Among the juicier quotes to emerge from the end-of-season media availabilities yesterday was Kyle Dubas’ passionate defense of Mitch Marner in wake of the recent fan and media criticism.

Dubas went so far as to call the criticism, “among the more idiotic things I see done here.” The specific criticism Dubas was responding to was not made clear, but it was obvious he entered the press conference with a burr in his saddle about it and intended to stand up for his player if asked about Marner.

I don’t get the criticism of Mitch Marner one bit. I really struggle with it. He is a guy that plays his ass off every night. He’s got tremendous skill, tremendous intensity, plays every situation for us, makes a ton of plays. Everything that he does wrong, people jump all over him about. I don’t how or why it is that way, but if Mitch Marner is the player that he has been and he continues to grow and mature and do what every player does when they go from 22 to 23 to 24 to 25 and just gets better and better, we would be thrilled.

Mitch Marner is a high-end player in the NHL. We don’t want him to be anything other than that. If that is what he is, that is what we love and we will continue to love him for that. I don’t know where this all started with the criticizing of Mitch Marner, but to me, it is among the more idiotic things I see done here.

The “works his ass off every night” quote coming just minutes after Mitch Marner admitted he wasn’t engaged for Game 1 of the playoffs is a bit cringeworthy, but let’s put that aside — while I, like most observers, thought Marner had more to give in the Columbus series, I don’t see his work ethic as a real cause for concern.

Marner is consistently productive, plays all situations for the team, is a committed penalty killer, has had some big moments blocking shots to close out wins in the past (including a playoff win versus Boston), and is generally a hard worker on the ice. He’s always needed a plucky work ethic to go along with his skill set given how undersized he’s been relative to his peers at every level of the game.

The optics of his quote were poor, but I don’t think Marner should be punished unduly for his honesty and every player, if they were to be as candid, would admit to off nights where they just can’t seem to get into a game, even in the odd playoff game where they’re just not feeling it. “Not engaged” doesn’t necessarily mean, “I didn’t give a damn,” and it could just be one way of saying he couldn’t seem to find traction in the game — in particularly weird circumstances to boot, with no fans in the stands, a lack of competitive action before Game 1, and against a great defensive team determined to choke out the opposition’s skilled players.

Later in the day yesterday on Sportsnet 590, Tim and Sid pressed Dubas a little more on the Marner subject, asking specifically about the contract and whether it has added significant pressure on Marner to perform.

I had a look at it after the previous interview. I get that there are players that people say are comparables to him that signed for less. My response was that two of the three players brought up signed for three years and not the six that Mitch gave. The way the economics work, the more years you give a team, certainly as an RFA, the more money you are going to get versus a bridge deal.

There were two players in particular mentioned and Mitch outproduced them during the season in significantly fewer games. There was another player mentioned — and I don’t want to get into the names of it because I don’t know if that is right or wrong — and that player signed a long-term deal for a little bit less — a million and a half less, or whatever it is — by 27 points or something like that.

If that is the way people want to look at it, that is fine, but the salary cap and where we are at is my responsibility to dance around. I think this contract and Auston’s and the rest we’re going to get full value from. I have no doubt about that.

If that is what has gotten people all whipped up, I am sorry for them. Mitch Marner is a player that is going to have a great career here as a Toronto Maple Leaf. If he just carries on the way he started, he is going to end up as one of the top players in our franchise.

Again, it’s hard to know what criticisms Dubas was referencing specifically in his first quote — there is a great variety of it in this market, and a lot of it is personal, downright batshit crazy, and is way out of line — but on the spectrum of Marner criticisms, taking issue with the contract is the furthest from idiotic. It’s actually grounded in facts and reality.

We can pretty easily identify the players Dubas wouldn’t name in his quote above. The one who also signed long term and scored 27 fewer points than Marner: Mikko Rantanen, who only played 41 games due to injury (Sebastian Aho, who scored 38 goals this year, also matches the description of a player who signed long-term — on a matched offer sheet — and is making a few million less than Marner, but he didn’t appear to be referenced above).

The ones to sign three-year deals: Brayden Point and Matthew Tkachuk.

Let’s recap each of Rantanen, Point, and Marner’s situations at the time of signing their current deals:

  • A centerman, Brayden Point scored 41 goals and 92 points the season prior to signing his three-year, $6.75 million AAV contract. He produced .4 goals per game and .86 points per game over his entry-level deal. While he signed a bridge contract so it’s not directly comparable, Marner is going to earn $65 million by the end of the 2024-25 season; Point won’t even come close to that even accounting for his re-up in 2022.
  • Mikko Rantanen, a winger, had one 30+ goal season and two 80+ point seasons to his name over the duration of his entry-level deal. He scored six goals and 14 points in 12 games in the 2019 playoffs. Overall, his ELC production added up to .91 points per game and .38 goals per game. He signed for six years, $9.25 million AAV last summer.
  • Mitch Marner scored at a .28 goals per game rate (.10 less than Rantanen, .12 less than Point) and a .93 points per game rate (.02 more than Rantanen, .04 more than Point) over his ELC. Worth pointing out here, in fairness (given I mentioned Point’s 40+ goal year in his final ELC season): Marner’s even-strength point total was sixth in the league and his primary points total was second in the NHL to only Connor McDavid in 2018-19, albeit with a sky-high on-ice shooting percentage (11.37%). Marner signed for six years, $10.9 million AAV last September.

Let’s fast forward through the 2019-20 season now:

  • Brayden Point tallied 25 goals and 64 points in 66 games (31 goals and 79 points pro-rated over 82). 51 of his 64 points came at even strength, and 51 of his 64 points were primary points.
  • Mikko Rantanen tallied 19 goals and 41 points in 42 games (on pace for 37 goals, 80 points over 82). 27 of his 41 points came at even strength, and 35 of his 41 points were primary points.
  • Mitch Marner tallied 16 goals and 67 points in 59 games (on pace for 22 goals, 93 points). 42 of his 67 points were at even strength. 48 of his 67 points were primary points.
  • If we use Rantanen’s directly comparable six-year deal and pro-rate over 82 games, Marner was paid $165,000 per primary point and Rantanen $136,000 per primary point. If we go by goals, it’s $495,000 per goal in Marner’s case and $250,000 per goal in Rantanen’s case.

I don’t think there is any getting around the premium the Leafs paid on Marner’s contract.

Kyle Dubas is data-inclined and smart enough to know that, “well, we gave Marner more term than [Point],” or, “[Rantanen] scored fewer points,” are simplistic rebuttals and not at all effective refutations of the Marner contract critiques. It reminds me a little bit of his Cody Ceci defense back in November, where Dubas was heard shadow-boxing with Twitter narratives about eye tests versus numbers. You’re left thinking, “Why are you going down this road at all with the media?”

In the case of his Marner defense, stand up for your player by all means and tell us why you’re not worried about the dollar figure on his contract, but it would be a lot more effective if he left out the disingenuous parts.