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Why trading Mitch Marner might be the only way forward for Leafs | The Star

So summer is basically over, the kids are heading back to school on Tuesday, the Labour Day game between the Argonauts and Tiger-Cats is upon us and Mitch Marner isn’t signed to an NHL contract.

No one should be surprised by this.

First, none of the other prominent restricted NHL free agents have signed either, and if you think there’s angst over Marner in Toronto, you might want to check out Winnipeg, where the absence of Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor could sink the Jets season.

But with training camp around the corner, and with the William Nylander experience there for all Leaf fans to reference, it’s pretty clear the Toronto hockey public should get used to the idea Marner won’t be in camp and almost certainly won’t play 82 games this season.

So if you’re Kyle Dubas and your plans of signing Marner to a new contract well before now have clearly not panned out, it’s time to start imagining other possibilities. Such as the scenario under which Marner doesn’t sign and doesn’t play this season.

Or the one that has him playing for some other team.

That’s a crappy scenario, to be sure. He was a crafty pick at fourth overall by the Leafs, he has succeeded beyond expectations, he’s a local lad and everybody likes the little guy who doesn’t let his size hold him back. To consider scenarios that have him performing his wizard act for another NHL team really are not appealing. He’s just too much fun to watch, too much of a competitor.

But that’s the way this might have to go.

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To take a stab at the Cup this season, the Leafs have to either have Marner at his best in their lineup or have the assets acquired for Marner in a trade in their lineup. Having neither, with Marner sitting at home unsigned and ineligible, is just unthinkable, really. A team that hasn’t won a Cup in 53 years can’t afford to just throw away opportunities because of a single contract dispute.

More than just having Marner in the lineup, the Leafs, based on the Nylander experience, need to have him under contract for most or all of the regular season games. Nylander wasn’t close to what he should have been by the time he signed last season, and asking Marner to catch up to the speed of the NHL by signing in late November or early December is likely to have a similar result.

What that means is decision time can’t be December like it was with Nylander. It probably has to be the end of October. Not because you want to be rid of Marner, but because you’re trying to win a championship this season.

If another team is willing to give up two quality players under the age of 27 that have two or more years left on their contracts, one a defenceman capable of playing in Toronto’s top four and the other a forward capable of scoring 30 goals, then you have to look hard at making a deal.

The objective for the Leafs organization is to win the Cup, not to win the Cup with Mitch Marner in the lineup. So you make your decision based on that primary objective.

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This could have all been worse, or more awkward. Remember, Auston Matthews could have been a restricted free agent over the summer. Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, too. All three got signed, and while other NHL teams are moaning about the Matthews deal because he gets to walk into unrestricted free agency after five years, that contract at least gives the Leafs five years to chase a Cup with No. 34. You don’t want to waste one of those precious seasons because Marner can’t be signed.

It is indeed a shame the situation is playing out this way. But that’s hockey, and that’s the business of hockey under a capped system that, because teams don’t have the stones to say no to agents and players, pushes teams up against the proverbial wall when their best young players have played only three years in the NHL.

Marner’s not wrong to be doing what he’s doing. In fact, he’s doing exactly what he should be doing, which is maxing out his earning potential. He’s pursuing that objective in a cold-hearted way, and the team must pursue its goals in a similarly cold-hearted way.

The off-season proved fruitless in terms of getting a deal done despite all the moves by Dubas designed to create room for a new Marner contract. Now we’re looking at the next two months, after which signing Marner would probably be too late in terms of having him play at the highest level this season. Really, if there’s no new Marner contract in the next six weeks, then Dubas and Co. have to begin pursuing a trade. That’s the hard lesson of the Nylander experience.

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A Leafs team with meaningful assets acquired for Marner almost certainly has a better chance of winning a Cup this year than a Leafs team with Marner coming in halfway through the regular season. Since many have long doubted Toronto can actually afford Matthews, John Tavares, Nylander and Marner under the salary cap, this might simply get the Leafs to where they always had to get to sooner than expected.

The storybook ending always had Matthews, Marner and Nylander lifting a Cup together. But now that the Raptors have an NBA title, the only storybook ending Leafs fans are really interested in is the one that concludes with a Cup, regardless of the identities of the players wearing Maple Leafs colours.

Damien CoxDamien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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