TORONTO – Three days following another infuriating conclusion to a Toronto Maple Leafs’ season — this one in a five-game series his built-to-score roster totalled just three even-strength goals — Kyle Dubas went on the offensive.
"I don’t get the criticism of Mitch Marner one bit. I really struggle with it," Dubas said during Wednesday afternoon’s lengthy public dissection of his club’s shortcomings.
"He’s a guy that plays his ass off every night, has got tremendous skill, tremendous intensity, plays every situation for us, makes a ton of plays. And everything he does wrong, people jump all over him about. I don’t know how or why it’s that way."
The reporter’s question to which Dubas was responding wasn’t too pointed — "What kind of player do you want Mitch Marner to become next season?" — nor was it originally directed the GM’s way (coach Sheldon Keefe’s Zoom connection was having issues).
Yet Marner’s name struck a nerve with the man who signed the superstar winger to a signing-bonus-heavy, six-year, $65.358-million contract 11 months ago.
As it should: in a real way, Dubas’s success depends on Marner’s. Just as it depends on that of John Tavares, Auston Matthews and William Nylander – the dazzling core in which he has placed his faith and roughly half his cap dollars for the near future.
Dubas spent some time scanning the quotes from those players and others during the morning’s virtual locker cleanout. He felt a need to respond to shield Marner from the heat.
"If Mitch Marner is the player he has been and continues to grow and mature and do what every player that goes from 22 to 23 to 24 to 25 does and just get better and better, we’d be thrilled," Dubas said, an uptick of emotion in his voice.
"Mitch Marner is a high-end player in the NHL. So, we don’t want him to be anything better than that. If that’s what he is, then that’s what we love, and we’ll continue to love him for that. I don’t where this all started with the criticizing of Mitch Marner, but to me it’s among the most idiotic things that I see done here."
The thermostat has been cranked in this city, and it has nothing to do with playing for the Stanley Cup in August.
The young Leafs core is now 0-for-4 in elimination series and 0-for-4 over the past three years in games it can stomp the throat of its opponent.
Fed-up fans who want tangible progress, not rhetoric, are looking for targets to aim their frustrations. Despite playing a key role on the Leafs’ perfect penalty kill, Marner simply didn’t generate enough offence in the Columbus series — zero goals, four assists, one of them primary — for anyone’s liking.
"I felt like the first game I wasn’t engaged at all in physicalness or play at all. And from that point on, I got a lot more engaged, a lot more of the puck, kinda playing like my old self with controlling the puck and making plays," Marner said.
"I don’t think zero goals is going to do the job. That’s the thing I’m frustrated about."
While it would be silly to suggest that one player’s slow start is to blame for an entire team’s exit, Marner’s no-show in Game 1 did impact how the series rolled out.
President Brendan Shanahan noted the club’s failure to start on time as a sticking point, and Dubas pointed to Game 1’s shutout loss and Game 3’s collapse when leading 3-0 as series turning points.
Start fiercer, lock up your leads, and you don’t put yourself in a position where you have to convert consecutive must-wins against one of the toughest, stingiest teams in the business.
So, the ineffectiveness of the Marner-Tavares combo in Game 1 prompted coach Sheldon Keefe to bump Marner with an engaged Matthews to start Game 2 and get Marner charged.
Where the criticism stems from is that Marner, as is his right as a free agent, successfully negotiated a line-driver’s payday and ended the series as the third guy on a Super Line with two franchise centres.
In another universe with greater sample sizes, maybe the Leafs survive the play-in, and Marner — a 1.14-points-per-game stud the past two regular seasons — finds his groove in the second round. Maybe the Maple Leafs can attack with two top lines instead of one.
Yet even in their early-20s, the Maple Leafs have already reached a point where results are all that matters.
"That’s not something new in sports in general: you have to win to change the narrative about who you are as an athlete," Shanahan said. "That’s not something new, and that’s not unique to Toronto."
What is unique to Toronto is the intensity and opportunity surrounding to a homegrown hero like Marner, an alternate captain this season for the first time.
The jovial Marner takes great pride in his charity work and was nominated by the Leafs for the 2020 King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his leadership and humanitarian contributions. He also has carved out a healthy share of major endorsement deals and commercial work — opportunities that may not be lining up for contemporaries like Carolina’s Sebastian Aho or Tampa’s Brayden Point.
He is in the spotlight.
Noise, positive and negative, will orbit him.
Despite his enlarged salary, a dramatic coaching change, a high-ankle sprain, a pandemic pause, and an upsetting ouster from the bubble, Marner said Wednesday that he’s learned to take pressure in stride. Yet he also conceded the team has a tendency to "get in our heads a little bit" when the stakes are raised.
"I don’t really think of this season as that stressful. I’ve now realized to black out all the noise outside and just play my game," said Marner. He has already made it a mission to score "more goals" 2020-21.
"There’s been a lot of great players on teams that took them a couple years to figure stuff out," Marner said. "We gotta get over that hump."