On Sept. 11, Ryan Fancey of The LeafsNation wrote an interesting article about the impact of the Mitch Marner negotiations on teammate Auston Matthews and his being named the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Basically, Fancey reported that the Maple Leafs had decided that Matthews would be the team’s captain; however, they were waiting to make the announcement because it might disrupt the Marner negotiations.
There’s a lot packed into that statement, and it leads to speculation about a backstory that isn’t being told but that seems to be the elephant in the room. Eventually, as all Maple Leafs fans know, Marner did sign. However, at that time, because the negotiations between Marner and general manager Kyle Dubas were so far apart, Fancey reported that he had heard from multiple sources that the Maple Leafs were delaying naming a captain.
So what do we know from that? First, it implies that the new Maple Leafs captain will be Matthews. Second, it means that the team feared naming Matthews captain because they thought it would jeopardize the organization’s ability to sign Marner to a contract.
At that time, this fear could only have meant one thing: Marner, personally, or Marner’s camp, collectively, was exceedingly jealous of Matthews’ perceived value to the Maple Leafs. It’s been clear from the onset of these negotiations that Marner’s agent Darren Ferris always insisted that his client should be paid as much as Matthews signed for.
In fact, at the very moment Matthews signed his contract during last season, the first thing out of Ferris’ mouth was that his client was being “low-balled.” However, what hasn’t been even hinted at until this point is that Marner or his camp had developed a deep envy about Matthews’ status with the team.
James Mirtle’s Insights
James Mirtle of The Athletic was interviewed on TSN1050 and offered his perspective on the situation. For Maple Leafs fans, it’s worth taking 15 minutes to listen to the podcast of the show.
Mirtle reported that the Maple Leafs had been working hard to sign Marner, and the organization had put some creative and generous offers on the table. One offer was at seven years and $11 million per season. Another was a bridge deal of three years at $9 million per season. From Mirtle’s perspective, those kinds of contract have never been offered before in the NHL.
However, because it wasn’t the Matthews’ contract, Mirtle noted that Marner simply refused to sign. When asked by the interviewer if the two sides could “meet in the middle,” Mirtle’s incredulous response was that there was no middle to meet in.
Although the interview was specifically about Marner, Mirtle noted that (at the time) there were 18 restricted free agents, and their agents were pushing to see what they could get. His take? It’s a new NHL.
The Maple Leafs love Marner, but Mirtle’s perspective was that the Maple Leafs signed Matthews during the last season because the organization believed he was especially susceptible to an offer sheet. Matthews is simply one of a kind. He scores more than anyone else in five-on-five hockey, and (as Mirtle noted) there’s been no one in NHL history like him.
Hesitancy to Name Matthews Captain
Mirtle was confident: “I think they’re going to name Auston Matthews captain. I wonder if (with) the Marner situation, they’re worried about the optics of that or not. That’s the only hang-up. If that wasn’t going on I’d say they would name Auston Matthews captain.”
Sportsnet insider Chris Johnston said exactly the same thing on Sept. 9. “I believe it’s Auston Matthews,” Johnston noted and added that Matthews was the team’s centerpiece.
He added, agreeing with Mirtle’s take on the situation, “I think the timing of that is tricky, especially with Marner’s situation unresolved. Do they want to make that announcement before Mitch Marner signs? That might complicate some of the discussions being had on the side. So, I think it’s a little bit of a delicate issue. It’s one that I don’t think Kyle Dubas enjoys too much…but to me this is the right time for the Leafs to have a captain.”
What If Mirtle and Johnston Are Right?
If Mirtle and Johnston were correct in their assessment that Marner was envious, and perhaps remains so, the negotiations between Marner and the Dubas might have had some serious roadblocks about ever being completed. That, as was noted after Marner signed, Marner eventually decided on his own to talk with Dubas. As a result of that meeting, Marner softened his demands and Dubas moved a bit as well; and, a deal was completed.
In the past, I was convinced Marner would re-sign in Toronto because:
(1) Marner made more off-ice money from commercials than any other Maple Leafs player. Why would he jeopardize that money by going to a hockey market that wasn’t as “rich?”
(2) Marner was “living a dream” by playing with his hometown team.
(3) Finally, I believed that his friendship with Matthews would actually be a leverage point towards swaying Marner to re-sign with the club.
However, that logic might need to be tossed out the window. If Mirtle and Johnston are correct, no wonder, then, that Marner has been seeking the same contract that Matthews signed. It’s personal. He’s jealous because he believes the team values Matthews more than it values him and the entire negotiation’s holdup has really been about Marner’s feelings of being hurt by the Maple Leafs.
What Might This Mean in the End?
It’s clear that no one, aside from Marner and his camp – and perhaps Dubas and the Maple Leafs, if one reads between the lines – really knows the true motivations that caused Ferris’ to insist on matching Matthews’ contract and Marner’s initial reluctance to sign anything but that contract.
But, if the elephant in the room is the unspoken envy Mirtle and Johnston hinted at, I believe that a rift might have grown between Marner and Matthews that will make it tough for Marner to play for a Maple Leafs team where Matthews is the star.
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