A lot was said about the Toronto Maple Leafs and Joe Thornton before and after Thornton became a member of the team. One of the big questions worth asking now that he’s here is how he changes the roles for players the organization has relied upon. More specifically, for a player like Mitch Marner.
For me, the suggested team chemistry problems and the need to fix it began with Marner’s 2019 negotiations for a new contract. The process was not handled well by Marner’s camp. They missed the opportunity to clearly present Marner was a team guy. It wouldn’t have taken much to spin things differently.
Quite frankly, I think Marner’s ego got too big. It might have started with his advisors. Nonetheless, it became Marner’s truth. His perceived value to the team is overstated. The Leafs haven’t won anything since he became a member of the organization.
Now, with Thornton and Wayne Simmonds on the team, along with a bunch of other veterans, Marner’s role is to meet expectations on the ice. That’s it! It begins with being at the top of his game, every shift. His real value, beyond dollars and cents, will be evaluated by the 2021 season’s end outcome. Did they compete for the Stanley Cup?
Huge Departure from the Original Shanahan/Dubas Plan
Obviously, with the player additions and deletions made this offseason, the mix of players the Leafs had wasn’t working. In April 2014, before Marner was drafted in 2015 and Auston Matthews in 2016, The Star’s Kevin McGran reported Shanahan’s response to evaluating the Leafs lineup.
“In spite of the fact we have talented individuals, if the mix doesn’t work, there is going to be changes.”
So good on Shanahan and Dubas for their acceptance of the fact that going into the 2021 season the mix of players that were eliminated from the qualifying round to make it to the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs needed to be changed.
When the Maple Leafs president and general manager decided the mix of players needed change, it was as much a comment about team chemistry as it is about on ice performance. The two cannot be separated.
In hour two of TSN’s October 16th 2020 Overdrive show, Ray Ferraro said:
“Clearly, something was not seemingly right or didn’t feel right in the make-up, the preparation, the maturity of the team.”
What role did Coach Sheldon Keefe have in the Leafs realization that the make-up of the team couldn’t work? Almost a year ago, on November 20th 2019, Keefe was named head coach of the Leafs. He had 47 regular season games and another five games in the play-in round to form qualified opinions about the team, including chemistry. Certainly, he shared those with Dubas.
Dubas Acquired Support for the Leafs Core Players
The 2020 Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning was all about the core players they had when the Columbus Blue Jackets eliminated them in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup tournament and the pieces they added before the season began and at the trade deadline.
Can the Leafs similarly benefit from being eliminated by Blue Jackets in the 2020 qualifying round? How dramatically different can the 2020 offseason changes Dubas made alter the outcome of the 2021 season?
How will the younger core look at the changes Dubas made? The truth is, we don’t know. Will it facilitate a better outcome? Do they gain home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs? Do they advance past the first round? Do they win the conference? Do they get a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup?
If the Maple Leafs 2021 team fails to compete for the Stanley Cup, the focus will shift from the bottom six to the top six. Specifically, the highly skilled and highly paid top three or four, Matthews, John Tavares, Marner, and William Nylander.
If the 2021 Leafs don’t compete for the 2021 Stanley Cup, coupled with team performance over the past four years, I predict that the jury that is currently still out on Marner will return with the verdict that he is not an indispensable piece of top six core group.
Dubas Has Shown Loyalty to the Highly Skilled, Highly Paid Core Forwards
The aforementioned jury is the collective mass of media, analysts, and Leafs’ fans. The latter are tired of the futility of making the playoffs and then not vigorously competing for the Stanley Cup.
Holding onto Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander speaks volumes; Dubas believes in them. But, at the same time Dubas clearly wanted to change the chemistry of the team. In the dressing room, Marner will be knocked down a few notches. His presence will be muted. If he’s got the ego problem I suggest he may have, Marner himself will expose it.
Hopefully, Marner embraces the fact that he can just focus on hockey and let his performance/production do the speaking for him. If there is anything Marner wants to suggest to his coach, it should be a request that he be put back on a line with Tavares.
In 2018/19 Marner and Tavares both played 82 games. They were number one and two in total point production. At even strength, Marner recorded 85% of his total points. Tavares recorded 84% of his points at even strength. In 2019/20 it was quite a drop, 71% and 62% respectively. In 2018/19, Marner was a plus 22. Tavares was a plus 19 while he scored 47 goals, a career high.
A Marner suggestion that he play with Tavares would be good for the team, and set aside his desire to play alongside Matthews. That move alone would signal a new level of maturity, and selflessness, that this team needs from him. It would clearly present that he is a team guy. And, his true value to the team may be realized.
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