Is Marner really going to leave Toronto?

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It looks like there’s some potential for negotiations between the Toronto Maple Leafs and restricted free agent Mitch Marner to turn ugly this summer. But just how ugly will it get?

Various reports have surfaced over the last few days suggesting that Marner doesn’t care what Mikko Rantanen is going to fetch on his next contract because he feels his comparable is teammate Auston Matthews, who signed a five-year, $58.17 million contract during the season ($11.634 million AAV).

Given that the Leafs are tight against the salary cap, they won’t be able to pay Marner that kind of money without getting rid of a player or two along the way. The issue for general manager Kyle Dubas is that as of July 1st other teams can submit an offer sheet to Marner. Now, that rarely ever happens and Marner would have to agree to sign it but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he could accept another team’s offer. The Leafs could then accept to match that offer, but it would put them in an ugly situation with the cap. They’d become even more desperate to unload players which means other teams wouldn’t be as inclined to offer up top assets for those players.

Earlier this week, Dubas spoke about the possibility of Marner receiving an offer sheet from a rival GM, and his answer may surprise you a little bit.

“If there were an offer sheet, we’d look at what they are and what the compensation is for our team and make the decision based off that,” Dubas said, per NHL.com. “They’re all very important players for us, so it’s our intention they’re here for as long as we can possibly keep them, but if the dollar amount doesn’t make sense in terms of our internal economics in the marketplace and the compensation and such, it’s going to be a decision on our end as to what we do. I wouldn’t know one (way) or another without knowing where those are going to land, if they happen.”

So basically he wants to let Marner know that if he signs an offer sheet for big money, there’s no guarantee the Leafs would match it. After all, they could net four first-round draft picks as a return for Marner. It’s a smart move by Dubas to suggest this openly, because it may force Marner to think twice about signing an offer sheet from a team he doesn’t really want to go to just because he assumes Toronto will match.

How did we even get to this point?

Marner has been part of the solution in Toronto, not the problem. Yes, centers like Matthews are typically worth more than a winger, but Marner plays like a centre (a lot like Patrick Kane does). He’s not your typical winger. He can score, he can distribute the puck and he can play both special teams, too. It’s not Marner’s fault that the Leafs have a lot of high-priced players on their roster.

The 22-year-old posted 26 goals and 94 points in 82 games last season. He deserves to get paid. The Leafs need to figure this out before next week. They can’t leave themselves exposed to a potential outside offer that could tempt their star forward.

Dubas is a smart guy. Maybe he knows Marner isn’t really going to go anywhere, but why take the chance? To save a few dollars on the salary cap? It doesn’t really make sense. Winger Nikita Kucherov, who just won the Hart Trophy, recently signed an extension worth $9.5 million per year in Tampa. We all know about the different tax situations in Florida and Toronto, so you can understand why he settled on a lesser number to stay in Tampa. Marner hasn’t won a Hart Trophy, but he’s put up some incredible numbers at a young age. His next cap number has to reflect that.

In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if the two sides call their own bluff and agree to a new long-term deal. They just need to make sure that the relationship doesn’t cross a point of no return. The Leafs are one of the most exciting young squads in the league, and seeing them split up Matthews and Marner because of a few dollars would be silly.

Make it work.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.