Mitch Marner
(Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The inquisition into another subpar season has begun in Ontario as the Toronto Maple Leafs begin preparing for the 2020-21 season. The Maple Leafs yet again exited the postseason at the first hurdle and fans are less than happy. The last time the Leafs made it past the first round was the 2003-04 season when they lost in the second round to the Philadelphia Flyers. The last time they won the Stanley Cup was 1966-67. Simply not good for a franchise like Toronto. Last year the blame was laid at the feet of Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner. This year it is the turn of Mitch Marner, amongst others, to become the target of the Toronto boo boys.

Last season, Kadri was suspended after game two of the Leafs first-round series against the Boston Bruins for cross-checking Jake DeBrusk. He had also been suspended the year prior against the same team for a hit on Tommy Wingels and the NHL Department of Player Safety came down hard on him for the DeBrusk infraction. He was suspended for the rest of the series, the Leafs lost 4-3 and Kadri became public enemy number one. Then there was the case of Jake Gardiner who came in for major criticism in relation to his defensive performances in the 2019-20 regular season. Both were moved on.

Kadri was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in the biggest trade of last summer. In return, the Maple Leafs got restricted free agent center Alexander Kerfoot and defenseman Tyson Barrie, who had one year remaining at the time of signing. They re-signed Kerfoot to a four year 3.5 AAV. Gardiner also left, making a move to Raleigh and becoming a member of the Carolina Hurricanes. Yet the Maple Leafs continued to underperform and were eliminated at the first hurdle yet again by the Columbus Blue Jackets. So now it’s the turn of Mitch Marner to feel the wrath of Toronto fans. It was only a matter of time before the focus shifted to that top four of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner simply because of the money tied up in it.

Marner admitted to not being “engaged at all in physicalness or play” during game one of the Columbus series but “from that point on, I got a lot more engaged.” At least he’s being honest. Sadly the Maple Leaf fans don’t want honesty, they want results and Championships. Saying you weren’t engaged when being paid $10.9 million a year is not going to get you much sympathy, especially in that Toronto market. I wouldn’t consider Leafs fan and fellow Vendetta Sports Media writer Scott Logush a boo boy, but even he couldn’t have any sympathy. “I’d argue that players aren’t as motivated when they get a contract because it’s fully guaranteed,” he said. “If they worked like the NFL where it’s not fully guaranteed, then players would by nature be more motivated to perform.” 

A very valid point. But surely some of that blame has to then fall on GM Kyle Dubas for signing players with a lack of character, right? “I’d say a good portion of the blame is on Dubas for handing out such lucrative contracts,” added Scott. “I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of character, but more so the amount of money cripples the Maple Leafs cap-wise. No one on the Boston Bruins makes over 7.25 million. That team spreads its money out around multiple players to have consistently good lines and depth. Plus the Bruins are grinders. Overall it’s just impossible to have multiple players make over 10 million and have a balanced team with good depth. The 4th liners are very important because while a team may have the best first line in the league, their downfall will be the other guys below them.”

It’s not like Marner was shockingly bad during the regular season either. He registered 67 points in 59 games and saw his ice time increased from 19:49 in the 2018-19 season to 21:33 during the 2019-20 season. However, some underlining numbers during the regular season were alarming. His faceoff percentage dropped significantly from 58.3% to 26.9% while his total shots attempted dropped from 446 to 277. The latter could be down to a shortened season, one in which he played 59 of a possible 70 games due to injury.

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It was during the playoffs that he became a problem. Four points in five Stanley Cup Qualifier games against the Blue Jackets can only be deemed as not good enough. When you then consider only one of those points was from a primary assist and none came from goals it becomes worrying. This is the second year with similar results. Last year he also registered four points over seven games against the Bruins. He registered a plus/minus -4 during that playoff series and was again in the negative against Columbus. At $10.9 million a season those postseason numbers are not good enough. That’s not saying it is all his fault, especially considering he is still only 23 years old. Matthews and Tavares shoulder just as much blame, also having two first-round exits in the past two years in their resume. However, if you are not a part of the solution you are a part of the problem. Right now Mitch Marner is not the solution.

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