TORONTO – There is a theory about Mitch Marner, and he isn’t buying it.
The theory goes something like this: That because of the strain of his very public and hotly debated contract negotiations — which resulted in a $65.3-million windfall and a couple missed days of training camp — he wasn’t his usual dominant self in 2019-20. That whatever transpired between the ears affected his play between the buzzers.
This theory ignores the fact Marner still averaged 1.14 points per game, the slightest of declines from his previous campaign. This theory also downplays a freak high-ankle sprain injury that cost him four weeks of action and would nag at him “every once in a while” through the winter. And that the winger skated a career-high 21:33 per night and appeared on a number of ballots for the 2020 Selke Trophy, adjusting to multiple line changes and a significant head-coaching switch.
So, while it would seem perfectly human to feel extra pressure to perform the moment you cash a $15.3-million signing bonus cheque, Marner firmly shoots down the notion that the contract weighed him down.
“No. Not at all,” Marner said during an interview on the eve of his One Team United fundraising stream-a-thon to help feed Canadian families over Christmastime.
“I mean, a lot of people thought I underachieved — and that's fine to me. I thought I did what I was supposed to do out there, power-playing and penalty-killing and playing against the best people every night. I took pride it that. Obviously, every single night it's not going to go your way when you're playing against the best, so I just want to make sure I'm being smart on both sides the ice.”
Friends and teammates describe Marner as a quick laugh and a bundle of contagious energy.
A mood-lifter who sees the glass half full. “Keep things light” is one of the playmaker’s go-to phrases. In the latest Leafs' teaser video for social media, it's Marner seen dancing in the gym.
So, Marner didn’t have to fake a chuckle when, during Thursday’s live stream, it was noted that good friend and grinder Matt Martin scored more playoff goals for the Islanders in the bubble than Marner did for the Leafs (5-0).
There is a fierce competitor beneath Marner’s easygoing exterior, still. Remember: His general manager, Kyle Dubas, made a point of vehemently defending his best winger in the wake of another underwhelming postseason.
Yet Marner needn’t be reminded there is another level to reach here, both as an individual and as a franchise.
“I was happy with my game, yeah. Defensively I thought I played well. I mean, I went in every game trying to play the best I could,” Marner said. “The injury sucked throughout the season, but that stuff kind of happens, so you got to grind through it. Not a big deal.”
Marner’s goal total dropped from 26 to 16 year-over-year, but so did his shooting frequency and shooting percentage. He failed to light a lamp during the lost Blue Jackets series but did post four assists in those five games.
“I feel like I get myself in great positions and I'm always ready for that pass,” said Marner, vowing to pull the trigger more often. “Nowadays, it’s just when I get myself in that position, not being afraid to shoot it. Get pucks to the net more and prove that I can score. So I think I just gotta get my mentality back of doing it.”
Intensity. That’s the word Marner uses to describe the gym and ice sessions of the 30-some Leafs already in town prepping at Ford Performance Centre for the unknown start of NHL training camps.
“To go all the way – that’s gotta be the expectation,” Marner stated.
“Everyone came back with a new passion and fire. We weren’t happy with what happened last year, so I think everyone's just looking stronger, faster.”
From the idea of playing the season stateside to being scared of Wayne Simmonds, here are some more nuggets from our conversation with Marner….
On Thursday night’s Marner Assist Fund stream-a-thon, which raised more than $20,000 for Second Harvest:
“I love what they do. They’re finding families over the GTA and Canada that are in need of meals. The amazing thing about tonight is $1 donated equals two meals delivered, and they’re delivering them right to people's front doors. That's pretty incredible to me, them sacrificing their time like that. What they're doing is amazing. It's a big help to a lot of families, and I know how important holidays is. It's very important for my family and many others, so I think what they’re doing is amazing. We want to help out and get as many meals out there as we can.”
On new Leaf and fellow Toronto native Wayne Simmonds:
The first time Marner met Simmonds, 32, was when they joined forces with a red Maple Leaf on their chests and captured silver for Team Canada at the 2017 world championships.
“I think I was scared s–––less of him, to be honest. I was scared of him,” admits Marner, who was still an NHL rookie at the time. “Everyone knows Simmer in the NHL. Knows he's a big power guy, finishes his checks, works hard every single shift, doesn’t take a game off. So, meeting him at worlds was pretty nerve-racking for me.”
Marner held a ton of respect for Simmonds’ accomplishments with Philadelphia and L.A., and the two would frequently sit beside each other at Team Canada’s nightly team dinners in Europe.
“He was unbelievable, a great guy. I talked to him a lot,” Marner says. “On the ice, he brings a different fire and passion, but off the ice he's a great dude to be talking to. Has a lot of jokes and has a lot of fun with what he does. That’s something I appreciate.”
Asked to name a player that has stood out during the Leafs’ pre-camp skates, Marner singles out Simmonds’ “amazing” work along the wall, how he uses his powerful six-foot-two frame to protect the puck, and his uncanny knack for roofing pucks upstairs in tight to the net.
“He's not afraid to get dirty,” Marner said. “We've had those guys before as well, with Marty (Matt Martin) and having Cliffy (Kyle Clifford) last year. Kind of an overlooker, making sure nothing happens and always there to support the team if they didn't like anything. Simmer is gonna bring the same kind of intensity as those two.”
On Nick Robertson, another OHL superstar looking to make a quick NHL impact:
Marner has been impressed not only by the teenager’s recent work on the ice but how driven Robertson — who is choosing training camp over the world juniors in January — has been since the Leafs’ post-season exit.
“Quick, elusive, taking it to the net, not afraid to shoot it” goes the Marner scouting report on Robertson.
“He hasn't gone back home since the season ended. He stayed here in Canada so he wouldn’t have to quarantine when he came back. As soon as the rink opened back up, I believe he was the first guy here, working on showing that he wants to be here, which is amazing,” Marner says.
In their talks, Marner advises Robertson to stay calm, trust in himself, “play how you can play.”
That said, Marner knows Robertson faces a challenge in cracking the opening-night lineup with all the veterans and skill Dubas added to the forward corps.
“Everyone's gotta work for their spot,” Marner said.
On the possibility of Canadian teams playing the season in the U.S.:
“That's the first time I'm hearing it. But as long as I could bring my family with me, my dog and girlfriend, then (it’d be fine). I think everyone is wanting to bring their family wherever they go. It'd be a long time without seeing anyone in your family or people close to you. So, I think if they have that in play and make sure that we're staying safe and smart during the time, then I think I would be OK with it. Hopefully it's somewhere warm. It's kinda chilly right now here in Ontario. So hopefully if that happens, we get somewhere nice and warm and kind of enjoy the weather a little bit more.”
On the league likely adding advertiser logos to helmets as a new revenue stream:
“I wouldn't really care, to be honest. You wouldn't see it. Wouldn't be a big deal. I'd have to see it, I guess, but at the moment it seems like it doesn't really matter to me.”
On what changes he anticipates killing penalties again:
“You’d have to ask Hak (assistant coach Dave Hakstol). I'm assuming I'm still penalty-killing, especially losing Kappy (Kasperi Kapanen), a guy that penalty-killed. Simmer killed when he was in Philly and Jersey, so I'm sure he'll add to that. He's got a great long reach, good eye-hand coordination, so we'll see. But I'm sure I'm still going to be on the penalty kill.”
On the competitiveness of a potential Canadian Division and forming rivalries with star-studded squads like Vancouver and Edmonton:
“Both teams are similar (to us) in the way of younger guys, teams that want to prove they deserve what the hype is about. (We) kind of have the same personalities as younger teams — that fire of wanting to prove people wrong about what everyone's saying about them behind closed doors.”
On giving contract advice to friend Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay’s key RFA, who is still unsigned with training camp looming:
“I did talk a little bit about it to him. I'm gonna keep that between me and him; it doesn't need to get out in any media source, so I don't really care to explain it. But I talked to him about it. I told him my thoughts on it. I think he's a hell of a player. I think he's very, very skilled and very great at what he does on the ice.”