Patrick Marleau stopped walking when he heard it.  “You cut out junk food?” said the 39-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs winger, arching his eyebrow at the 21-year-old Mitch Marner.

“Yeah, bro,” said Marner.  “OK,” said Marleau, approvingly.

As the Leafs prepare to open their most anticipated season in decades, Marner is the biggest little piece of the puzzle. On Thursday there were questions about Auston Matthews because he is the biggest piece. He rebuilt his always-on-balance camouflaged quick-draw shot over the summer, and more, appeared in a set of slightly dour pictures in GQ. Reporters showed Marner the pictures and he said, “Oh, no. Oh, no,” before recovering with, “Good for him. I respect it.”

But the questions weren’t really about Mitch, even one day after his four-point night in a pre-season win in Montreal, because he is perennially overshadowed by his bigger, generational teammate. They are bound together, these two, in a way nobody else on the team is. Matthews is the elite scorer who is trying to enhance his playmaking; Marner is the elite playmaker who spent a lot of the summer trying to improve his shot, “so people don’t have a clue what’s going to happen.” They have each led the Leafs in scoring in their first two seasons in the league.

And their contract extensions, unlike the still-in-limbo William Nylander, are up at the same time. In his first two seasons, the diminutive Marner has produced 2.91 points per 60 minutes played to Matthews’s 3.08. (22nd and 10th in the league, respectively, though Marner’s production is tilted toward his power-play work.) In those two years Marner has had his minutes artificially limited, has played on the fourth line for brief spells, has been given Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk to work with.

Now? Well, Marner produced at a 92-point pace last season after being put on the second line with Nazem Kadri. He’s still the fulcrum of what could again be a deadly power play. And he’s pencilled in on the second line with John Tavares and Zach Hyman, which should help boost his work at 5-on-5.

“They spend a lot of time talking to one another, trying to figure each other out, and I think once they really start clicking, it’ll be special,” says defenceman Morgan Rielly. “I mean, it’s two special players. You’d expect them to play well together, but it’s like anything: it takes time.”

Marner’s confidence has wavered in the past, along with his assignments. That should be over.

“(My confidence) is obviously high,” said Marner, pointing to the summer training that has him feeling stronger on his skates, and more explosive. “There’s obviously going to days and games where stuff goes wrong for you, but those are the games when you have to remember how good you are as a player, and remember what happens.”

And beyond his hard, targeted work with coach and trainer Dan Noble, Marner cut out the fast food he used to enjoy.

And this is where the tricky part comes in. These Leafs may never be better set up to play for a Stanley Cup, and if so, they should hope Marner — and Matthews — have monster years. They should hope coach Mike Babcock gives both more ice time: last year Matthews was 71st among forwards with 18:08 played per game, and Marner, at 16:23, was 153rd. They should hope for 90-point years, 50-goal seasons, all of it.

But unless the Leafs can sign them early or convince them to take less to be part of something special, that’s where it gets tricky. Nylander is said to be asking for more than US$8-million per year. Matthews projects into the US$13-million range; if he takes the same percentage of the cap that Connor McDavid did in Edmonton, it would be just about that, and McDavid is who he is chasing.

Marner should wait, too. Some agents around the league — not his own — peg a fair demand at about US$10-million, in a growing cap economy. Which would mean the Leafs’ salary cap would be squeezed hard, even as the championship window opens.

Marner can’t worry about that, of course, and neither can Matthews, but as the Leafs open this season, their short-term goals and their long-term goals may conflict. It’s a rich man’s problem, of course. But Mitch Marner is growing up, and is about to become a rich man, too.

Source: thestar.com/Bruce Arthur

Photo: © Vincent Ethier