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TORONTO — Mitchell Marner remains a restricted free agent and could miss the start of training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he has received plenty of support from center John Tavares this offseason.
“I’ve spoken to [Marner] throughout the summer, not a whole lot about his situation, but I’ve talked to him a little bit about how I feel about him and that I’m there for him, whatever he needs,” Tavares said at the Maple Leafs’ practice facility Monday. “He knows that and other than that, he’s such a big part of our locker room and our group.
“Obviously, what he does on the ice and the type of impact he has [is huge]. He’s just such a great guy, he’s become a very good friend as well.”
Marner played primarily on Tavares’ right wing at even strength last season, when Tavares set NHL career highs in goals (47) and points (88) in his first season with Toronto. Marner set NHL career highs in goals (26), assists (68) and points (94).
If he remains unsigned, Marner, who has led the Maple Leafs in scoring in each of the past two seasons, said in July that he would most likely not attend training camp.
“Probably not. There’s so much risk with that and it’s just something you don’t want to risk,” Marner said.
As a result, Marner reached out to ZSC of the National League in Switzerland in August about the possibility of training with the team sometime this month. ZSC has started its preseason schedule and begins its regular season on Sept. 13, the same day Toronto opens its training camp in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
If he doesn’t attend, Marner would be the second core player to miss Maple Leafs training camp in as many seasons; forward William Nylander missed all of camp and the first two months of the regular season last year before signing a six-year contract worth an average annual value of $6.9 million minutes ahead of the 5 p.m. ET deadline on December 1. If a player does not sign by the deadline, he is not eligible to play in the NHL that season.
Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract as an unrestricted free agent with Toronto on July 1, 2018, said he understands how difficult it is for Marner to be facing uncertainty with training camp set to get underway.
“I think [Marner] is just trying to focus on playing hockey. It’s never an easy thing,” Tavares said. “I think at the end of the day, both sides want the same thing. I know he’s just trying to prepare and be ready and I know he wants to be here, so hopefully it gets done in the next couple of days.”
Marner is not the only high-profile restricted free agent forward who remains unsigned. Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor of the Winnipeg Jets, and Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks also remain without a contract.
“Sometimes this is the way things go and it’s been reiterated by a lot of people, there’s a lot of players in [Marner’s] situation right now,” Tavares said. “It just seems kind of how the market is and how things are at this stage with the business side of the game and where the (salary) cap situation is for a lot of teams. It seems kind of how it’s been the last year, year and a half.”
Given the uncertainty surrounding Marner and with forward Zach Hyman recovering from ACL surgery in April, it’s possible Tavares could begin training camp with two new linemates, but he isn’t letting that impact his preparation.
“I’m anticipating like [everyone else] is,” Tavares said. “I know management and our coaching staff is well prepared, we have so many great options whatever happens. We have a lot of depth, so whatever it is, you just try to best prepare yourself and be versatile, address your game where you need to, and continue to try to get better. You know you’ll be playing with quality players regardless, so you just have to take care of yourself.”