CHICAGO – God bless Wayne Simmonds for floating a little fun in this sea of misery.
Asked Wednesday about the damage an errant Ian Cole stick has done to Mitch Marner’s smile, the rugged and scared Simmonds flashed his own tooth-deprived grin.
"He's a little bit of a pretty boy, eh?” Simmonds cracked.
“He looks a little bit funny with the one big tooth and the other jagged one there. It just happens. You get in the corners, you get some elbows, sticks, whatever, fists. I think he's doing OK with it.”
Ironically, Marner prides himself on keeping things light. But it’s clear the weight of his longest goal (15 games) and assist (six games) droughts since 2017 is a heavy load to carry.
The laughter Simmonds elicited inside the bowels of United Center on the first game day of Chicago’s post-Stan Bowman era served brief relief from two dressing rooms that feel unusually tense for October.
The Maple Leafs are doing anything they can to ease the pressure on their $10.9-million superstar.
“It’s the Toronto market, and obviously we’re not playing the best right now. We’re going to hear it from every different angle,” said Simmonds, shrugging off the bad reviews like the veteran he is.
“We’re not really listening to what the naysayers are saying. You can say whatever you want, but we’ve got full belief in ourselves and the guys who sit next to us.”
More than anyone on the Leafs bench, the naysayers have targeted Marner during the club’s offensive vanishing act.
It’s now Marner’s name, not William Nylander’s, that pops up when radio analysts ponder breaking up the Core Four.
The eye test and statistics have given critics enough ammo for both barrels.
Marner’s absence of production has been compounded with a sluggish start to his new bumper role on a maligned power-play. He’s been a minus-4 during his point drought and has not finished one night as a plus in nine games. It’s been five games now since he’s registered more than two shots on net.
“I mean, I don't think we can be concerned. We're still early in the season,” Marner said Saturday in Pittsburgh, the last time he met with reporters. “[If] we get frustrated, it's not gonna help anyone. It's not gonna help our team.
“I mean, I've been through sections like this. So just realize that it's gonna end. Just stay patient in my game, stay doing the right thing.”
To a man, the Maple Leafs maintain Marner has been upbeat and optimistic through this dip, but his on-ice body language and on-camera tone tells a different story.
Nathan MacKinnon won a silver medal alongside Marner with Canada’s national team at the 2017 world championships and skated on a line with him during a BioSteel camp in Montreal in the off-season.
The two stars had a conversation about dealing with the haters and keyboard warriors, who danced on the 2020-21 Maple Leafs’ grave following their seven-game collapse to the Canadiens.
“From the outside, I just think he just can’t care. He just can’t care. It’s a hard league, you know. What if they win that [series], then he has six goals in seven games in the next series?” MacKinnon told 32 Thoughts: The Podcast.
“For Marns, he’s just gotta keep going. People forget – wasn’t he first team all-star in the NHL? That’s not too bad. It sucks the way he was ripped. People coming after his family and stuff, it’s pretty pathetic. He’s going to bounce back. He’s such a positive guy. He’s a fun guy to be around.”
Coach Sheldon Keefe has pulled plenty of levers over the past week in attempt to get more from No. 16.
Because if Marner isn’t an offensive engine, the Maple Leafs can’t get revving.
The coach has tried the stick:
He deflected some Nick Ritchie criticism to Marner's and Auston Matthews’ way after Friday’s loss to San Jose. He split Matthews and Marner up after Saturday’s debacle in Pittsburgh – something he refused to do as things unravelled in the playoffs.
And now the coach is trying the carrot:
Keefe gave the power-play a tweak during Tuesday’s practice, trying Marner back on the flank, where he’s more comfortable.
What can the staff do to help Marner dig himself out of this rut?
“You got to talk to him and reassure him of the good things that he's doing. Give him opportunities to succeed in terms of his ice time and the situations you're putting him in,” Keefe said. “But, really, the focus when I'm talking to any of our players that are looking to break out here, it's just putting bringing it back to the team and relying on our structure and playing together as a group. Then opportunities come from there.
“It's not to put too much on yourself. Recognize your role, your responsibility in each area of the ice, and do your job for the team. And then the players, whether it’s Mitch or any of our other guys, they're just too good to not break out.”
Simmonds smiles again and calls them “autogoals,” what Marner and Matthews produce when they’re in the flow — as Marner’s 67 points in 55 games last season would attest.
Wednesday night in Chicago seems a prime opportunity for a return what was once automatic.
The Blackhawks are down Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (COVID protocol) and could be distracted by the sexual-abuse bombshell that rocked their franchise.
Chicago (0-5-1) hasn’t grabbed a lead in any game this season and is averaging 4.5 goals against.
This is the type of disorganized group the real Marner would sink his teeth into.
“In Mitch’s case, the puck didn’t go in for him and his linemates early in the season, but I thought he was playing well and producing a lot for us. And then now, all of a sudden it snowballs, right? It starts to grow a little bit here, and that dynamic changes,” Keefe said.
“So, we're trying to just help support Mitch, and our team’s trying to support each other all the way through.”