Well, this feels different, doesn’t it? Especially given what the past six months have brought forth.

Fresh off a summer in which countless “reports” of the contract demands of one Mitch Marner blacked out the sky and snuffed out the sun, being treated to what is an otherwise level-headed breakdown of the situation is like a breath of fresh air.

I didn’t even know such a feat was allowed, quite frankly. Isn’t the directive at the moment for everyone to hammer home why their beloved Mitch should pull in around $11 million per year, therein guaranteeing themselves a spot on a certain hockey parent’s Christmas card list?

If it is (and it certainly appears that way), Chris Johnston has not gotten the memo.

During an appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan earlier this morning, Johnston was asked about whether Marner is facing pressure now to spin his negotiation as a win, given how the other young Leaf stars seemingly did the same with their own deals. It’s an entirely justified question at this point in the saga — one that, when posed to a different branch of Toronto’s media cohort, might have elicited a more inflammatory answer.

Taking the opposite approach, Johnston (thankfully) opted for reason.

“I think the way it looks good is him coming back and playing and continuing to be a star,” explained Johnston in reference to the optics of Marner’s contract.

‘I’m not saying he has to take a discount. I don’t believe, in fact, that they’re at discount prices at this point. From my understanding of where the numbers have been, I’d say the Leafs are probably in the range of re-setting the market for a player like Mitch, based on his production and where the league’s gone.” 

So, according to one of the sport’s top insiders, the Maple Leafs are currently working towards paying their star RFA a sum of money that, in the entire salary cap era, has never been given to a player of his stature. Neat!

Keep in mind, these are the cap-strapped Maple Leafs we’re talking about, too. This is a team so tight against the cap at the moment that, just to fit under its ceiling, they were forced to trade for fictional players to exploit a little-known loophole buried deep in the fine print of the CBA.

And yet, even with their financial walls closing in, these same Leafs are still willing to “give Mitch his”. That has to mean something, right? The NHL might be an entertainment outlet, but it’s still a workplace, and I’d argue that receiving a market-changing compensation offer from your employer would be cause for celebration.

Not to the Marner camp, though. No, sir!

You see, you just don’t get Mitch’s struggle, man. The guy has been subjected to horrors such as the third-highest ice time of any Leaf forward as a rookie, a spot on the powerplay from day one, a pair of proven veteran linemates from years one through three and then an entrenched role as John Tavares‘s running mate in year four.

That’s enough to drive any player mad. I mean, how DARE they put Mitch through all of that? And to then offer an above-market pay raise? The sheer nerve.

And we haven’t even broached the topic of Auston Matthews yet.

“He [Marner] doesn’t have the case to argue for Auston Matthews’s money,” continued Johnston, reiterating what has been apparent to every rational human being for quite some time.

“Goals are what get forwards in particular paid in this league, and Auston has the most five-one-five goals since he entered the league. He has the best rates of scoring, and I think that, because he’s a centre, he had more leverage to get the kind of deal that he got”

These are all fair points. What CJ is forgetting, however, is that Marner makes his OWN comparable, dammit. That’s how negotiations work! You just storm into the boardroom, declare “this is what I want!” and then plug your ears when the other side gives their opinion.

Put it all together, and the result is sweet, sweet leverage.

Unfortunately, according to Johnston, that leverage has begun to slip from the Marner camp’s grasp.

“When it comes to the bargaining table, I just don’t see Mitch having the same credentials to argue for that kind of money” he explained further.

“And, honestly, I don’t know that the league does. As I say, these teams could have signed him for the last two-plus months to that exact contract…they could’ve given him Auston Matthews’s deal, but they didn’t”

Could an offer sheet still be directed at Marner? Of course, it could. Anything is possible. Heck, I could wake up tomorrow with wings and fly away from this abominable situation. The Montreal Canadiens even have requisite amounts of cap space and freshly-scorned hatred to poach Marner if they wanted to. Will they do it? Honestly, probably not. At least, not this close to the season.

So, what happens now? With training camp on the horizon and a new contract seemingly as far away as it always has been, where does that leave Marner? He does have a season to prepare for, after all.

Johnston sees only one option.

“If you’re on Marner’s side at this point in time and you’re not getting an offer sheet and you don’t want to play for what the Leafs are offering, you have to sit” he concluded. And amidst reports of Marner’s Swiss dissension, that is starting to seem more and more likely.

All hope is not lost, though. While the clock may very well be ticking faster than ever, time still remains for both sides to meet in the middle and hammer something out. Here’s hoping they use it.