What Maple Leafs could expect back in a Mitch Marner trade

If the Toronto Maple Leafs break up their core this offseason, Mitch Marner is a strong candidate to move.

Trade rumours are destined to swirl around the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason as the team looks to regroup from another disappointing playoff result.

If incoming GM Brad Treliving is hoping to shake its roster up in a meaningful way that means trading one of the "Core Four" forwards of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander.

In his introductory press conference Treliving was understandably noncommittal on his intentions for the group.

He said that he would "review everything" while also making it clear that he didn't intend to make a statement for its own sake, and that his priority was getting better more so than making a radical change. He didn't sound desperate to move anyone in the Core Four, but he also wouldn't have benefitted from promising to make a trade on Day 1.

The Maple Leafs' top forwards are often grouped together as one entity, but trading each of them presents a radically different proposition.

Tavares has negative trade value based on the size of his contract and a no-movement clause that he has no interest in waiving. Matthews is, conservatively, a top-10 player in the NHL, and he's expressed interest in an extension. The only wise course with him is presenting a rich offer.

That leaves the wingers, Marner and Nylander.

Below is a summary of what Marner looks like as a trade chip and what kind of deals for the playmaking winger might be available to the Maple Leafs.

Trading Mitch Marner is one option for the Toronto Maple Leafs to shake up their team. (David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports)
Trading Mitch Marner is one option for the Toronto Maple Leafs to shake up their team. (David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports)

What is Marner's value on the trade market?

It's a bit complicated.

Marner is an elite player who would make literally any NHL team better. He's one of the league's best passers and he's improved as a finisher in recent seasons with back-to-back 30-plus goal campaigns. He's a Selke Trophy finalist capable of killing penalties and logging as much ice time as a top-four defenseman without missing games. Since coming into the league in 2016-17, Marner is 10th in the NHL in points and fourth in assists.

For all the criticism he's taken in Toronto, he's an outstanding on-ice asset. His trade value doesn't quite rise to that level because of his massive cap hit ($10.9M) and relatively limited team control (two years).

The Maple Leafs could juice his standing on the trade market by retaining salary, but that would be easier to justify if they were rebuilding. Part of the reason for moving Marner would be to create cap flexibility and spread out their spending.

Toronto could pick up a small percentage of the winger's contract like they did in the Phil Kessel deal, but eating a significant chunk without getting significantly worse in 2023-24 would be a tough balancing act. Every dead dollar the Maple Leafs put on their cap makes it tougher to improve in the near term.

In a vacuum, eating half of Marner's salary would make him an unbelievably attractive trade chip, but that idea doesn't fit with the Maple Leafs' situation well. Perhaps Toronto could mitigate the dead money by taking on a high-level player on his ELC, but those guys are almost never available.

What should Leafs be looking to get back in a trade?

If the Maple Leafs are going to lose an offensive talent of Marner's calibre, they are going to need some firepower coming back the other way. That could take multiple forms, though.

A clear need is a second-line center who gives the team the flexibility to move John Tavares out to the wing and keep the team's top-six explosive. Depth scoring is also worth targeting for Toronto as that has been an issue for the team in recent seasons — and during the club's playoff disappointments.

Trading Marner might be an opportunity to build on a blueline that has just three top-four calibre players in Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie and Jake McCabe, and Brodie is entering the final year of his contract. Top defensemen can be exceedingly difficult to dislodge on the trade market, but Marner's star power might be enough to make a few intriguing blueliners available.

Regardless of who would come back the other way, one thing is clear: the Leafs are almost certainly giving up the best player in a trade, which is what makes this such an unpalatable proposition for Toronto.

What kind of teams might be interested in Marner?

For a team to want Marner they need to believe they are close to making some noise in the playoffs. There's not much sense in acquiring an expensive player with limited team control unless you think you're going somewhere, as you risk losing him to free agency in a few years if he wants to play for a contender.

That doesn't necessarily mean Marner would have to go to a team that reached the postseason this year, but anyone outside of that group would have to see themselves as a near-term threat like the Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames or Vancouver Canucks (although it's hard to envision the Leafs trading their star within the division). You also probably can't fully count out recent playoff teams who think they can swiftly retool, like the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals.

