When Mitch Marner first came to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the fans adored him. He was drafted fourth overall by the Maple Leafs in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, and in his next season with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) London Knights, he proved Toronto’s choice was a good one. He tore up the OHL, averaging over two points each game (116 points in 57 games).
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During his first season with the Maple Leafs, he scored 19 goals and added 42 assists (for 61 points) in 77 NHL games. He was good, but he was going to – over the next few seasons – get much better. Last season (his sixth in the NHL) in 72 games, he logged 97 points (with 35 goals and 62 assists). This season, he’s on a similar pace.
Marner’s Game Has Continued to Grow and Improve
Just before the Christmas break this season, Marner set a Maple Leafs’ franchise record by putting together a streak of points-in-consecutive games that lasted 23 games. No question, Marner is valuable to his team.
Marner’s both strong offensively, and he’s a 200-foot player. He’s great with the puck negotiating in tight spaces. He sees the ice and makes good passes. He’s valuable both on the penalty kill and in five-on-five because he reads the passing lanes and regularly picks off open-ice passes. He’s a strong shot blocker.
Marner Became a Polarizing Player in 2019
Given all this success, it would seem that such a player would be well-liked by Maple Leafs’ fans. However, that hasn’t always been true of Marner. His stock with the team’s fans had been one of high value, then moved to a low value, and only recently is beginning to rise once again.
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When Marner was playing on an entry-level contract, he was the team’s Golden Boy. With a spate of skills and a positive personality, he was well-loved by most Maple Leafs’ fans.
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However, for many fans, Marner’s status fell during the summer prior to the 2019-20 season. That was the offseason Marner and his agent Darren Ferris negotiated Marner’s contract with Maple Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas.
The Summer of 2019 Was an Exercise in Posturing
During the course of those negotiations, Marner became a polarizing player for many fans. Over his career, his stock has risen, has fallen, and now is beginning to rise again. He was a team favorite when he was paid less. However, the negotiations he and his agent Darren Ferris engaged with the Maple Leafs’ organization soured him with many fans.
Only this season has the trade-Marner chorus quieted to whispers. Still, the truth is that – despite both his offensive and defensive success – there remain fans who believe that (a) Marner floats on the perimeter or (b) Marner would be nothing without other great players around him.
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While his recent point streak has helped him move back into a good space with most fans, not all fans have been convinced. In this post, I want to revisit the 2019 negotiations in light of the growth that Marner has made in the minds and hearts of his team’s fans.
Tracking the Marner Offseason Negotiations
From Marner’s perspective, there can be no argument. He and his agent were successful. Marner got his money. As Maple Leafs’ fans know, as a result of those negotiations, Marner signed a contract with the organization for six years valued at $65.408 million on September 13, 2019. His contract carries a salary-cap hit of $10.903 million.
Ferris’ negotiating strategy proved successful. Although much of this strategy was hidden from the public, fans did see a number of steps in the process. What was visible to the public seemed centered around questioning the Maple Leafs’ desire to have his client as part of the team’s roster.
First, when Auston Matthews chose to re-sign with the team during the 2018-19 season, immediately the Ferris camp noted that Dubas had “low-balled” his client on Marner’s negotiations.
Second, as negotiations proceeded, Ferris reported that because Dubas was unwilling to sign Marner for the same money as Matthews, it was proof that the team didn’t value Marner as a player.
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Third, Ferris planted the seed that Marner was looking at playing professionally in Switzerland as Matthews had done prior to his own draft season. While there was no specific threat that was the case, the idea was leaked that Marner would consider playing in Europe instead of playing in Toronto.
Fourth, after Marner signed, Ferris hit the radio talk-show circuit. He was sympathetic to the Maple Leafs’ plight and commented that he didn’t think the salary-cap system worked. He believed teams were handcuffed as they tried “to secure their star players and keep them long term.”
These Salary Negotiations Changed Marner’s Image
Prior to these negotiations, most Maple Leafs’ fans believed Marner was one of the team’s on-ice leaders and perhaps even the team’s heart and/or soul. The fans adored this young, skilled, personality-filled, hometown player.
Marner had been the team’s leading scorer for both the 2017-18 season (69 points for Marner to 63 for Matthews – although Matthews played 20 fewer games) and 2018-19 (94 points for Marner, 88 for John Tavares, and 73 for Matthews – again in only 68 games).
Fans believed Marner was the kind of player a franchise could be built around, but not at the expense of his contract. Many fans thought he remained a great player, but they were no longer sure about his leadership ability on the team.
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The negotiations changed things for Marner. Although Marner’s agent did his job well by getting his client the money, the way the negotiations were handled eroded the adoration many fans held for Marner. Marner’s brand had been damaged.
Fortunately, over the seasons with many Maple Leafs’ fans, Marner’s been able to rehabilitate his reputation. This season’s 23-game-point-scoring streak helped him solidify his value to the team. Still, it’s been a difficult journey for the 25-year-old Marner and he hasn’t yet won back all the fans he lost three years ago.
A Long Stanley Cup Journey Might Help Marner’s Status
I think his status with the fans matters to him. A long Stanley Cup postseason journey might be the icing on the cake. It would solidify Marner’s position with this team once again.
Maple Leafs’ fans can hope once again this season as they did last season. It’s possible with this team, including Marner.