It was a disappointingly early departure from the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Fortunately, fans have since found some sense of comfort after familiar veterans agreed to discounted deals in hopes of future success with the city. A positive all around, until those looking for negative narratives start to force illogical comparisons.
An adverse effect after an athlete accepts a lesser payday, especially if they claim it’s for the good of the team, is that it inadvertently re-directs an unwarranted spotlight towards the club’s higher-paid stars. That’s exactly what’s happening in Toronto, now that Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds have re-signed for less than $1 million each.
While this sparks debate, delving into who makes what and why, choosing to overlook all the relevant factors doesn’t legitimize an irrational argument.
Time Is on Marner’s Side
It’s no secret that Mitch Marner is one of the highest-paid athletes on Toronto’s roster, let alone throughout the league, with an AAV of nearly $11 million. So, of course, he should be held to a higher standard of play and production than those earning less.
However, he’s not even midway through his six-year deal and many onlookers have already made it clear that they feel he’s not worth the spend. When those same supporters heard that two former 30-goal scorers in 38-year-old Spezza and 32-year-old Simmonds signed for a fraction of what Marner makes, they didn’t hold back their opinions on the matter.
What such perspectives fail to include, though, is that a 24-year-old progressing through his prime has a drastically different earning potential than former stars hoping to maintain employment.
It’s justifiable — expected, really — that fans will have varying opinions on their team’s build. From the gameday lineups, to the most impactful positions, to the franchise’s overall outlook. These are the conversations that keep the public engaged and entertained.
Yet, not everyone is willing to see things as objectively as they should when the more subjective topics are set aside. Hence, as Marner continues to elevate his game, skeptics will find new ways to rationalize their stance. That doesn’t mean they are correct, though.
Picking Friends & Forcing Foes
As pleased as the public can be when personnel make it easy for Kyle Dubas to retain their talents, the opposite played out when it came time for Marner to negotiate beyond his entry-level contract. After what felt like an extra-long offseason during the summer of 2019, a deal between the two sides was finally in place just prior to the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
It’s important to note that, contrary to popular sentiment, holding out to secure his financial future doesn’t mean Marner lacks a will to win in his hometown city.
“It’s great to be over with and I’m happy to be here,” Marner said Saturday. “I’m excited to be part of this team. Obviously seeing this roster and everything that’s happened in the summer time, it looks like a great team and hopefully I can contribute to that and help out.”
Recency bias is to blame for Toronto’s fanbase choosing to ignore more relevant contract comparisons. It’s not as though Spezza and Simmonds didn’t cash in when they had the same opportunity to do so. It just didn’t occur in Toronto.
Currently, their team-first approach is being highlighted for all the right reasons. Yet, what most are neglecting to recognize is all that preceded and brought these players to this point in their careers. They’ve progressed beyond seeking financial fulfillment alone.
“I know where the team’s at with the cap and everything. And I’ll be honest, all I care about is playing on a good team and just trying to win. So if I could take less I would,” Spezza, who has earned nearly $89 million over his career according to CapFriendly.com, told reporters Wednesday.
That’s not to say they never cared about the money, just because the headlines now read in that manner. It’s irresponsible to completely ignore their career earnings and largest contracts throughout their prime playing days. These very teammates also enjoyed their rightful payday at one point or another.
Capitalizing Throughout a Career
Back in 2012, a 23-year-old Simmonds re-signed with the Philadelphia Flyers after ending the 2011-12 season tied for fourth in production on that roster. It was a six-year deal, worth just under $24 million.
Rewinding even further to 2007, then 24-year-old Spezza agreed to a seven-year extension with the Ottawa Senators for $49 million. That aligned the former second-overall pick among the top-paid players in the NHL at that time.
Both of these multi-millionaires enjoyed years of inflating their bank accounts. They’ve now reached that natural point of athletic regression, wherein their priorities have shifted accordingly. No longer are they looking to maximize their earnings, they’re more so working to capture what they’ve yet to throughout their careers.
To expect someone in their mid-20s to share the same goals as those 8-14 years his senior is nonsense. While it’s fair to hope that Marner’s mindset matures into what we’re seeing from the likes of Simmonds and Spezza, he has lots of time ahead of him before one can accurately compare his to those types of voices.
Matching Output to Market Value
Beyond the organization’s salary cap spreadsheet, which sees Marner at the top of a column that includes Spezza and Simmonds down below, disgruntled fans are using recent postseason results to fuel their fury. They leverage Marner’s lack of production to rationalize frustration with his contract.
Although that’s fair, as an athlete making what Marner currently is should be counted on to do what he’s paid to, it’s a short-sighted stance to uphold when using it to argue his value to the Maple Leafs.
Since entering the league in 2016-17, Marner has already set a standard as a point-per-game player and his prowess improves annually. But, everyone knows he produces during the season. It’s his lack of playoff presence that presents the problem, right? It’s really not that straightforward.
Projecting Playoff Production
First of all, while it’s understandable to underline the mere four points Marner earned through Toronto’s First Round failure in the 2021 Playoffs, that doesn’t tell his whole story. He actually has 25 points through 32 postseason contests to date, for a pace of 0.78 per game. That puts Marner right in between what both Spezza and Simmonds had accomplished by the same time in their respective careers.
Largely due to Spezza’s Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2007, which saw him earn seven goals and 15 assists in that one run alone, he accumulated 39 points in 40 games through his first five playoffs. Whereas Simmonds had actually done far less in that same span, having only collected 19 points through 36 postseason matches.
While Marner’s impact is a necessary component of Toronto’s collective effort, it takes a full team to succeed in the playoffs. Perhaps with an elevation of output throughout their lineup, every member will then have a more justifiable opportunity to prove how prolific they can be when it matters most. Five years isn’t enough of a sample size to formulate any conclusions.
Instead of being so quick to suggest shipping Marner out of town for having not already reached his peak, Toronto’s most skeptical need to practice a little more patience. If he’s still yet to perform as is necessary by the time his term is up, then he deserves to be judged accordingly.
On the flip side, the same line of thought should apply as we witness Marner reach new tiers throughout his career. Especially if he achieves the pinnacle of success as a Maple Leaf. Those who were once campaigning to let him go better then be willing to recognize their flawed logic.
Making a Mockery of Marner
It’s starting to feel like the only way to appease the fraction of fans who choose to downplay Marner’s value, is by fast-forwarding time so he can age by 10-15 years. By then, he’ll be well past his prime and his bank account will have peaked, so he can justify agreeing to the league minimum while professing his love for the city.
It’s not that Marner hasn’t taken advantage of opportunities to share his admiration. Yet, apparently, the Maple Leafs’ most loyal are more willing to celebrate those types of proclamations when they come from hometown heroes with their best playing days behind them.
Rather than being so irrationally critical, why not just embrace that veterans want to win with the Maple Leafs as their younger counterparts continue to elevate the franchise? Having Spezza and Simmonds lead by example while Marner leaves it all out on the ice truly is the best of both worlds.
Try to enjoy it a little more than you have been, and ease up on those who will surely be most responsible for welcoming winning back to town, Toronto.
Freelance thinker, paying too much attention to digital aesthetic. Oxford comma enthusiast. Spider-Man supporter. Sports fan, with two favourite hockey teams. If the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs ever meet in the Stanley Cup Final, you can find me wherever they’re playing that night.