Chances are anyone making a move as big as acquiring Marner would be a team that at least had a shot at the Stanley Cup this season, though.

Playoff clubs that lacked top-10 offenses during the regular season that could use a boost include the Minnesota Wild, Seattle Kraken, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets, Colorado Avalanche and New York Rangers.

Besides the Jets, who appear to be moving towards a rebuild, those are the best candidates to make a push for Marner.

Is there a Jonathan Huberdeau-Matthew Tkachuk trade to be made here?

One ideal scenario for the Maple Leafs would be to trade Marner for another star player that fits them better, which again would be a No. 1 defenseman, a true No. 2 center or a skilled top-line winger who brings a different dimension to the team.

That seems far-fetched given there are few players who would a) be realistically available b) fit Toronto's needs and c) approximately match Marner's salary. That dwindles down the pool of candidates quite significantly.

There are no unicorn wingers like Tkachuk available who are worth Marner in a one-for-one trade.

Down the middle, you could probably include guys like Sebastian Aho ($8M), Robert Thomas ($8.1M) and Tomas Hertl ($8.1M). But Carolina isn't deep enough down the middle to part with Aho for a winger, Thomas is locked up long term and better fits the Blues' window and Hertl just signed long-term and has a full no-movement clause, though it's conceivable he could be talked into waiving it to play for a conteder.

On defense, players who technically fit the criteria include Erik Karlsson ($11.5M), Zach Werenski ($9.5M), Dougie Hamilton ($9M), Roman Josi ($9M), Mikhail Sergachev ($8.5M) and Thomas Chabot ($8M). But there are a number of complicating factors, from relative value, age, defensive acumen, injury concerns, division rivalry and no-movement clauses that could make the majority of these players non-starters.

Barring a one-for-one swap, Treliving could attempt to fill a few holes at once as he did in the trade that sent Matthew Tkachuk (and a conditional pick) to Florida for Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, prospect Cole Schwindt and a first-round pick.

Although the trade doesn't look great now with Tkachuk starring in the playoffs as a Hart Trophy finalist and the Flames missing the postseason, Treliving did get back a top-line winger, a top-four right-shot defenseman, a first-rounder and a mid-tier prospect.

It's not an easy model to replicate, but it's one the Leafs should look to for inspiration.

Let's make some fake deals

Canucks trade C/W J.T. Miller, G Thatcher Demko, RHD Ethan Bear, 2024 first-round pick for RW Mitch Marner and G Ilya Samsonov

Money in: $15.5 million*

Money out: $14.7 million**

*Bear (RFA) projected at $2.5M

**Samsonov (RFA) projected at $3.8M

Why it works: Vancouver might see this deal as an opportunity to cash in Miller for a player whose age matches the team's core better as Marner just turned 26 while the Canucks star is about to enter his age-30 season.

Marner and Elias Petterson could be one of the NHL's best dynamic duos, and upgrading from Miller to Marner would only cost the Canucks a puck-moving defenseman who's never topped 21 points, a slight downgrade in goal and a first-round pick in a year they should be more competitive.

The Maple Leafs would get the dynamic second line-driving center they need as well as a goaltender with a stronger track record than Samsonov. Demko had a rough 2022-23, but in the previous two years he posted a .915 save percentage with a GSAA mark of +23.1. Samsonov, on the other had, was a below average goaltender prior to 2022-23 and the team may not want to pay up for 42 games of strong work (2.33 GAA, .919 SV%) followed by a middling playoff run. Samsonov is a year younger than Demko and has first-round pedigree as the 22nd overall pick in 2015.

Bear is more than a throw-in for Toronto as he could carve out a role on a squad that is short on right-shot defenseman, or flip him for another asset. While his offensive numbers don't jump off the page, he knows what to do with the puck and has posted a positive Relative Corsi For in each of the last four seasons. He can also kill penalties and his next contract is unlikely to be too lucrative.

Possible hangups: Miller has a NMC that could render this idea moot, but he may see the Maple Leafs as a team in a better competitive situation than the Canucks.

Both goalies in the deal have careers that are difficult to interpret and each club would have to feel comfortable with the incoming netminder. That would mean Vancouver liking Samsonov to keep his momentum rolling and Toronto seeing a likely bounce back from Demko.

