Mitch Marner Running Out of Leash with Maple Leaf Fans

As a 19-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs’ rookie in 2016, it didn’t take long for Mitch Marner to endear himself to the fans. To most of us he looked like a 13-year-old kid sitting on the bench with grown men, a huge smile on his face that never seemed to go away. His enthusiasm was hard to ignore.  

Related: Maple Leafs Marner & Matthews In Meteoric Rise Up NHL Leader Board

Marner’s Play Matched His Enthusiasm

His play didn’t disappoint. During Marner’s first season, he scored 19 goals and added 42 assists (for 61 points) in 77 games. When the team made the playoffs, he didn’t quit. He followed up that regular season with a goal and three assists for four points as the Maple Leafs lost in six games to a strong and experienced Washington Capitals’ team. 

Mitch Marner
Mitch Marner. Photo taken by Katie Whitty.

Marner’s second season was even better. He upped his goal total to 22 and his assist total to 47 to lead the team with 69 points. Again, he proved to be a playoff performer by scoring two goals and seven assists (for nine points) in the Maple Leafs’ seven-game loss to the Boston Bruins in a series they could have won.  

The Current Maple Leafs Began to Take Shape

When the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares during the summer of 2018, head coach Mike Babcock put Tavares and Marner together at the start of the 2018-19 season. That partnership was magical. Marner exploded and Tavares set personal bests. Marner finished the season with 26 goals and 68 assists for a team-leading 94 points that placed him 11th overall in the NHL. Tavares scored a personal-best 47 goals and added 41 assists (for 88 points).  

Related: Every NHL Team’s All-Time Leader in Points

During the playoffs, the Maple Leafs again lost to the Bruins in the first round. Still, Marner showed up by scoring two goals and two assists (for four points) in seven games. He also stood out defensively, working with Tavares and Zach Hyman to shut down the Bruins’ Bergeron line.

Despite a third-straight, first-round playoff loss, the future looked bright for the Maple Leafs. Things were also sunny for Marner. He was just ending his entry-level contract. Willian Nylander had just signed for under $7 million a season. And, Auston Matthews had signed for five years at $11.6 million. 

All that was needed for the Maple Leafs to solidify their core was to get Marner signed.

Strike One: A Contentious Summer of Posturing and Puffing Up

That summer turned contentious. Negotiations between Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas and Marner’s agent Darren Ferris became very public and continued until the last minute. In the end, Marner signed a six-year contract for $10.9 million, which was a number many fans believed was far too high. 

Perhaps it was less about the money than the way the contract was negotiated – the perceived sulking, puffing up, or the attitude that I’ll take my toys and go home (actually to Switzerland). Marner emerged from those negotiations richer financially but poorer in terms of fan appreciation. Many fans came to believe he was selfish, spoiled, and entitled.  

Marner and the Team Struggled During the 2019-20 Season

Marner struggled to start the 2019-2020 season. Tavares fell to injury for seven games, and the Maple Leafs struggled to win for coach Babcock. Then Marner himself was injured in the first game of the six-game losing streak that ultimately cost Babcock his job.  

Shortly after Marner’s return to action, new coach Sheldon Keefe did something fans and the media had pleaded with Babcock to do. He partnered Matthews and Marner on the team’s first line. The two caught fire. 

The results were similar to the magic between Marner and Tavares the season before. It appeared Matthews would become the first Maple Leafs player to score 50 goals in over 25 years, and a big part of the credit for Matthews’ success was being given to Marner.  

Related: Maple Leafs’ Robertson More Determined After Development Camp

But Matthews’ 50-goal season wasn’t to be. The NHL season was suspended on March 20, 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic raised its ugly head. Marner still had a good season, and finished with 16 goals and 51 assists (for 67 points) in 59 games. It appeared Marner had overcome his slow start to the season and the backlash he received at the start of the season seemed to be dissipating.  

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

After a hiatus of almost five months, the NHL returned to play in two playoff bubbles – one in Toronto and one in Edmonton. Because the NHL was unable to finish the regular season, it added four teams to the playoffs, giving the top four teams a first-round bye. The Maple Leafs faced and ultimately lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a five-game series. Despite scoring four points during the five games, all assists, Marner again seemed to shoulder a lot of the blame for the loss. Any criticism he received at the start of the season crept back into social media and hockey posts. 

What was supposed to be the 2020/2021 NHL regular season became the 2021 season because it started in early January, 2021. To mediate the pandemic’s restriction of cross-border traffic, the Maple Leafs were placed in an All-Canadian Division with the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, and Vancouver Canucks.  

Related: Maple Leafs’ 2020-21 Season Saw a Mitch Marner Transformation

The Maple Leafs won their division, and Marner finished the season with 20 goals and 47 assists (for 67 points) in 55 games to finish fourth in NHL scoring. He also contributed to Matthews’ scoring 41 goals and 25 assists (for 66 points) in 52 games. Matthews 40 goals in 49 games was the fastest 40 goals in Maple Leafs’ history.

Strike Two: The Maple Leafs Blew a 3-1 Series Lead to the Canadiens

During the 2020-21 playoffs, the Maple Leafs faced the fourth-place Canadiens, a series in which they were massive favourites. In fact, they were picked by many to sweep an inferior Montreal team in four games. After losing Tavares to a scary and freaky accident early in Game 1 and then losing that game, the Maple Leafs won three straight, with Marner scoring three assists in those games. 

Then disaster. The Maple Leafs lost the next three games to the Canadiens. Not only was Leafs Nation mad at the team for losing to the lowly Canadiens, who eventually went all the way to the Stanley Cup final, they focused their rage on Marner. Many called for him to be traded. Headlines such as “Zero Goals in 18 playoff games” or “Overpaid by $5 million” were redundant. Again the word selfish was bantered about in social media. For many Maple Leafs’ fans, what was wrong with the team was all Marner’s fault. 

Approaching the 2021-22 Regular Season

As the Maple Leafs get ready to open camp for the 2021-22 season, the team heads back into the tough Atlantic Division. There they’ll face the two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, their old nemesis the Bruins, not to mention the Canadiens.

So what’s ahead for Marner? How does he handle the criticism, the stress, and the pressure that has been created by all the negative social media?  Marner has stated he doesn’t follow social media. Is that true? It seems hard to believe he doesn’t see what’s being said about him. The video he posted, which was reported by The Hockey Writers own Kevin Armstrong suggests differently.

Does Mitch Marner fold under this pressure, or does he fight through it? Does he let his actions and his play on the ice talk for him? Will he find a way to endear himself to the majority of fans once again?

If this were baseball, we’d all be wondering whether the next pitch would be strike three? Or, does he hit it out of the park? 

We would love to see him hit a home run.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]