TORONTO – Mitch Marner looked broken.
As the typically bubbly Toronto Maple Leafs superstar faced the same questions after the same result, his voice wavered more than once. His pandemic mullet pulled back by one of his sponsor-delivered Red Bull ball caps, Marner’s eyes frequently drifted from the Zoom lens. Down and to the left.
His chin kept being magnetized to his crisp, royal-blue Toronto Blue Jays T-shirt.
It looked difficult to hold high.
Were it not for the lack of hockey gear and uniform, it would be hard to tell if Marner was serving a puck-over-glass penalty or fielding media questions on another locker cleanout day come too soon.
The scene was about as comfortable as a nasty rumour.
Marner said he has spent these fresh, open-wound hours since Monday’s mediocrity, and another Game 7 gone sour, in reflection and with his teammates.
“No one’s feeling good about this. It’s awful,” Marner said. “What we didn't accomplish is a pretty s––––– feeling.
“Seems like it's always kind of the same words at the end of the year, and it's unfortunate, and it sucks.”
No Leaf underdelivered as much as Marner this post-season.
And no Leaf has worn the public scorn as harshly as the hometown hope.
The magic of Mitch, the way he dreams up the better play when he’s in the flow, you’d swear he was a wily vet able to slither out of any pressure.
But over the past week he’s looked like a kid who just turned 24 and is getting crushed by the weight of it all. A guy who deleted all the social media apps off his phone before the playoffs, knowing the noise would serve him no good.
“Social media is a great thing,” Marner said, “but it's something that can be terrible as well. I know that.”
Committing multiple mental-gaffe penalties in a seven-game showdown against a beatable foe. Extending a playoff goal drought to 18 games. Becoming the first one shipped out of town in angry fans’ fake trade scenarios. It’s all taken a toll Marner is not equipped to hide.
Renowned for his ability to keep the mood light, everything about Marner’s Game 7 and its nasty aftermath has felt heavy.
So, after this core’s most stunning and heartbreaking first-round exit, it is at least fair to wonder if a franchise that has promised an unprecedented $40.5 million to four stud forwards in a flat-cap world can ever go the distance in the ultimate team sport.
"I think any team in the league would love to have any one of them. But we want them. We like them. We want to keep them here,” president Brendan Shanahan asserted Wednesday. “We are not going to stop until we accomplish this. We are going to do this here in Toronto with this group.”
William Nylander (five goals) was Toronto’s most dangerous weapon in the series. John Tavares holds a no-move clause. And Auston Matthews isn’t going anywhere.
Thus, Marner, whom GM Kyle Dubas defended with vigor in 2020, is the one being targeted by infuriated faithful and impatient critics.
“We have an unbelievably talented general manager,” Marner said. “Everyone just wants to get in panic mode… and try and get something new or change something up. But I think they've got a lot of confidence in our team, like all of us do in our locker room.
“It's up to [Dubas and president Brendan Shanahan] to decide what they want to do. But we all know how much talent we have, how much grit and will we play with, and we all want to win.
“Everyone wants to step up and take it upon themselves to be winners. I mean, that's why it's so disappointing right now — because we didn't meet our own expectations.”
When you push to make $11 million annually, expectations are part and parcel.
Matthews, too, shrugged off the notion that the Core Four could be broken up after five straight series shaking hands with the winners.
"I don’t make much of that, to be honest. Mitch is an unbelievable player. He's an unbelievable teammate. That's just something I don't think anybody really thinks about or focuses on. I know in this room, everybody loves Mitch," Matthews said, metaphorically strapping on his noise-cancelling headphones.
“Coming from the outside, you guys have fun with that."
Assured captain Tavares on the heat being directed at Matthews and Marner: “No one wants it as bad as them. I see it in who they are as teammates, as people, as leaders of the team…. Everyone’s got their back here.”
Marner dazzled in what he called “a spectacular season” with “a terrible ending.” He led all Leafs and finished fourth overall in points (67). He scored 20 even-strength goals in a shortened run and got to skate alongside Matthews the entire time.
Then the games got harder, the pressure mounted, and Marner failed to find the net in a second consecutive post-season series. Skating nearly 25 minutes per game, Marner finished with four assists, just one of them arriving in Games 5, 6 or 7 — when Toronto had three cracks at eliminating Montreal.
“What it comes down to is, you get judged by the playoffs,” Zach Hyman said. “As a line, I thought we played well, but we weren't able to capitalize. And oftentimes in this league you're judged on how you produce, and we know we didn't produce enough to get the job done.”
Far from great this year was the Maple Leafs’ power play, which deploys pass-first Marner on the half-wall opposite Matthews. Marner was never a shooting threat 5-on-4, as evidenced by his zero power-play goals. Yet despite cries from the outside to adjust the formation and try William Nylander on the flank, Marner stayed put.
Coach Sheldon Keefe watched his high-powered offensive players go just plus-2 in 23 power-play opportunities over the series. Montreal’s was more efficient over seven games.
Marner vehemently shot down an unverified rumour that he refused to accept a coaching staff request to move off the wall and down low.
“It’s a complete lie,” Marner said, twice. He was visibly upset by the idea. “It sucks that stuff like that's being said, but I’m not surprised either.
“I think everyone can see I'll try and play any role I can to help this team win.”
Dubas again rallied to his superstars’ defence, knowing his vision is stitched to their success.
“I understand the fans and they can feel any way that they want, and media are entitled to feel the way that they want, but these are two awfully great young players that showed it over the entire regular season,” said Dubas.
The GM went so far as to cite Marner’s excellent playoff showings against Washington in 2017 and Boston in 2018.
“I know as we continue to go through the seasons,” Dubas went on, “the story will be different for them in the future in terms of the way people speak about them following the playoffs.”
Before Marner walked away from the camera, he vowed to work hard in the summer, returning a better person and a stronger player in the fall.
In this city, for these stars, the fall no longer matters. Only the spring.
Only how a player looks when everything is on the line.
“We had a great year and great season,” Hyman said, “But playoffs are playoffs.”