Four games into the 2021-22 NHL regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a work-in-progress. They’ve scored only eight times, but they’ve allowed just seven goals. With some of their fans still feeling uneasy after their 2021 playoff disaster, the Leafs know their every move will be studied under a microscope, and that free-floating concern is likely to be felt all season.
The challenge for the entire roster – from superstar Auston Matthews, all the way down to newest NHL callup, goalie Michael Hutchinson – is to shut out that worry and use their plethora of talent to stake out a high spot in the standings. The Leafs employ a mental health expert to help players cope with the pressure, but the pressure is so immense, it can overwhelm just about anyone.
This year, much of the public pressure has been directed at winger Mitch Marner. Certainly, the bulk of the pressure on Marner comes from the mammoth, six-year, $65.4 million contract he signed in 2019. He’s the third highest-paid player on Toronto’s payroll, and there’s a built-in expectancy that comes with that type of financial largesse. Unfortunately for Marner, he wasn’t nearly as much of a force in last year’s playoffs, where, for the second consecutive year, he failed to score and had just four assists in a first-round defeat.
However, that doesn’t mean Leafs GM Kyle Dubas should give up on Marner. Sometimes, people forget Marner is 24 years old. His best years are ahead. Yes, he takes up 13.4 percent of Toronto’s salary cap. He has to deliver, sooner or later, or Dubas (or perhaps a replacement for Dubas) will pluck him off the roster and trade him to, say, the Calgary Flames or Seattle Kraken. It would be a painful exit for Marner, but he would get out of the Truman Show-like existence that comes with playing in a hockey goldfish bowl.
For Leafs fans’ sake, it shouldn’t come to that. Toronto has a history of pushing away its top athletes. The auras of Larry Murphy (a Hockey Hall of Famer), Phil Kessel (a two-time Stanley Cup champion), and numerous others the Leafs gave up on can still be sensed in the air around Scotiabank Arena. It’s part of the organization’s history, it’s unmistakable and unavoidable. All of the Leafs have to deal with it in their own individual way. But again, when it comes to Marner, you need to look at the bigger picture and the longer timeline.
Here’s what I’m getting at: it took Leafs president Brendan Shanahan a full 10 years to win his first NHL championship. It didn’t come easy, no matter how badly he wanted it to come. He had to switch teams three times before he finally found the right fit. You don’t want to trade Marner and watch him hoist the Cup in a different uniform. Let him evolve. Give him another opportunity to succeed, and see if he’s up to the challenge. Don’t squeeze the vise on him.
If Leafs’ fans allow Marner more time to develop, there’s every chance they’ll be rewarded with points galore – but this time, he’ll step up and deliver in the post-season. If they give him some breathing room, it’s entirely possible Marner will leave the past where it belongs and put his demons to rest. That’s part of the joy of sport – you see people climb a ladder, personally and professionally, you invest your time, money and emotion in those people, and you hope it pays off.
Don’t push Marner off that ladder just yet. He’s still got a ways to climb. And remember – he’s 24 years old. He’s had to learn the hard way that playoff hockey is a vastly different animal than regular-season hockey, but he surely knows that now. Give him a little more runway to work with. If you don’t, you risk alienating him and giving him reason to leave Toronto as an unrestricted free agent when his contract expires in 2025.
By then, Marner will be 28 years old, and he’ll be due for another massive contract. If Leafs Land is hostile to him, he’ll leave, possibly for nothing but his cap space in return. And there’s not much sadder than seeing an athlete essentially banished from his hometown. Don’t let it get to that.