Friday, June 4, 2021

Emergency Maple Leafs DGB Mailbag: What went wrong, who gets traded, and is this team cursed?

The Maple Leafs blew it like we all knew they would, and their fans are picking through the wreckage yet again. It’s not fun, and part of me was ready to just slam the door shut on the season and move on. But that seemed like a cop out. I’ve been a vocal Leafs homer for a long time, and it didn’t feel right to hide.

So I threw out a question: Would anyone being interested in an emergency mailbag?

Leaf fans only. No outsiders, no media hot takes, no pretense of being objective or rationale. Just a chance to talk this through, or maybe have a big group therapy session.

The response was overwhelming, as I was immediately buried in emails from Leaf fans. I was blown away. And so, cracking a smile for the first time since Monday night, I sat down to work my way through all the different questions you’d all sent.

Then I realized that 90% of them were just about trading Mitch Marner.

Huh. I got my hopes up about the Maple Leafs and ended up disappointed. First time for everything, I guess!

It goes without saying that we’re still doing this. But first, please indulge me in a bit of backstory that I promise will pay off in an observation.

I’ve been writing in a Leaf fan’s voice for a long time now, going back to the old blogpost days with a dozen readers in a good week. Even back then, I’d hear from fellow fans in the comment section or an occasional email, and a year later Twitter came along and opened the floodgates. Since then, I’ve bounced around from Grantland to ESPN to Sportsnet to The Athletic and a bunch of stops in between, and I’ve been hearing from fellow Toronto fans the whole way. You’ve commented, you’ve emailed, you’ve tweeted, you’ve DMed. Some of us have had beers together. You’ve sent me photos of your kids in their first Leaf jerseys. I have email threads with people I’ve never met that date back a dozen years or more, covering all the major Leaf fan moments. From the (occasional) good to the (mostly) bad, I’m honestly not sure there can be too many people out there who’ve heard from more Toronto Maple Leafs fans over the last decade or so than I have.

So I don’t say this lightly: This week feels different.

We’ve been through some bad stuff. I started my blog a few weeks before the Muskoka Five torpedoed the 2008 trade deadline. I was there for Brian Burke and Dave Nonis and the era of the Leafs being the dumbest team in the league and proud of it. I was there for It Was 4-1, and the Clarkson contract, and finishing deal last. I’ve seen the 18-wheeler going off the cliff and the Zamboni driven by the beer league goalie, and all those recent playoff near-misses. I have heard from so many miserable Maple Leaf fans. It’s close to a constant stream with this fan base. It’s who we are.

But not like this. Something has changed, at least temporarily. In all these years, through all the venting and complaining and misery, the one thing I almost never heard was “I’m done”. Instead, I’d hear a lot of variations of “I wish I could be done, but I know that’s never happening”. Not this time. This week, instead, there’s been a whole lot of “I’m really not sure if I can do this anymore”.

I don’t know why. Maybe it’s something about this roster, or the coach, or the management. Maybe it’s that this time was the Habs. Maybe this last series was just the straw that broke the long-suffering fan’s back. Part of me suspects it’s not any of that, and that it’s more about the world around us right now, where a lot of us have gone over a year now with so much of the fun sucked out of our lives, and along the way we’ve had two Maple Leaf postseasons that were anything but. I think some fans are just wondering if there’s a better way.

What does it mean? Probably nothing. Most of that “I think I might be out” will almost certainly turn into “I guess I’m back in” by opening night, if not much sooner. It’s just the way sports works. If you stuck it out through the Harold Ballard era, this should be a piece of cake. But I do wonder, just a little, if some small chunk isn’t breaking off that iceberg, because something about this week really did seem different.

On that cheery note, let’s do a mailbag…

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

It seems like a given that Mitch Marner is all but gone from this team. But what teams would have the cap space and need for him, and what type of return would that fetch that would be the best for the Leafs? – Adam S.

So yeah, lots of questions about Marner being traded. I don’t agree with the premise here, that he’s “all but gone”. For one, this is the cap era NHL, where it’s never a bad idea to assume a team won’t make a major move. And I think you could make a strong case for keeping Marner. His contract makes him tough to deal, so you’re starting with a limited marketplace, and you’d be selling low. It’s almost impossible to imagine that you come out of any trade with a better player, and while you can create cap space, you just end up using that space on players who can’t do the things that Marner can.

On the other hand… I mean, you have to move somebody, right? And it has to be some key piece, because shuffling depth players doesn’t seem like it will do much. Anything short of one of the big names being dealt would seem to send the message that what we’ve seen so far is good enough, and that’s a real tough sell right now. You’re not moving Matthews and Tavares can’t go anywhere, so it comes down to yet another round of the Marner vs. Nylander debate, and this time fans seem to be siding with Nylander for once.

A lot of that is just recency bias kicking in, but not all of it. I think it’s fair to say that two things can be true about Mitch Marner: He’s a wonderfully talented player, one of the very best the Leafs have had in the last few decades, and also his contract looks like a disaster. Both statements can be true. When Kyle Dubas caved in to the Marner camp and gave him megastar money after one season with more than 70 points, there were three scenarios where it could have worked out. The first was Marner would take a few more big steps forward and become the sort of difference-maker who regularly shows up on Hart ballots, and that hasn’t happened yet. The second was that the cap would go way up and make the deal more digestible; that’s obviously off the table, although you can hardly blame the Leafs for not seeing that coming. And the third was that his deal would reset the marketplace, and guys like Mikko Rantanen and Brayden Point and Mathew Barzal would follow along with their own eight-figure deals. Nope. The Leafs got way out in front of the crowd, and nobody followed.

So now what? I’d love to see him stick around and come through the other side of this. He’s a local kid and he obviously cares – maybe too much, because it’s getting painful to watch him struggle through the playoffs looking like he’s fighting back tears between every shift. But yeah, you have to at least be open to moving him. Those conversations have to happen, wherever they lead.

As far as what you’d get in return…

Any chance at all Buffalo moves Eichel in division? – Kristopher B.

A lot of you wanted to know if there’s a deal to be found around Marner and Jack Eichel...

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

(Want to read this post on The Athletic for free? Sign up for a free trial.)


  1. Mitch not going anywhere yet....yes he was not great but no great players are great all the time........bloody well leave the guy alone, he's human....all these people would be crying and complaining if he were to get traded, he is am elite player and we are lucky to have what we have....I am upset as well as the rest but we are blessed to have the core we have and I look forward to see them past that first round next year so shut up.....

  2. This is the first DGB article in 10 years that I can't read, because I unsubscribed from the athletic. This is the first time since I was kid that I just haven't cared at all about the NHL playoffs, and even DGB articles haven't been cheering me up lately. Btw, I'm a Canucks fan, and normally misery loves company, but even after hearing about the Leafs collapse, I felt nothing. The Leafs could trade Marner to the Canucks for all of their bad contracts, and I feel like I'd just shrug. I really hope it's just the pandemic and the feeling like this season is fake, because I don't know who I am anymore.