Maple Leafs Mailbag: Is there a way to win a Mitch Marner trade?

Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan talks about the Toronto Maple Leafs lacking a killer instinct this season.

This Toronto Maple Leafs fallout has never left fans with so many questions.

So, it should come as no surprise to see our inbox stuffed with finger-pointing, golf jokes and potential solutions.

Our callout brought back too many legitimate queries to answer in one go, but rest assured some untouched topics (expansion draft, goaltending) will be tackled in future columns.

Let’s dig in.

The most popular topic of this week’s mailbag cuts to the core. And with William Nylander silencing critics with his five-goal playoff performance, the hounds have been released on Mitch Marner.

You may have read something about 2021’s highest-paid winger extending his playoff goal drought to 18 games. Publicly, Marner’s teammates, coach, general manager and president have all redeclared their belief in the 24-year-old playmaker at his lowest point.

That said, if management has any appetite for a summer blockbuster, the structure of Marner’s frontloaded deal — much like Nylander’s — makes him an enticing target for organizations trying to save actual dollars in a pandemic-crushed business.

If — and it’s a massive if — GM Kyle Dubas were to entertain a call on Marner, the return would have to align with his bet-on-young-skill vision and make Toronto a better team now.

Fans have tossed out names like Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk and Seth Jones. I don’t think they’d get it done.

Were Buffalo Sabres GM Kevyn Adams to call about his unhappy captain, however, I’m picking up. Jack Eichel’s $10-million cap hit would give the Leafs an extra $903,000 in annual cap space, while saving the cost-conscious Sabres some real-life money.

Further, John Tavares’s injury exposed Toronto’s lack of centre depth.

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Marner remained latched to Auston Matthews’ wing; coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t try to let Marner drive his own line against the Montreal Canadiens.

“I think disposing of two players of their calibre because the puck didn’t go in the net for them in a seven-game series… from a management perspective, would be foolish,” Dubas said.

Tavares will be 31 when the puck drops on 2021-22. As Tavares ages, one wonders if his footspeed would make a late-career transition to the wing sensible. Like his pal Steven Stamkos.

The massive caveat with Eichel is health. Debate around how best to deal with the herniated disk in his neck lingers. And you’re not giving up on 2021’s fourth-highest point producer unless you’re certain you’re getting a fully functional star centre in his prime.

Then you at least have to consider it. To not explore such an option would be foolish.

When the 2019 Maple Leafs got bounced by the Bruins in Game 7 in Boston, Patrick Marleau said the missing ingredient was “killer instinct.”

After the Columbus Blue Jackets burst their bubble in 2020’s Game 5, Matthews said they needed more of a “killer instinct.”

And last week, following the meltdown to Montreal, president Brendan Shanahan dragged out the same phrase.

Some players are born with it. Some learn it. Some never grasp it.

The Maple Leafs are planning a double-barrelled approach to fix this longstanding issue. They’ll fiddle with the fringes and try to import “killer instinct” via free agency and trade, but Shanahan and Dubas say they’re also going to work with their stars to develop a sweep-the-leg mentality.

“I have bounced back and forth in terms of, ‘Do you need four or five or six guys who have won? Do you need guys who are desperate to win and can instill that extra push in bigger games?’ ” Dubas said.

“The reality is that the answer probably lies within the room right now and finding a way, when we are in those big moments, to continue to play the way we were meant to play. Not reverting to safe or cautious, which is the word Sheldon has used in the last couple of days, but asserting ourselves, going for it and playing on our toes versus sitting back, waiting, and playing counterattack type of hockey.”

No, I don’t foresee Marner asking out. I believe he loves being a Maple Leaf. That said, Marner does need to find a way to block out the noise. It would be nearly impossible to watch his play in the series and not see a kid getting mentally overwhelmed by the pressure to deliver for his hometown.

As for trade candidates and UFAs with killer instinct, would Ryan Getzlaf take a Joe Thornton deal? Paul Stastny?

Could Brandon Saad come cheaper than re-signing Zach Hyman? Nick Bonino would be a nice 3C. Does he have enough in the tank? Mattias Janmark is a quality, under-the-radar middle-six winger.

Does Dubas revisit Jamie Oleksiak?

Or how about this: Philip Danault pulls the ultimate heel turn and joins the Blue and White? Giving him the hard defensive matchups would free Matthews and Tavares up to focus more on offence.

I think Nick Foligno has it. Depending on his ask, it’d be great to see what he could do for Toronto when healthy.

Thank you for my favourite question, Jordan.

So many songs from DMX’s Exodus to choose from. (Heck, the album title track might describe the fleeing of casual Leafs fans at this point.)

“Hood Blues” or “Walking in the Rain” capture the aura around a city coming to grips with a colossal first-round collapse.

“Money Money Money” would be the snarky answer, circulating a core whose mammoth paydays preceded a lick postseason success.

But I’ll roll with “Take Control.” As in, the players need to take control of a playoff series for once. And management needs to take control this off-season. Simply running back the same team won’t cut it. Big decisions must be made in net and on Hyman and Morgan Rielly.

We’ve reached the point where “own rentals” only hurt. Patience isn’t always a virtue. Sometimes patience becomes passivity.

Plenty of questions about the coaching staff, whom Shanahan has backed.

When I asked Keefe about decisions he’d make differently in the series, he avoided specifics. He did say Wednesday that there wasn’t much he’d change in terms of ice time or matchups. He also said that the Leafs have already begun work on how to fix the power play for 2021-22.

Throwing the Matthews line against the Danault line late in the series showed an inability to adapt and didn’t give his stars their best chance to get rolling. Waiting until the final power play of the year to try Nylander on the half-wall of a faulty man advantage was too little too late. His long-shot coach’s challenge in Game 6 backfired. The players came out flat in Games 5, 6 and 7. And the handling of Rasmus Sandin, who bounced in and out of the lineup, was curious at best.

Not promoting Nylander to Matthews’ line and demoting Marner showed a lack of urgency. Would that have put a burr under Marner’s saddle? We’ll never know.

There has been no indication jobs are in danger, but I would not be shocked to see an assistant swapped out for a fresh voice. Dave Hakstol originally came to Toronto to work with Mike Babcock, and the PP results were not kind to Manny Malhotra in his first trip behind the bench.

No. Management and the coaching staff prefers Justin Holl.

Considering Matthews and Nylander could both walk three years from now, my money is on the Ottawa Senators icing the better squad heading into 2024-25. I’m a big fan of their rebuild and their competitive spirit.

GM Pierre Dorion needs to lock up RFA Brady Tkachuk, though. That’s your heart and soul right there.

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