliotte Friedman reported that the revenue for this season is projected to be around $2 billion. That’s very bad. That’s not enough, in total, to pay the players without even considering the salary deferrals teams owe to players and the costs of putting on this show in the first place. He went on to say that teams expect no rise in the salary cap until 2025, which is the year Marner becomes a free agent.

The argument against trading Marner is that if the Leafs are chafing under the pressure of filling out their roster with this winger, dependant on his centre, making $11 million, who else can afford him? In a limited market, the return goes down, but every player can be moved.

Marner’s no-move clause doesn’t kick in until 2023, and I thought that was decision time for Dubas. But maybe that decision does have to be made now.

There’s no other player considered a core asset who can be moved. Matthews, Tavares, the $5 million dollar defenders who do all the actual defending, you can’t deal them. Andersen is gone, but William Nylander signed a long-term deal for what now looks like a sweet bargain price. Trading him has never seemed less likely.

Zach Hyman is either re-signed or lost, and decision time is coming on Morgan Rielly. And the room to manoeuvre is never going to grow. The gamble on low-dollar veterans, KHL free agents and reclamation projects to fill out the roster actually worked this season. The trick is to just get lots of them, and once Keefe is done ritually discarding most, you get an Alex Galchenyuk and a Jason Spezza. Maybe next year it’s Alex Nylander and this new Russian guy whose name I’ve forgotten. But you won’t find a Zach Hyman in the dollar store twice in the lifetime of a team.

So what if Dubas could actually re-sign Zach Hyman, or add a proven top-six winger, or build a little more breathing room for Rasmus Sandin into the defence roster? All of these possibilities open up if you subtract Mitch Marner.

What if Dubas doesn’t, and the team stays just like it is now, will he have a job this time next year? If he’s linked himself firmly to Keefe, does he really want to do that with Marner too. All for one, and one for all?

The thing about Kyle Dubas we all should bear in mind is that he does not care what we think. He knows this is showbiz, but he plays it straight, like it’s a business, and in the end, I expect him to do what he thinks he should do. If he’s allowed to, that is. The lingering whiff of not really the boss from the timing of the Babcock firing and the delayed coronation of his prince Sheldon Keefe makes me wonder if this is really Dubas’s call.

Would Brendan Shanahan trade Mitch Marner?

Would you?

I would. Right now, I would call Ron Francis and have a long talk.