If you’ve logged onto social media at all in the aftermath of the loss, you’re aware that Mitch Marner has been taking a lot of heat for the Maple Leafs’ most recent first-round playoff exit.
While the Leafs received stellar goaltending, solid defensive contributions all throughout their lineup, and more production than expected from their second line (despite John Tavares missing basically the entire series due to injury), their top two players — namely Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner — did not pull their weight on the scoresheet.
Matthews only scored one goal through seven games. Marner didn’t score at all. It’s pretty hard to evaluate this series for the Maple Leafs without coming to the conclusion that both players needed to be better. As such, neither should be absolved from criticism.
What’s more, this is Toronto’s fifth consecutive first-round exit in five years since Matthews and Marner entered the league — and their most recent loss to the Canadiens has to be their most embarrassing yet given how heavily they were favoured going into the series and the fact that they led in the series 3-1 after four games.
In that five-year span, the organization has switched General Managers, revamped the coaching staff, overhauled the supporting cast, changed starting goalies, and re-invented their style of play under Sheldon Keefe. Despite all of the tinkering they’ve done around the core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, the team has continually produced the same result.
Naturally, the idea of trading a core player will be a lively debate all offseason in Leafs circles.
Nylander is making by far the least out of the “Big Four” and objectively produced the best playoff performance out of them all. I don’t think that’s where you look to if you want to shake up the core.
Matthews is the face of the franchise, the best goal scorer in the NHL, and has had a couple of strong playoff performances in recent memory — he posted six points in five games in the bubble against Columbus last season and scored five times in seven games in 2019 against the Bruins. They’re obviously not trading him.
For obvious reasons, Tavares cannot be blamed for this year’s loss. He is the team’s captain, and he has a no-movement clause anyway. He’s staying put.
The subject of Marner, now the scapegoat on Leafs Twitter, makes for a more interesting discussion. His playoff resume is a lot more troubling than Matthews’ or Nylander’s. The star winger is goalless in his last 18 playoff games (10 assists, -7 plus/minus) — a streak that dates back to the 2019 series against the Boston Bruins. He is scoring at a 52-point clip prorated over 82 games over his last three playoff series, which is a decent rate for most NHLers but not for a $10.9 million player who has averaged 26 goals and 95 points per 82 games over his last three regular seasons.
If your argument is that the Leafs need to change up their core to help them perform better in the playoffs, Marner is the one that, at this point in time, is going to be a popular trade candidate among the fan base and media this offseason. While Kyle Dubas and Brendan Shanahan both expressed continued faith in the Leafs’ core four in their media availabilities yesterday, on the most recent MLHS Podcast, Elliotte Friedman made the point: “If they are going to trade a core player this offseason, they’re not going to tell us today.”
Does it ultimately make sense to trade one of the league’s best wingers after three poor playoff performances, though? Are we all letting the emotions get the better of us after another heartbreaking playoff failure?
It’s more complicated than that. Let’s dig into it.
Arguments IN FAVOUR of a Marner trade
Pro-Trade Argument #1: Marner has consistently underwhelmed with his play in the playoffs
As stated above, a major reason why we are even having this discussion is because of Marner’s recent playoff performances — and the Maple Leafs’ playoff performances under this core in general.
If you move this player, you are banking on the assumption that he is unlikely to find a way to elevate his play (or even simply play as well as he does in the regular season) in the playoffs — at least in this market as a Toronto Maple Leaf. It means that you either believe that his style of play is not conducive to playoff success (and that he cannot find a way to fix this), or that the pressure of being a star player who is paid huge money to deliver for his hometown team in big moments is just too much for this particular player to overcome.
It’s hard to prove whether either one of these arguments is actually accurate or not, but the fact that Marner has consistently been unable to perform up to his capabilities come playoff time over a somewhat decent sample size does provide some sort of evidence that supports this way of thinking.
I’m not saying the narrative that Marner can’t and won’t perform in the playoff as a Leaf is 100% true, but at this point, you cannot justify an argument that this is 100% false with any sort of postseason evidence.
Pro-Trade Argument #2: The Salary Cap
As we have all heard about a billion times, the Maple Leafs have over $40M per year tied up in four players — all of them being star forwards — and the team has now been shut down in critical-game playoff situations in consecutive years by the Blue Jackets and Canadiens. They also have $15M tied up in their top-three defenders. Obviously, this doesn’t leave much left for the depth players.
I thought that the Maple Leafs got some useful contributions for their bottom-six forwards this past season and even into the playoffs, but aside from Jason Spezza, those contributions were basically 100% on the defensive side of the puck. Pierre Engvall, Wayne Simmonds, Ilya Mikheyev, Joe Thornton, Adam Brooks and Riley Nash can all be useful players, but they’re not a group that is going to give you much offense — only one of them (Thornton) managed to scored a goal, and none of them had more than one point in the series against Montreal.
The Maple Leafs have tried to win with this model for multiple years now, and they have yet to win a playoff series. Perennial playoff contenders like Tampa Bay, Boston, Colorado, and Vegas have all of their star players making under $10M AAV — albeit, some of their star players are in the mid-to-high $9M range, but some of the others are making much, much less than that.
