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Marner contract most urgent task for Maple Leafs

Toronto GM shares thoughts with on pending RFA forward, Babcock relationship, Bruins in Final

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BUFFALO -- Mitchell Marner's contract remains a priority for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who plan to have further talks this week with the representatives of the pending restricted free agent forward.

Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas met with Darren Ferris, Marner's agent, at the 2019 NHL Scouting Combine on Wednesday and aim to continue the discussions in the coming days.

"We're not letting any time slip away," Dubas said. "Any chance we've had to have time with Darren, we're taking it. We're trying to move it along. That's really the key. I don't see any need to delay it."

The 22-year-old, who had an NHL-career high 94 points (26 goals, 68 assists) this season, has been front and center of Dubas' focus since Toronto was eliminated by the Boston Bruins in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round.

"We would like to come to agreements the very first minute we can," Dubas said. "Unfortunately with the way things are it's not overly realistic to think we can do that. Just keep working. I think I said before -- we have to go back to check the tape -- everyone knows how we feel about Mitch.

"I'm not afraid to say that Mitch holds a special place in the cosmos of our group."

In a wide-ranging interview with at the Scouting Combine, Dubas discussed the possibility of opponents making an offer sheet to Marner and others if he remains unsigned, his relationship with coach Mike Babcock, and the success of the Bruins, who have ousted Toronto in the first round in two straight seasons.

To what extent is getting Marner signed the priority right now? Any progress to that end?

"It's a big story. The reality is, Mitch is a great player. We've been very clear how we feel about him as a player and a person. He's been a great Maple Leaf. He should be a Maple Leaf his whole career. I think Mitch and Darren have both stated that at times. We're going to keep working with Darren to move this along and progress it ahead and come to an agreement which will make Mitch feel like he's compensated at the level he's deserved and us with a way to navigate our way ahead. I think if we're all willing to work towards it we'll get there. That's what we have the time for here."

Video: TOR@BOS, Gm1: Marner scores after hitting both posts

There is speculation Marner might speak with other teams if he isn't signed by the end of the NHL Draft (on June 22). What's your take?

"I don't know if that's ever happened with a restricted free agent. So I would be surprised. And I've never been led to believe that's the preferred destination or outcome. We'll see."

Are you prepared if an opposing team/teams present an offer sheet to Marner or fellow RFA forwards Kasperi Kapanen and/or Andreas Johnsson?

"Yes. I think you have to study what the probability may be. You can't ignore it. You can't just say that because something hasn't happened, it won't happen. You have to be realistic. You have to look around and identify which teams have the [NHL Draft] capital, which teams have the cap space, and which teams have the combination of both. There are certain teams that are excluded because they don't have the requisite draft picks. There are some teams excluded because they don't have the requisite cap space. So we want to be prepared as much as we possibly can. We don't want to leave ourselves exposed to the actions of an irrational actor in the marketplace, another team that has the ability to do something that's crazy. That's the way we've gone about it. As a management group, our focus has been on finding contract resolutions with Mitch and Johnsson and Kapanen."

You recently confirmed coach Mike Babcock will be back. What is your relationship with him?

"The one thing with Mike is that going through a full season and going through the disappointments, I think relationships are really tested when you go through the ups and downs. I think a season for any team in any sport, just like any business, you have good days and bad. The real test of any relationship is: Can you come through the times that aren't great and the choppy waters better knowing that you are working together trying to get to a certain spot, especially reflecting on how the season ended and evaluating everything. Brendan [Maple Leafs president Shanahan] evaluates me and then I evaluate our coaching staff, our training staff, our players and where we're at. We know the things we want to work at. But the season has been real positive that way, that we came through the year in knowing what we want to work on and going through it together. So it's been good."

You are perceived in some circles as a new-world thinker; Mike as an old-school coach. How do you view that comparison?

"Different styles, different ways of operating … if you have everyone wanting to do things the same way, if you all go off a cliff, you're going off a cliff together. When you have people that think differently, you prevent that. You add different things from one another, you learn from one another. Both of us are open from learning from one another. Yes, we have different ways of operating. We have different beliefs within the game, but there also is some real synergy there as well. Trying to find the best way to move our team forward is the key, and I think that is the objective of everyone in the organization. It's all good."

There are conspiracy theorists who think the two-year extension signed by Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe earlier this week is a sign it's inevitable he'll take Babcock's job. How do you react to that notion?

"Sheldon and I, and I know Sheldon and Laurence [Marlies GM Gilman], we've never had any discussion about that whatsoever. It's never been brought up. I understand why (there's speculation). I think any team that has a very good coach or assistants in the American Hockey League, it always makes for easy speculation. I think we're just lucky to have the coaching staff we do. And I think we're lucky to have Sheldon overlooking the development of players with the Marlies. A lot of that is personal. They have young boys up in school and hockey and athletics. We're happy that it's worked in our favor and we're going to continue on."

Finally, what's it like seeing the rival Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final?

"Boston is a great team. They've got great experience. They can match up against anybody. They can play one way against us, a different way against [the] Columbus [Blue Jackets], then [the] Carolina [Hurricanes], now against [the] St. Louis [Blues]. Excellent team, management, players, ownership, they've got that experience. They've been at it for a long time. We're trying to get there. We try to learn from them after playing them two years in a row. You have to strive to get better. Both them and [the] Tampa [Bay Lightning] are still ahead of us. And we have teams coming hot behind us. So it's a lot of motivation."

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