If the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to sign Mitch Marner on their terms, they’re going to have to do it sometime between the day their season ends, whenever that is, and July 1, when free agency season opens. Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, confirmed to TheHockeyNews.com Monday night that there will definitely be no negotiations between the Leafs and his client until after the season.
“We will wait until the end of the season,” Ferris said. “Mitch doesn’t want there to be any distractions.”
Ferris’ comments came just moments after Marner did what he has done so many times this season. In a 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins, Marner was the most dominant player on the ice, setting up three goals and doing all the work on the other, for which he did not get credited with an assist. He drove the play, he slowed the game down and he had the puck on a string. Sometimes, like Monday night, it looks as though Mitch Marner is playing one game and everyone else on the ice is playing another.
In the absence of Auston Matthews to injury and William Nylander five days from a deadline to sign a contract for this season, Marner is driving the play for the Leafs. Today marks exactly one month since Matthews played a game and in the 13 games he has been out, Marner has 2-15-17 totals. How much is Marner propelling the offense? Well, of his 27 assists this season – which is second only to NHL scoring leader Mikko Rantanen – 24 of them are first assists. Marner has 19 assists at even strength this season. The only one that was not a first assist was the one he notched on the Leafs’ empty net goal late in the win over the Bruins.
“I know if stuff’s not going the way it should be in the first second, I’m not getting frustrated,” Marner said. “I’m just staying calm and just relaxing out there. And when I get it I’m just trying to make the right play and the simple play. And if I see something else, I’m trying to make that play. I think the confidence just gets better game-by-game when you start knowing your linemates more and more. All three of us (he and linemates John Tavares and Zach Hyman) just keep getting more confidence by the game.”
And Marner keeps increasing his value with every passing game. Do we begin at this point to contemplate the possibility that, in the long term, he might actually turn out to be a better player than Matthews? The answer is yes. Yes, we do. It’s going to be very interesting to determine Marner’s worth after this season. Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres is just starting a lockout-protected deal that will pay him an average of $10 million this season and for the seven after that. Which player would you rather have? Marner is worth at least $10 million a season. But is he worth $12 million? More than that?
And this is where it is going to get extremely precarious for the Leafs. We know now that Marner is waiting until after the season to start negotiating a contract, something Matthews might do as well. If Marner does make it past July 1, he would be in the position to receive an offer sheet from another team. There has not been an offer sheet tendered in six years and GMs are generally loathe to do it for fear of reprisal, but Marner would be worth the risk, if for no other reason than an Atlantic Division rival would have the opportunity to put the Leafs into a situation of salary cap distress by having to match it. Let’s put it this way. If Matthews, Marner and Patrik Laine become restricted free agents and none of them receives an offer sheet, the NHL Players’ Association would have a case for collusion. (Of course, if the NHL weren’t so afraid of the arbitration bogeyman and allowed the process for players coming off entry-level contracts, the Leafs wouldn’t have to worry about this. They’d also have Nylander in their lineup this season, but that’s a rant for another day.)
Coach Mike Babcock is fully aware the Leafs will have to negotiate with Marner and seems to go to great pains not to single him out. When asked after the game whether Marner is seeing the game on another level from his peers, Babcock said: “I think that’s what you think with all good players, is it not? I think, if you’re watching (Boston), I think you think when (David Pastrnak) gets the puck and he’s playing a different game than everybody else, too. What’s amazing is most of us have no time and space whatsoever. We’re banging it here and banging it there and chasing it. Then the really good guys seem to have all the time in the world and that’s what you’re talking about. That’s why they’re just gliding all over the rink and it seems effortless and it seems like fun and they have the puck all the time and you can't figure out why. They’re just better than everybody else.”
That was pretty impressive. Babcock was asked a question directly about Marner and managed to answer it without even mentioning his name once. Patrick Marleau, who has served as something of a mentor for Marner, was far more effusive in his praise. “He’s in a nice groove here,” Marleau said of Marner, “and he’s going to keep getting better…and that’s scary.”
And the day after the Leafs play their final game of this season, the Leafs will find out just how scary the prospect of securing Marner long-term is going to be.