ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — The morning after he stood side-by-side with Kyle Dubas to together navigate questions about his brief and since-resolved contract stalemate, Mitch Marner was finally able to settle back into his comfort zone.
On the ice Sunday with his teammates in St. John’s for the final training session in Paradise, Marner posed for photos, led stretches, showed flashes of his $65-million skillset, and shot smiles into the crowd and at his teammates.
This, here, is what Marner signed up for.
And it’s what the Newfoundland fans were waiting all weekend to see.
“It was nice,” Marner said after the skate. “It was nice being in front of this fan base, especially down here - I mean the love for our team is awesome. It was a lot of fun.
“It was great getting back on the ice with the guys today.”
It was a far more relaxed setting for Marner, but he isn’t quite out of the woods. With a stop in Ottawa before more questions are inevitably asked of him when he returns to Toronto, the process of repairing or at least steadying his image will continue.
But it can continue concurrently with phasing back to his previous reality — which means being stationed on John Tavares’ wing.
Their training camps delayed for different reasons as the Tavares family welcomed their first child into the world while the Marner clan was deep in contract negotiations, the two eight-figure linemates travelled to Newfoundland together on Saturday to begin the process of picking up where they left off.
The two formed an immensely successful partnership in their first year together, each posting career numbers with a combined 73 goals and 182 points.
But things will be different this year, at least to start, with the third member of the most routinely selected forward trio from last season, Zach Hyman, slated to miss the first chunk of the year while rehabbing the ACL he tore in the Maple Leafs’ first-round loss to the Boston Bruins.
Head coach Mike Babcock’s favourite facilitative grinder, Hyman did plenty for Tavares and Marner, and his contributions shouldn’t be overlooked.
Which is why Kasperi Kapanen will play such a crucial role for Toronto at the outset of the season.
Slated to start on the left side, Kapanen has been tasked with temporarily servicing the Tavares-Marner partnership — a role that is not just crucial to the Maple Leafs’ success on the ice, but also in muzzling the fans eager to see Marner’s numbers and performance potentially fail to measure up to his enormous price tag.
Those duties will also require a move from his preferred right wing, but it’s not like Kapanen is sweating it.
“It’s easy playing with them. Today we were just getting a little chemistry going. It was good,” Kapanen said after the skate.
“I’ll let them do all the nice things, and I’ll do the dirty work.”
The Maple Leafs will open their exhibition schedule in Newfoundland on Monday night in St. John’s.
No word yet on whether Marner, Tavares and Kapanen will be included in the lineup.
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