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Opinion | Mitch Marner is an undervalued superstar. If only more Leafs fans could appreciate it


It was only fitting Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner had a few late chances to extend his scoring streak Wednesday night against the San Jose Sharks. It’s as if the hockey gods owed him one.

Because it’s fair to say Marner’s path to superstar respectability hasn’t been an easy one.

Let’s start with the 2015 NHL draft, one of the deepest for talent in league history. That June in Florida there was not one but two generational players available — Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.

McDavid, of course, went first overall to the Edmonton Oilers and the hype has held up. Eichel went second to the Buffalo Sabres and while he’s certainly a special talent, he’s still trying to reach his expected peak with the Vegas Golden Knights after his neck injury fallout with the Sabres.

Up next were the Arizona Coyotes, the wild card at No. 3 that refused to tip its hand on picking Dylan Strome or Marner. Let’s just say Leafs fans should be sending the Coyotes an annual Christmas card.

The point is, any other draft year and Marner would have found himself in the conversation as the top 18-year-old prospect in the world. Marner had the pedigree coming out of a strong London Knights program, not unlike former top pick Patrick Kane. Perhaps then the narrative might have been different for him as he started his pro hockey journey.

Maybe Marner could have escaped an internal Leafs battle at the draft table between then head coach Mike Babcock and co-interim general manager Mark Hunter. Babcock, as we all know, wanted a stud defenceman — Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov or Zach Werenski were available; Hunter, a co-owner of the Knights, pushed for Marner. And for whatever reason Marner seemingly paid the price for it over the next few years.

Despite Hunter telling anyone who’d listen that Marner was NHL ready he was granted only one exhibition game and that was in front of his London junior hockey town. Before the game was even over Babcock cut Marner, telling him right in the middle of the game that he would be left behind.

Then came the bonuses. While closing out a deal that had already been in the works, former GM Lou Lamoriello made it clear he’s never given rookie B bonus clauses and he didn’t plan on starting with Marner. These bonuses had the potential to earn players up to an additional $2 million (U.S.). The story goes that this didn’t sit well with Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, and he suggested his client return to London. Ferris thought it would add pressure to the Leafs but Marner went against his agent’s advice and signed the contract without the performance bonus, instead receiving an additional $850,000 in team-based bonuses. This also gave the Leafs the cap relief they wanted and came with a promise that Marner would be looked after down the road.

A year later, Marner could only watch as Lamoriello gave Matthews the rookie B bonus clause he said he’d never include in a contract.

Despite the gesture to help alleviate Lamoriello’s salary cap it was anything but a rosy start for Marner. Babcock had his favourites and Marner was not one of them. How Marner managed 61 points in his rookie season, often on the fourth line, was a feat in itself. On most nights he played behind Zach Hyman, William Nylander and Connor Brown and still managed to make a huge impact. It is a testament to the engine that drives him.

A question often asked: Was Babcock’s treatment of Marner part of a master plan to develop Marner or an attempt to break his spirit? Many believe the latter and it’s hard to disagree.

It still boggles the mind why Babcock, as it’s now known, would at one point ask Marner to rank his teammates’ practice efforts from best to worst. The former coach then shared that list with a few veterans on the team and it backfired in the worst way, leading to Babcock’s public apology long after he left the team after being fired in November 2019.

For me the most interesting part of that bizarre exercise was hearing Marner purposely ranked himself dead last on the list. Babcock should have known right there he was dealing with a special type of player. He’s not pegged to be a generational talent but Marner indeed had the “it” factor. Unfortunately for Babcock, he learned that too late. And maybe some in Leafs Nation need to learn it, too.

Marner has spent the last three seasons consistently trying to live up to his six-year, $65.4-million deal, a financial burden John Tavares and Matthews somehow have never really faced.

But Marner haters, take note: over the last three seasons he has produced a rate of 3.18 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick. That’s more than Matthews (3.04), Jason Robertson (2.96), Johnny Gaudreau (2.96) and, yes, even McDavid (2.89).

Need more? The Leafs have an all-time record of 11-12-4 without Marner in the lineup. Without Matthews, they’re 30-15-2 all-time.

Marner produces at even strength. He kills penalties. And he makes others around him better.

And now here he is, seven years after his draft, sharing a franchise-record scoring streak of 18 games with Eddie Olczyk and the legendary Darryl Sittler with a chance to break it Saturday in Tampa. And suddenly we hear nothing about Marner being overpaid or his lucrative contract “hurting” the Leafs’ cap.

Marner can take solace in knowing he has silenced many about his true value to the Maple Leafs. Make no mistake, he’s the engine that drives this hockey team.

Well, at least until the playoffs start, anyway.

Kyper’s Korner

It’s sounding like the leg work of the NHL’s investigation into eight Canadian world junior team players allegedly involved in a sex assault incident at a 2018 Hockey Canada event in London is all but done. No announcement appears imminent and we’ll likely hear from Hockey Canada or London Police before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman publicly releases the findings of the investigation as promised. The players weren’t in the NHL at the time of the alleged assault. … Several NHL agents with goalie clients didn’t like the four-year, $8-million contract extension Pyotr Kochetkov received from the Carolina Hurricanes for no other reason than it suppresses the goalie market. It’s conceivable the Hurricanes could receive excellent goaltending next season for $2.75 million combined if they signed one at the league minimum as Freddie Anderson and Antti Raanta are pending unrestricted free agents. It’s a far cry from the Florida Panthers, who are staring at $14.5 million for Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight for the next five years. … New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant has an option year attached to his contract that president and general manager Chris Drury must decide on by the end of this season. Clearly this stretch of hockey for Gallant will seal his fate. The Rangers, losers of three straight before Wednesday night’s win over Ottawa, are 11-9-4 this season and currently battling for a second wild card after making it to the Eastern Conference final last season. … Things are not well in Philadelphia with parent company Comcast Spectator unhappy with the Flyers’ results. The club put a stop to its 10-game winless streak on Tuesday with a victory over the New York Islanders but sit 26th overall with a 8-10-5 record. Seems the only one safe there is head coach John Tortorella.

Change(d) my mind:

On the likelihood of Vancouver making a coaching change. If Bruce Boudreau can survive the last six weeks, he can survive anything.

Nick Kypreos is a former NHL player, Stanley Cup champion and current host of Sportsnet’s Real Kyper and Bourne radio show. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @RealKyper

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