Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Daily fall forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
SaltWire Dinner Party: A night in Mexico
SaltWire Selects: Stories you don't want to miss
What you need to know about COVID-19: October 23, 2020
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
Wednesday was International Youth Day, but Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner aren’t feeling the love they once did from Leafs Nation elders.
Four straight first-round exits, the last with their scoring powers neutralized, reflect badly on the team’s two highest-paid striplings, for whose benefit in part, an early season coaching change was made.
Both had productive regular seasons, Matthews flirting with 50 goals before the COVID-19 break, Marner coming back from a brief contract holdout at better than a point-a-game pace.
Like in previous years, they rode a wave of fan adulation, were highly visible promoting their personal brand, along with some charitable causes.
All well and good, but rather than help lead when it counted against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the two entrusted with a letter ‘A’ this season trudged off the ice with everyone else Sunday, another elimination game, another series they could have won.
“Having a good regular season isn’t cutting it anymore,” Matthews said on the season’s final media Zoom call. “We have to figure how to get out of this first round. Four years in a row is frustrating and a little embarrassing with the talent we have on this team.”
Marner made the quite shocking revelation that he felt he “wasn’t engaged at all physically” in Game 1 against Columbus, despite coach Sheldon Keefe using much of the COVID break to embrace the two-way hockey needed to beat the Jackets, backing it up with video, conference calls and a rigorous camp.
“From that point I got a lot more on the puck, playing like my old self,” Marner added. “It’s been one game that’s been the reason we’ve gone home early. I don’t know really how to explain it, why we feel we can’t get the job done. It’s frustrating on that behalf. In our minds and in everyone else’s we’re a lot better team than we’ve been showing. (But) zero goals won’t get the job done.”
Marner had four assists, Matthews two goals and six points.
“A lot of teams have had great players that took a couple of years to figure stuff out,” Marner said. “That’s what we’re going through right now. It’s always these first rounds get in our heads a bit, but once we get through that, we’ll keep going.”
That’s cold comfort to many who think the club should have absorbed those lessons by now, certainly in position to get the upper hand on Boston the previous two springs. Matthews, Marner and other well-paid players such as William Nylander and John Tavares have combined for a poor return where lengthy playoff runs are concerned. Matthews and Marner have been getting social media chirps for pursuits such as video gaming and fashion statements. You can put 24-year-old Nylander in that group, too, though he’s not at the top of the pay scale.
To hear of the group getting ridiculed irked 37-year-old teammate Jason Spezza, who doesn’t doubt the commitment of the 2.0 stars.
“With the way the world is now with social media and celebrity, there’s going to be more of a spotlight on what they do off the ice,” Spezza said. “And to be honest, I don’t think they mind that. You have to know how to separate the work from the play and they do that very well.
“People always talk about my generation and the one before me being a little boring, not sharing much about what you do in your normal life. These guys are embracing it and with that comes a little bit of extra criticism. But looking at sports in general, it seems that kind of pop culture is going hand in hand. You see it in the NBA, a bit in the NFL and hockey’s probably trending towards that.
“You should be judged as a teammate and your performance on the ice. What you decide to share and don’t share shouldn’t matter. These guys bring it every day, care about what’s going on and if we’d had more success, no one would be talking about that stuff.”
Dubas, who had a protracted contract dispute with Marner, sensed too much was made of the latter’s shortcomings out of the Columbus series.
“I don’t get the criticism of Mitch one bit. To me, it’s among the most idiotic things that I see done here. He works his ass off every night, plays every situation, makes a ton of plays. Everything he does wrong, people jump all over him. If that’s what he is, that’s what we love.”
Matthews looked forward to a full camp under Keefe, whom Dubas moved in for Mike Babcock following one-on-one clashes with both players in previous years.
“That’s not an easy position to come in for Sheldon midway through the season, in a place like Toronto where everything is extremely magnified,” Matthews said. “He made a push to get to know the players and communicate.”
But it will be a long summer and autumn before the Leafs re-unite.
“Inches, just inches,” Matthews said. “Johnny (Tavares) hits that post in the first period (of Game 5), we had different looks throughout the game, their goalie made good saves. A couple of (favourable) bounces, we win and this stuff isn’t being talked about.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020