Paradise, Newfoundland -- Mitch Marner only wanted to play hockey, and no contract stalemate was going to stand in his way.
That was the message a relieved Marner delivered hours after inking his massive six-year, $65.3 million deal with the Maple Leafs, rapidly moving from restricted free agent to raring to go.
“[Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas and I] were talking before and I stressed to him that I didn’t want to miss training camp, I didn’t want to miss games,” Marner explained on Saturday in a joint press conference with Dubas at Paradise Double Ice Complex. “That goes back to the middle of last year. In the last 48 hours or so, we sat down and talked [about that]. It’s great it’s over; I’m happy to be here.”
Marner overshot his original goal by only a couple of days, joining teammates in Newfoundland during their second day of on-ice training camp activity, but having missed very little of the program. That’s a vital accomplishment for the Leafs, who were desperate not to re-live the William Nylander debacle from last season, where an RFA standoff bled into the regular season and robbed both player and team of reaching their full potential.
At the same time, Toronto had to navigate a tricky negotiation with Marner’s camp. According to TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger, Marner’s side was looking for a shorter team deal of three to five years, while the Leafs were hoping for seven to eight. When push came to shove and the team was leaving for Newfoundland without Marner on board, the sides came back together ready to negotiate a deal.
“I think we get a commitment from Mitch for six years, and that should be as he enters his prime and then goes into his prime,” Dubas said of why he favoured the contract. “I know not everybody is going to agree, and [say] Mitch would want more and we would want less, but it’s something that we both agree on and move ahead with.”
When the Leafs opened camp on Thursday, Dubas said that once a deal with Marner was struck, the two would likely have “a very blunt discussion about things” and leave any ill will from the negotiation process behind. The real honesty wound up coming out before Marner officially put pen to paper, but the conversation still served its intended purpose.
“We had a sit down for quite a while on Thursday,” Dubas revealed. “It was great for Mitch to tell me how he felt and [for] me to explain the reasons [why] where we were at and what we were proposing, about how he fit into the team, how the team was going to move forward. It was a real positive in the process.”
“I just expressed to Kyle that I don’t want to miss any games and want to make sure I’m with the team as soon as possible,” Marner reiterated. “From that moment on, the next day or so everyone on both sides just beared down and realized that both parties want the same thing and we came to an agreement.”
The deal itself came out heavily front-loaded, and includes nearly $61 million in signing bonuses, to give Marner the second-highest cap hit of any winger in the NHL this season. He was also the last piece of Toronto’s vaunted core to be locked in long-term, after Dubas successfully re-signed Nylander and Auston Matthews last winter to six and five year deals respectively.
But having highly covetable talents has demanded top-tier compensation of Toronto, and CapFriendly details how the Leafs now own three of the NHL’s top seven cap hits in Matthews (third at $11.634 million), John Tavares (sixth at $11 million) and Marner’s $10.893 in seventh.
Factoring in the $6.9 million cap hit from Nylander’s six-year, $45 million pact signed last December, the Leafs now have $40 million wrapped up in four forwards. It’s a big investment by Toronto, and even Dubas admits he made mistakes in getting the team’s core locked in to this point, but now the focus has to shift onto seeing how it pays dividends.
“I’m open to say I’ve screwed some things up,” Dubas said. “I wish everything was done with all of them in a day. I’m happy we’ve gotten to the conclusion we wanted to. I’m happy we’re able to deliver all three of the [RFA] guys and bring John in as well. We think that all the contracts we’ve signed, the player’s production and output and what they bring to the organization will match their level of pay.”
The elated teammates anticipating Marner’s arrival in Newfoundland know all too well his value on the ice, and that he wouldn’t be able to stay away for long.
“We’re very happy,” Morgan Rielly said. “Mitch is a big part of this and he’s obviously very close to [us] so we’re happy to see that get done. He wants to be here, that was never a question. We’re glad he’s coming in and we’re excited to see him.”
Head coach Mike Babcock even said he’d be waiting with a “big hug” for Marner, pleased as he was to see the business side finally handled. Babcock had avoided speaking with Marner as the negotiations played out, but had no doubt it would resolve in a favourable outcome.
“You know he wants to be a Leaf for life,” Babcock said. “I’m just glad it’s over. I think it gives us a boost and we can get going. When players are going through these negotiations, as a coach, you just stay out of it, so now to get him back in here and get him feeling good about himself and get his swagger back [is great].”
Contract talks aside, the last few months have been difficult personally for Marner, specifically due to treatment he’s received online. Marner told Dreger in an interview Saturday morning that while he could handle fans harassing him at the dog park over not signing, it was tougher seeing criticism thrown at those close to him.
“Just seeing all the stuff being said about my family on social media made me disappointed and mad,” Marner said. “I saw a couple comments about my father that no one is going to like seeing or reading. Pretty disappointed to see some people express themselves about my family and my family name.”
The blowback didn’t stop Marner from celebrating the new contract on social media though – first in a Friday night tweet decreeing, “I’m exactly where I want to be” and then with a video montage of his highlights posted to Instagram on Saturday, captioned simply “home”.
That’s what Toronto has always been for Marner, a native of nearby Thornhill, Ont. And he knows all about the expectations awaiting him, new contract in hand, when the puck finally drops for real in October.
“I live here and I play here as well. There’s pressure in that always,” Marner said of being a hometown product. “You don’t think about it, you just go out there and play hockey like I have my whole life. We have a great (team) here. I want to make sure every night I’m ready to play, no matter whom I’m up against.”