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Marner for full season boosts Maple Leafs' Stanley Cup aspirations

Had to sign forward to avoid potential struggles like Nylander had in 2018-19

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

Mitchell Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs wanted to find a way to make things work.

Both sides got their wish when the 22-year-old forward agreed to a six-year, $65.358 million contract Friday, the first day of practice at training camp for Toronto. It has an average annual value of $10.893 million.

"I'm exactly where I want to be, in front of the greatest hockey fans in the world, proudly continuing the tradition with the Maple Leafs," Marner wrote on Twitter. "See you soon."


[RELATED: Marner agrees to six-year contractMarner timeline]


In order to meet the goal of going for it all this season, the Maple Leafs needed to get a resolution in the Marner affair as soon as possible. With Marner on board for the entire season, Toronto has its most balanced roster in years, arguably decades, when it comes to offense and defense.

The Maple Leafs were fourth in the NHL in scoring last season (286 goals; 3.49 per game) last season but were 12th in goals-against (249; 3.04). They were outscored 51-37 by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference First Round the past two seasons, each a series loss.

They've attempted to address their defensive concerns by adding defensemen Jake Muzzin (Los Angeles Kings), Tyson Barrie ( Colorado Avalanche) and Cody Ceci (Ottawa Senators) in separate trades over the past seven-plus months. Toronto's top five, in no particular order, of Barrie, Muzzin, Ceci, Morgan Rielly and Travis Dermott, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, is a marked improvement from the group of Rielly, Dermott, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey and Jake Gardiner who started last season.

Here's the catch.

Muzzin, Ceci and Barrie each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2020. Given the Maple Leafs will be up against the NHL salary cap, keeping all three -- maybe even one -- is unrealistic.

The window for the Maple Leafs to make a run with this group of talented defensemen is now. In an Atlantic Division that includes powerhouses like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, getting Marner signed as soon as possible was paramount.

When center John Tavares signed with Toronto on July 1, 2018, general manager Kyle Dubas said the Maple Leafs' No. 1 priority was to win the division and gain home-ice advantage in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They failed to do that for the third consecutive season, and for the third consecutive season, they failed to advance in the postseason.

Marner, who set NHL career highs in goals (26), assists (68) and points (94) last season, appeared close to becoming the second Maple Leafs player in as many seasons to miss training camp before he agreed to the contract. Forward William Nylander was a restricted free agent until he agreed to terms on a six-year contract just before the deadline at 5 p.m. ET on Dec. 1, 2018, to play in the NHL in 2018-19.

Video: Maple Leafs sign Mitchell Marner to six-year deal

Nylander struggled after returning to the Maple Leafs, scoring but once in his first 23 games and finishing with 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in 58 games. Had Marner come back during the season instead of early in training camp, who knows if he would have had similar struggles?

Toronto could not afford to take that chance.

In his efforts to position the Maple Leafs for a run at the Cup, Dubas has been inspired by the efforts of the Toronto Raptors and their president, Masai Ujiri, whose relentless pursuit of a title helped them overcome numerous postseason shortcomings in seasons past to win the NBA championship in June.

"I think the Raptors are a group down the hall we can learn from," Dubas said after making the Ceci and Barrie trades on July 1. "They went for it for years before they won it all. I think we're trying to move our team in the direction where we can contend year in and year out.

"It's a difficult league with tough competitors. We're obviously very happy with our core group here … but I think with anything, not that we're not a motivated group, but you can't really ever rest."

Dubas looks to Ujiri as inspiration.

Ujiri was hired as Toronto general manager on May 31, 2013, and the Raptors won the Atlantic Division in four of his first five seasons. But the frustration of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals once in that time spurred the Raptors to do something bold, trading fan favorite DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard, one of the best players in the NBA, on July 18, 2018.

The Raptors knew Leonard could become an unrestricted free agent this offseason and might not return. They took the gamble. They were rewarded with a title.

There is no guarantee that going all-in this season will bring the Maple Leafs their first Stanley Cup championship since 1967.

But having Marner for the entire season makes their chances much more realistic.

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