I don’t blame Kyle Dubas for signing Matthews, Marner and Tavares to big-money deals. I certainly don’t blame the players for taking it as it is not their responsibility to work around the salary cap and build a contending team. But it may be time to experiment with a different method of roster construction/salary cap allocation.
If you are of the opinion that switching up the team’s salary-cap structure is the way to go, maybe trading Marner for another star player who makes less money (plus another asset or two), or alternatively, trading him for a pair of effective and perhaps undervalued players that make around as much (or less) in total is something that interests you.
Pro Trade Argument #3: Potential Value
You’ve surely heard the phrase, “you have to give to get.” If a team wants to trade for a top-five point scorer like Mitch Marner, they’d certainly have to give up a lot. There could be a General Manager out there who values Mitch Marner more than they should, or at least, more than you think they should, and as a result, you feel that you could get a better player than Marner in return.
The list of players in the NHL that are better than Mitch Marner, around the same age as Mitch Marner, and that would realistically be available for trade is probably a pretty short one. That being said, it sure seems like Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres checks all of those boxes — while also offering more positional versatility, bringing more of a shot threat to the power play, and making a bit less money. If Eichel, or a player like that, is available, and you could acquire them straight up for Mitch Marner, maybe that is a situation where it makes sense to move on from #16.
Arguments AGAINST a Marner trade
If you are against trading Mitch Marner, chances are you disagree with some of (if not, all of) the points I just made about why it could make sense for the Leafs to move him.
Let’s refute a bunch of the pro-trade arguments I just made, and dive into what the arguments against trading the star winger would be.
Anti-Trade Argument #1: You think Marner could turn it around and start producing in the playoffs
Maybe you are of the mind that these past three years aren’t enough evidence to support the idea that Marner is not a “playoff performer,” or maybe you just think that Marner is too talented to not eventually figure things out and have a breakout postseason.
While there is no NHL playoff evidence to support this theory, we all know that Mitch Marner is an extremely talented, elite, hard-to-replace NHL player. He’s scored at a 26-goal, 95-point pace over the course of the last three seasons. He’s got a high hockey IQ, he’s ultra-skilled, and he grew up as a Leafs fan who clearly wants to have success here.
Marner also enjoyed a ton of playoff success in his pre-NHL days. Remember when he put up 16 goals and 44 points in 18 playoff games while captaining the London Knights to a Memorial Cup? Obviously, Marner was a different breed of dominant in junior compared to the NHL, and the pressure of playing in the Memorial Cup probably doesn’t compare to playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — although, as somebody who has never played in either, it’s hard for me to state that objectively — but there is some evidence that he can step up in high-pressure situations. Maybe he’s just got to work on a thing or two in his mental game before he can accomplish that at the NHL level.
The short answer: I don’t exactly know if he’s going to be able to figure it out in the NHL playoffs for the Maple Leafs, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it goes either way. If you trade him because of poor playoff performances and the very next season he ends up figuring things out on another team, that would be a very tough look for the Leafs (and let’s face it, it would be such a typical Leafs story).
Anti-Trade Argument #2: Trading stars for pennies on the dollar is a bad idea
I argued in the pro-trade section of this piece that there could be a General Manager willing to give up a better player than Marner, for Marner. That may not be the case, though. As somebody who is not an NHL GM, I don’t exactly have that information.
Maybe teams are hesitant to give up full value for Marner until he turns it around in the playoffs — and in that case, you probably wouldn’t want to trade him anymore, anyway. If that is the case, it obviously makes little sense to trade him. It goes without saying that you don’t want to trade one of your top trade assets and fetch sufficient value. Messing up a Marner trade could set this organization back further after years of building/development.
You certainly want to avoid that.
Anti-Trade Argument 3: The Locker Room
From an outsider’s perspective, it sure seems that Mitch Marner, who wears an “A” for this team, is held in extremely high regard by his teammates/peers. He seems to be very well liked as a person within the Leafs organization. You can’t not give that at least a bit of consideration.
How kindly would somebody like Auston Matthews take to having two of his closest friends, Mitch Marner and Frederik Andersen, depart in the same offseason? I can’t imagine he’d be all that thrilled with it. Obviously, the primary goal of an organization should be to win games, not to make sure everybody gets to play with their best friends, but this isn’t just your average player. You ideally don’t want to potentially rock the boat with your franchise cornerstone.
If the right deal is there, I think you still do it anyway, but you at least have to consider this angle.
The conclusion I have reached personally after reviewing the arguments (for and the arguments against) is that if I was Kyle Dubas, I would at least explore a Marner trade. If the right deal is there and you think you have the opportunity to improve the team — whether that is by acquiring a better player straight up in exchange for Marner, or acquiring a pair of players that you estimate provide a greater overall impact than just Marner himself — you make the trade.
However, trading a star player for less than their worth almost always ends in disaster, and if the right deal isn’t there, you do your best to work with Marner and try to help him break through in the playoffs. I don’t believe that the only way this team can have playoff success is by trading Mitch Marner.
You may have come to a different verdict after reading this piece, and that is totally fine. Let me know in the comments below.