TORONTO — The irony of Mitch Marner’s contract becoming the distraction du jour around the Toronto Maple Leafs is that Marner seems like the last guy who would ever sweat the status of a contract not set to expire for another 145 days yet.
He’s a 21-year-old who loves the game, plain and simple. He’s fortunate enough to play in his hometown, one of the stars on a team with championship potential, and never gives off the air of someone counting his goals and assists and calculating how many extra dollars they might eventually put in his bank account.
Now, he’s obviously got family members and an agent to worry about that stuff for him, but as for Marner himself? There seems to be no hint of concern on his end that he’s the only core member of this team remaining without a long-term, big-money extension in his back pocket.
"It’s always a business, but I grew up here," Marner said before Wednesday’s game against the Ottawa Senators. "This is a place I’ve loved being a part of for the past two years and hopefully for many more going forward. There’s no really no rush for anyone, I think the Leafs know that as well.
"A deal’s going to get done eventually, it’s nothing to rush upon."
This was always going to be a hot topic once Auston Matthews signed his second contract, as he did on Tuesday morning, but it blew up like a fireworks factory because of comments made immediately afterwards by Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, to the Toronto Star.
Among other things, Ferris told the newspaper that "so far [the Leafs] have been trying to lowball" his client. And of the Matthews extension, he said: "That’s probably the best contract in the National Hockey League. There’s no team-friendly discount there."
Ferris tried to walk back some of his comments in Wednesday morning radio interviews, but the match had already been lit. And it forced Marner to hold court on a game day for a lengthy series of questions about his contractual future.
The player said he hadn’t read the Star’s article or spent much time scanning social media to gauge the fallout: "Honestly, I didn’t really see ‘em. I haven’t really looked at my phone today. It’s probably best that I’ve done that. I honestly didn’t really see them, what were they?"
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that one of the reasons Ferris provided Leafs management for cutting off negotiations earlier this season was wanting to limit the distractions for Marner. It hasn’t gone exactly to plan.
Interestingly, Marner clarified Wednesday that he’s not averse to completing a new deal during the year. He just doesn’t want to be privy to the back-and-forth until something is ready to sign — opening the door, potentially, for talks to resume.
"I’m still just trying to focus on the season as much as possible," said Marner. "I’ll let Kyle and my agent talk. I’ve kind of told both parties that I don’t really want to be informed until something’s about to happen. Until then, I kind of just want to focus on this team."
On that front, he’s more than held up his end of the bargain.
Marner is going to shatter his previous best for goals and points in his third season, and still has a shot at becoming the first Leafs player since Doug Gilmour in 1993-94 to crack the 100-point barrier.
A contract would likely be done today if Toronto was willing to hand him the same $58.17-million, five-year deal Matthews signed. That would fall in line with how Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin) and Chicago (Jonthan Toews/Patrick Kane) handled second contracts for young superstars.
However, the Leafs have to be mindful of an impending cap crunch and general manager Kyle Dubas spoke Tuesday of paying a premium for Matthews because he’s a centre who scores goals at an "elite, elite rate."
Marner, by comparison, is a winger who registers more assists than goals. While he’s also an elite player, he doesn’t make an impact that tends to be rewarded by NHL teams at the same level as someone with the Matthews bonafides.
That is what the entire contract discussion with the Leafs will come down to.
While there seems to be an undercurrent from the Marner camp about feeling underappreciated, the player dismissed that suggestion: "You guys, words are spun upon and things sometimes."
He’s a hometown kid living out his dream. He’s a fan favourite, too.
"Me and my family love it here. Our whole, my agency loves it here. This is a great place to play hockey, we have a great management, we have a great team in this locker-room. We all want, including myself, to be a Leaf for a long time and I’m sure that’ll happen."
His entry-level deal runs through June 30.
There’s a long time yet before rival teams can even attempt to get his signature on an offer sheet and the Leafs are almost sure to match if that happens. In Marner’s words: "As long as I’m here for next training camp that’s all that really matters."
Marner and Matthews entered the NHL together in 2016-17 and remain good friends and road roommates now. Marner sounded genuinely enthused about his buddy’s new contract, and sent him a text once word broke Tuesday joking that they’re going to have to figure out where to be neighbours once they enter a higher tax bracket next season.
Despite everything that’s been said or speculated, Marner’s extension in Toronto still feels like more a matter of "when" than "if."
"Mitch is gonna be …," said coach Mike Babcock. "Mitch is a lifetime Leaf."