Ask Mitch Marner for his highlight from a summer that began under a cloud of disappointment and he takes you to an unforgettable July day in Muskoka.
There were some nerves. And champagne.
“I got engaged, so that was a pretty good one,” Marner said. “I got engaged at a lake, too, so I was thinking I was going to drop the ring in the water. But it was good.”
His pending nuptials to long-time partner Steph Lachance are both a major life marker and a reminder about the passage of time. Once a peach-fuzzed face of the Toronto Maple Leafs alongside Auston Matthews, we’re no longer talking about the kids ushering in a new age for the NHL’s most championship-starved franchise.
Speaking in a second-floor conference room at Hotel X on Monday afternoon, there was a whisper of urgency in the air as Marner and Matthews took stock of the coming Leafs season while taking part in the league’s player media tour.
They didn’t go full-on “Last Dance” the way general manager Kyle Dubas has in some recent interviews, and who can blame them? Marner and Matthews will each be 24 when the puck drops next month, with many productive years ahead.
But we’ve reached the point where very little about the Leafs’ situation can be taken for granted beyond 2021-22 and, fresh off a series of recent internal meetings, it’s clear the maturing superstars understand the increased stakes.
“Obviously it’s not something (where I’m thinking). ‘Oh yeah, it’ll happen when it happens,’ ” Matthews said. “We want it to happen. We believe it’s going to happen.”
Given how the playoffs ended, with a 3-1 first-round series lead over Montreal squandered and with just one goal from the top line, it’s easy to forget the positive steps that came before it. The wire-to-wire North Division crown, the Rocket Richard Trophy to Matthews following 41 goals in 52 games, and a 67-point season from Marner that was only eclipsed by Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Brad Marchand.
That’s why former Leafs forward Zach Hyman looks back on the team’s fifth series loss in its last five tries and calls it “the worst that I’ve ever experienced in my career.”
Marner absorbed the lion’s share of the criticism after running his personal streak in the playoffs to 18 games without a goal. The harshest takes came from social media and a fan base looking for someone to blame. He grew up a Leafs fan, understands Leafs fans, and released a hype video on social media last week that ended with the song refrain “I love you, I love you, I love you” while panning across the Toronto skyline.
“I (knew from) growing up what exactly I was getting myself into and I wouldn’t choose it any other way,” Marner said.
And so these two generational Leafs find themselves trying to get through a CN Tower-sized obstacle. It’s already clear that Matthews and Marner will completely rewrite the Leafs record book if they stick around long enough, and they’ll almost certainly accumulate enough personal hardware to fill a trophy case or two as well.
Neither of those outcomes will come to define their time together, though.
“I won the Rocket last year, but obviously nobody really cares about that because of how everything ended, right?” Matthews said. “To me, rightfully so. I want to win. That’s what I’m here to do and that’s what we want to do and that’s what we believe we’re going to do.
“All of that stuff is obviously fine but in the end it’s all about winning.”
Dubas is doubling down on the Core Four, choosing to keep almost half of his salary cap space tied up in Matthews, Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, but the need for results is apparent.
Some comfort can be found in the fact Matthews believes he will be ready for the Oct. 13 regular-season opener against Montreal despite still wearing a splint on his left wrist following surgery in August — “It feels good. I’ve got a couple more weeks in this thing and I’ll start skating this week” — and that he believes the small off-season roster shakeup will benefit the group.
“I think sometimes having change is good because it just brings you something new and something fresh that maybe you didn’t know that you needed, or you didn’t know that it would work out as well as it ends up working out,” he said.
The changes include a new left-winger in the highly coveted spot alongside Matthews and Marner on the top line formerly occupied by Hyman and an expected reshuffling of the pieces on the top power-play unit.
That, and one more layer of urgency for a core that has absorbed more playoff disappointment than it ever imagined it would experience.
“You look at other guys … Stevie Yzerman didn’t win until he was whatever, 30-something, (Alex Ovechkin), they could never get over the hump,” Matthews said. “I think it’s just because of where we play it gets a little overdramatized a bit and that’s fine.
“But I think you’re going to have to put stuff into perspective sometimes, too, and realize we’re not in our late 30s, mid-30s, but obviously it’s not like we have all the time in the world.”
Time stops for no one, not even the young stars who once made the city stand still.
Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based independent journalist covering NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs for NordSar's new gaming company. His work will also be appearing in the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris