TORONTO – Don’t check your mentions.
If your name is Mitchell Marner, that advice came in handy last August when he was engaged in some tense contract negotiations — and it would be best to heed it again.
With great paycheques come great responsibility. And, possibly, even greater scrutiny.
Leafs Nation loves a whipping boy.
So, in losing 2-0 to the stingy Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday — a game played tighter than the security around the Royal York, and one that could’ve gone either way — Toronto’s fans, forever frustrated, scanned for scapegoats.
Auston Matthews was the busiest and most dangerous Leaf on the ice, so he was in the clear.
Some picked Frederik Andersen, who made every save but one and is again on pace to be the second-best goaltender in an elimination set. Others piled on an easy punching bag like Cody Ceci, whose pairing with Morgan Rielly got caved in to the tune of a 28 CF% in 14 minutes of even-strength action.
But many of the most vicious voices turned on the ineffective Marner, who failed to register a shot on net or create any of the magic that earned him a league-best $16 million this season.
Toronto’s newly formed second line of Ilya Mikheyev–John Tavares–Marner was the buzz of reset camp and, in this series, has the perceived benefit of avoiding Columbus’s dreaded Zach Werenski–Seth Jones combo, arguably the top defensive pairing in the sport.
Yet despite 20-plus minutes of ice and some positive offensive-zone shifts early in Game 1, Marner and Tavares never built on that jump and each finished minus-2 with hardly a high-grade scoring chance to lose sleep over.
“They’ve got a tough matchup there, too, right? [Vladislav] Gavrikov and [David] Savard are tough defenders just the same,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, shielding his big guns from criticism.
“It’s a tough matchup for them. We need to get a little bit more from them, but we need more from everybody.”
The Jackets’ M.O. is to clutter middle ice and take away lanes like traffic cones. They’ve been instructed not to fall prey to Marner’s knack for luring defenders toward him, then creating opportunity within that vacated space.
Thus, the onus falls on Marner and Tavares to either dismantle John Tortorella’s system or fight right through it. That’s the expensive bet GM Kyle Dubas has made here.
To be clear, one invisible game does not mean Marner is a player who Houdinis when the going gets tough.
In fact, since Marner jumped to the show, no member of the Maple Leafs has more points (17), even-strength points (10) or game-winning goals (two) in the post-season.
But this week’s runway is shorter than Nathan Gerbe in street shoes.
Way back when the NHL held best-of-five playoff series, the team that won Game 1 would go on to eliminate their opponent 82 per cent of the time.
Marner and the Leafs must draw more penalties, tire out the Jackets in their own zone, create more paths to strike, and bring the sweet sounds of Hall & Oates back to Scotiabank Arena.
“We’ll look closer at it, and we’ll find ways that we can capitalize a little bit more on our opportunities,” Keefe said.
Marner needs to be a central figure in those efforts.
“They did a good job inside their zone keeping five tight. Not a lot of shots got through, and when they did, opportunities for a second weren’t there.” Marner explained.
“[I] didn’t produce enough offensively. The goal [Tuesday] night is to have more confidence with the puck, not try to throw stuff away, skate more, try to make more plays with the puck.”
Whether it was last autumn’s contractual tussle, November’s fluke ankle injury, or a rotating set of linemates, the consistency of Marner’s performance did not reach 2018-19’s high bar.
“Despite that, Mitch had an excellent year,” Dubas said from the bubble. “What I’ve seen from Mitch has been — especially in the last number of months since the lockdown started — just the great ability for him to continue to take more and more ownership of his career.
“He’s always got that gregarious and infectious way about him that brings great energy to the rink. And now you’re starting to see that go from a boyish sort of energy and enthusiasm to really mature, and he’s still the same in terms of the spirit that he brings to the rink every day.”
Absolutely, Columbus’s diligence is a major reason for the Marner’s ineffectiveness through 60 minutes. Scrimmage time is over.
As is the case with Andersen or Tavares, Nylander or Rielly, a single Leaf shouldn’t absorb all blame.
And yet, for this core, this is playoff attempt number four.
Toronto must now win three of four. To do so, Marner must be among those who rises to the challenge, no matter how tough the matchup.
“He’s at the end of his fourth year in the league and [there’s] just a greater sense of urgency in the fact that realizing this is a very good team,” Dubas said.
“And if we’re going to go from being very good to great, he’s going to have to be one of the drivers of it.”