Mitch Marner’s contract status looms large over Leafs as camp nears

To prepare you for the opening of NHL training camps in mid-September, CBC Sports will do a deep dive on one of the seven Canadian-based clubs every Thursday. The Toronto Maple Leafs are examined in the seventh and final installment.

Click here to read about the Montreal CanadiensWinnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, and Ottawa Senators.

If you’re a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fanatic, there was one massive reason the agony continued this summer: Mitch Marner remains unsigned.

It’s no secret the Leafs have a salary cap problem to fit Marner back into the fold. According to capfriendly.com, their payroll currently sits at $ 84.4-million US. With relief from Nathan Horton ($ 5.3 million) and David Clarkson ($ 5.25 million) going on the long-term injury list, that leaves Toronto $ 7.65 million under the $ 81.5-million salary cap limit.

Marner is an $ 11-million-a-season player. So there still is a huge problem to solve.

The Leafs brass have nobody to blame but themselves. Last summer, general manager Kyle Dubas knew he had to sign three of their top players in William Nylander, Auston Matthews and Marner in the next year.

The diminutive dynamo is one of the many restricted free agents in the NHL without a contract. Mikko Rantanen (Colorado), Brayden Point (Tampa Bay), Charlie McAvoy (Boston), Zach Werenski (Columbus), Patrick Laine (Winnipeg), Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), Brock Boeser (Vancouver) and Brendan Perlini (Chicago) are several other prominent youngsters without a deal as training camp fast approaches.

A matter of number-crunching

The salary cap has expanded in small increments in the past few seasons. New revenue streams have hit a wall, and only ticket-price hikes have been responsible for the small increases in the cap ceiling. 

The Leafs still went out and signed John Tavares to a seven-year, $ 11-million-a-season cap hit. The thinking was evident: Tavares would immediately make the Leafs a Stanley Cup contender. But, once again, Toronto could not get out of the first round.

Nylander (six years, $ 6.96 million) was signed last December after a prolonged contract dispute, and Matthews was rewarded with an extension (five years, $ 11.63 million) last February.

These developments put the spotlight immediately on Marner’s unresolved situation.  

Almost forgotten has been the number of changes the Maple Leafs have undergone since the Boston Bruins ousted them 5-1 in Game 7 on Apr. 23. Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot, Cody Ceci, Ilya Mikheyev, Ben Harpur and Garrett Wilson were added. Shipped out were Jake Gardiner, Patrick Marleau, Nazem Kadri, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey and Garret Sparks.

Barrie and Ceci have upgraded the Leafs top-four on the blueline. But with Brown going to the Ottawa Senators in the Ceci trade and Kadri to the Colorado Avalanche in the Barrie move, where’s the grit?

Toronto can beat plenty of teams with its skill and possession game as well as its reliance on goaltender Frederik Andersen. But toughness is required when the playoffs roll around.

Blues, Capitals provide blueprint

The St. Louis Blues proved having plenty of sandpaper in your lineup wins championships in defeating another grit-filled team in the Bruins. Oh yeah, the Leafs know all about the Bruins toughness.

The Washington Capitals were pretty good in the toughness department, too, with Tom Wilson leading the way in 2017-18.

The Leafs hope forwards Wilson and Mason Marchment can help in the sandpaper department. Marchment, however, has yet to play in the NHL after two full seasons in the minors.

Other AHL Toronto Marlies hopefuls to make the Leafs include Swedish defencemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. Spezza appears to be destined for the fourth-line and duty on the second power-play unit.

But all this doesn’t matter unless Marner saga plays out in the Maple Leafs favour. And the bad news after that? Four members of the Leafs blue line — Ceci, Barrie, Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl — are slated to become UFAs next summer.

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