MILTON, Ont. — It’s real now.
Mitch Marner was nowhere to be found when the Toronto Maple Leafs gathered Wednesday for their annual golf tournament, making it the first in a series of team events he’s likely to miss in the coming days.
The 22-year-old wasn’t expected to tee it up alongside teammates and sponsors at RattleSnake Point Golf Club, of course, not without his signature on a new contract. But there’s something symbolic about kicking off the 2019-20 season without him, and on some level you have to believe this stretch will be a test of Marner’s mettle with the Leafs set to fly to St. John’s, N.L., to open training camp on Thursday and start the run-up to the regular season.
They are moving on without him, if only temporarily.
"I mean, we talk to Mitch and obviously we want him here. He’s a big part of our group and he’s a great teammate and we want him in the mix," said Morgan Rielly. "There’s really only so much you can do as a player. I mean, you’ve got to get ready, you’ve got to worry about your own game."
There is a familiar feel to this situation because William Nylander was in the same boat with the Leafs a year ago and it didn’t end particularly well. He signed an extension minutes before the Dec. 1 deadline passed where restricted free agents must have a deal in order to be eligible to play that season and went on to have the least productive campaign of his career.
Marner is far from alone with more than a dozen other unsigned RFA’s league-wide missing the start of camps, but his situation is unique because of the Nylander factor.
Kyle Dubas and the Leafs front office are desperate to avoid a repeat of that and have already laid some significant cards on the table, as they’re believed to have offered long-term deals in the neighbourhood of $11-million per season. But the front office hasn’t been able to break through with the player’s camp, which favours a three-year pact with escalating dollars to pave the way for an appealing qualifying offer in Marner’s final RFA year and protect against a significant jump in the NHL’s salary cap when new U.S. television deals kick in and Seattle becomes the 32nd franchise.
There is no clear path to a compromise among those positions and so Marner will have to sit and wait until one emerges. It’s a tad uncomfortable for everyone involved — even the teammates who have no control over the outcome.
"I think a lot of guys are curious about it and stuff like that," said defenceman Justin Holl. "But, that being said, we support Mitch, we also support the Maple Leafs. You can do both. We’re ready whatever our roster’s going to look like."
"Hopefully they’re going to get this figured out with their agent and the team, I think that’s what they’re there for," said centre Frederik Gauthier. "We’ll see what happens next."
The smart money is on this dragging through September. It would be a surprise if it ended any sooner than that.
What started with Marner missing an informal team dinner over the weekend and Wednesday’s golf outing will soon include practices, special teams meetings and pre-season games.
Day by day, the drawn-out negotiations will start to chip away at the preparation time for the team’s two-time defending leading scorer at the start of a year where the Leafs expect to contend for the Stanley Cup.
In the meantime, Marner’s teammates are trying to focus on other things.
"We’ve got to be ready for camp," Rielly said. "We’re going out east tomorrow, we’ve got things to worry about, we had a skate this morning. We’re just trying to get better and make sure that we’re ready.
"We’ll let the other group take care of [negotiations] and we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it."