Will money drive Mitch Marner and his Maple Leafs apart?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas says everyone needs to be evaluated in the organization from top to bottom, and it has to start with him, but wouldn't give any guarantee to anyone.

TORONTO–When the Maple Leafs were wandering around in the wilderness a few short years ago, Mitch Marner was the type of player they were dying for.

A local kid with an electric personality and the game to match. A coach’s dream and a marketer’s dream all rolled into one. The rare star with this background and this level of ability that they could call their own.

Now, the harder part: Figuring out how to keep him.

It’s no simple equation, not with the salary cap commitments already piling up like a stack of unpaid bills and Marner ready to hit the jackpot after a 94-point season.

When you’re a bottom-feeding team, you call this a good problem to have. When you’re Kyle Dubas, it’s more like walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. With a headache.

“Without an answer on Mitch, we’re going to kind of be in a stalemate, right?” Dubas said Thursday. “It is a top priority because we’re not going to jump around and chew up our cap space that we may need for Mitch with fringe signings, either. It’s important. We’ve just got to get to work on it and get it done.”

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Every other roster decision is on hold until further notice.

Without knowing what Marner’s cap number is going to be — or maybe even if he’s willing to sign for something the Leafs might stomach — Dubas has his hands tied entering this off-season. A creative contract that might keep Jake Gardiner in Toronto? Forget about it. New deals for Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson? Only if they accept a qualifying offer, and that’s not happening.

Dubas went so far as to call it “imperative” that the Marner situation get resolved before July 1, when the market opens for business and the soon-to-be-22-year-old winger becomes eligible to sign an offer sheet.

Now the Leafs don’t fear one of those — and with good reason. Not only do they have the right to match any offer, they can also take a haul of four unprotected first-round picks in the unlikely event a rival tables something so far out of line with the marketplace that it’s not worth doing so. (There remains considerable skepticism among NHL sources that Marner will command an offer sheet with an AAV at $11-million or above).

Still, in hearing Dubas speak after Toronto’s first-round loss to Boston, it’s clear he doesn’t want to go to war with a franchise cornerstone. There’s no appetite for a lengthy standoff like the one waged with William Nylander in the fall, and the GM couldn’t have enjoyed hearing Nylander’s advice to Marner on contract negotiations this week: “It’s a tough process. It’s long, and just don’t expect anything to get done nice and smoothly. It’s always a battle.”

Two types of comparables will be discussed when negotiations get going again: Those from the inside, namely Auston Matthews ($11.634-million across five years) and John Tavares ($11-million across seven years), and those given out by other NHL teams.

Patrick Kane has the highest cap hit among wingers at $10.5-million, followed by Alex Ovechkin ($9.54-million), Nikita Kucherov, Mark Stone and Jamie Benn ($9.5-million apiece).

Marner appears capable of keeping company with the best of the best at his position, but after finishing as Toronto’s top point producer for two seasons running, how much less should he be asked to take than two teammates? Does a shorter bridge contract offer an acceptable compromise?

It’s a big decision. Dubas is going to have to clear some salary off the books no matter what happens here, and will no doubt lay out the team’s challenging cap reality in great detail as part of his discussions with the Marner camp.

Perhaps something along the lines of: “If we pay you ‘X’ we can’t afford to keep ‘A, B and C’ …”

The organization can also bank on the fact Marner doesn’t want to play anywhere else. He lives in the region year-round and is living out a childhood dream right now, saying during Thursday’s Leafs breakdown day that it’s “a major priority” for him to stay in Toronto.

“I want to be here,” said Marner. “Just want to play for this team, I love the people in this locker-room and the people that work in this organization. We’re a tight-knit group, so it’s a special group to be a part of.”

The feeling is mutual.

Marner saw more minutes than any other Leafs forward this season and had the best point total by a member of the organization since Mats Sundin in 2001-02. The coaching staff and front office both understand what they have here.

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“Listen, Mitch has had an excellent season,” said Dubas. “He’s a massive, massive part of everything that we’re doing here, both in terms of his talent and ability, which has shown to be among the best in the league. And in terms of the joy and the leadership that he brings to the club each day.

“It’s priority No. 1 for us and we’ll get right to it.”

In theory, there’s too much for both sides to lose by not finding a way to stay together. But money can be a great divider, and the Leafs are working under the constraints of a budget that might not allow them to make their dream player happy.

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