The Maple Leafs would also need to feel confident in Miller's medicals as they'd be getting most of his 30s with an $8 million cap hit attached to him through 2029-30. Treliving has rarely been scared off by a long-term deal, though, and Miller has been durable throughout his 11-year career.

Islanders trade RHD Noah Dobson, RW Kyle Palmieri, LHD Alexander Romanov for RW Mitch Marner and RHD Conor Timmins

Money in: $11.5 million

Money out: $12 million

Why it works: Like Minnesota, the Islanders need an offensive boost after ranking 22nd in the NHL in goal scoring during the regular season. The addition of Bo Horvat was supposed to address that, but he's not a one-man offense. Marner could give this team serious juice.

The price would be steep, and it's possible that Dobson, New York's top offensive defenseman, is off the table entirely. That said, the 23-year-old ranked fourth among Islanders defenders in ice time and played heavily sheltered minutes as his development stalled. This is not like asking for a Adam Fox or Charlie McAvoy type. Dobson has two years remaining on his deal that carries a $4 million cap hit.

Palmieri is primarily included in this deal to help even out salary, but he could help provide depth scoring for Toronto in a middle-six role. He can't be counted on to tally 20-plus goals anymore, but his combination of defensive acumen and finishing ability is valuable. His $5 million cap hit is a touch steep for what he provides at this point, but he's only under contract for two more seasons.

Romanov ranked fifth among New York's blueliners in ice time, but he's a 23-year-old bruiser with a $2.5 million cap hit for two more years before hitting restricted free agency. Because the Islanders are moving out two quality defenders they need a guy they can plug and play, and Timmins fits the bill and has some untapped offensive potential with 14 points in only 25 games last season.

Possible hangups: This move would be a radical offense for defense trade from the Maple Leafs' point of view. It's possible the team would feel the need to get a better forward back in a deal for Marner than Palmieri, who has 87 points to his name since the beginning of the 2020-21 season. It's also conceivable Toronto doesn't have the patience for the longer development curve of young defensemen given their current window of contention.

The Islanders have built their identity on defense and giving up two building blocks might feel uncomfortable for them, although Marner does provide top-tier defensive ability at his position.

New York Rangers trade C Filip Chytil, RW Kaapo Kakko, LHD Ryan Lindgren for RW Mitch Marner

Money in: $9.57 million

Money out: $10.9 million

Why it works: The Rangers have a world-class goaltender in Igor Shesterkin, but the team's goal scoring hasn't quite capitalized on his level of play. That led to their early exit in this year's playoffs despite the presence of Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.

Both of those big-name right wingers are free agents this offseason and Marner could slide in and provide an upgrade over either one.

In return, the Maple Leafs get two young forwards in Chytil and Kakko who have been used in third-line roles for the Rangers, but could be ready for more. The former is locked in with a reasonable cap hit of $4.437 million through 2026-27 while the latter makes $2.1 million in 2023-24 before reaching restricted free agency.

Lindgren helps balance out the money and he needs a deal after next season as well. That might be hard for the Rangers to swing as K'Andre Miller is deserving of a hefty contract in the offseason and Niko Mikkola is an unrestricted free agent they may be interested in retaining.

While Lindgren offers almost nothing offensively, he's a trustworthy defenseman who's averaged 20 minutes of ice time per night twice in his career.

Possible hangups: On the Maple Leafs side, the prize of this deal are two forwards with one 20-goal season and two 40-point efforts between them in their careers. Kakko has fewer points in 238 NHL games (98) than Marner had this season (99).

You have to see growth potential for these two guys to want to make this deal happen, but both took major steps forward in 2022-23, and Kakko just turned 22 while Chytil will be 24 at the start of next season. They also give the Leafs some coveted size up front, with Chytil checking in at 6-foot-2, 204 pounds and Kakko standing a similar 6-foot-2, 206.

For the Rangers, it's always hard to let go of a guy you've taken second overall in the draft — even if he hasn't broken out in four NHL seasons. The team also clearly likes Chytil considering they extended him less than three months ago.

Losing a steady presence in Lindgren could make New York uneasy, too, even if his role decreased slightly in 2022-23.