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Matthews and Marner: Which one is Ricky Bobby and which one is Cal Naughton Jr.?

The Toronto Maple Leafs' dynamic duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner always appeared to have a clear hierarchy, but the waters are being muddied by their performances this season.

In the Center of the Hockey Universe™, things are always a little more magnified. And that’s even more the case when it involves the future captain, the face of the franchise, the best player and the first player in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs who has a chance to be a true NHL superstar. (That’s right, the first.)

One of the snippets of news that has people’s hearts palpitating a little more quickly in Toronto came from the Maple Leafs coach, the other from the GM.

Let’s deal with the GM first. Largely because the Leafs cancelled practice too late and did not make any players available Tuesday, Kyle Dubas met with the media and dropped the nugget that he has continued “to have very healthy dialogue” with Auston Matthews’ agents on a contract extension. It’s a negotiation that will have an enormous impact on the franchise, not only in what Matthews gets, but how that affects teammate and fellow pending restricted free agent Mitch Marner. Marner’s agent, Darren Ferris, has made it clear that his client will not negotiate until after the season and there’s every reason to believe the Marner camp is waiting to see what Matthews gets before making any moves.

You could argue that Matthews is not exactly negotiating from a position of strength at the moment. He’s in the midst of the second-worst slump of his career, with just one goal in the past 13 games and only three secondary assists in the past seven. In his past 18 games, Matthews has found the back of the net in only three of them. His body language isn’t terribly encouraging, nor is the fact that he seems to be hanging around the periphery a lot lately. His impact on the game lately has been negligible at best. But make no mistake, both the Leafs and Matthews are taking the long view here. Matthews’ future worth will not be determined by a funk in his third NHL season.

Matthews has gone five, seven and four games without a goal this season. In his rookie season, he endured goal droughts of 13 and seven games. Last season, the most he went without scoring a goal was three games. It’s not as though he’s the only blue-chip player who has gone long periods without scoring goals. Consider Connor McDavid, for example. In his rookie season, McDavid twice went five games and once went seven without a goal. In Year 2, he endured droughts of 10, six and eight games and last season went six, five, five and four without scoring. Even this season, McDavid has had three four-game goal scoring droughts.

It will be interesting to see where Matthews settles on in terms of a contract. There are people involved in the game who believe Matthews should ask for $15 million, others who speculate that he will not want to average any more than the $12.5 million McDavid is making on his current contract. The best guess at the moment is somewhere in the $13 million range. The needle won’t move the other way because Matthews has hit a drought.

Now, let’s look at the coach. In Monday’s practice following their 4-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes in which Matthews had 10 shot attempts but was a dash-2 to show for his efforts, Leafs coach Mike Babcock had Matthews practicing on a line with Patrick Marleau on the left side and Marner on the right. Discuss amongst yourselves whether the notion that other players have to help Matthews out of his slump is a red flag or not, but what was just as interesting was what Babcock said to the assembled media about the unit.

“The biggest challenge is when you play with Mitchy - I’ve been playing him against the best players all the time, you’ve got to play against the best players,” Babcock said. “That means you’ve really got to commit without the puck. That’s the challenge.”

Wait a minute, did Babcock essentially say that Marner was the Leafs’ best player? Well, if he didn’t come out and say it, he implied it. And in all reality, he’s right. There has been no player on the Maple Leafs, game-in and game-out, who has been as consistently productive as Marner has this season. The fact that he became the first player in franchise history to record 60 points in each of his first three seasons is something that has not been talked enough about. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only 54 players in NHL history have done that. Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg would also have done it if not for the lockout that shortened the season in 1994-95. Of those 56 players, 28 of them are in the Hall of Fame or are shoo-ins for induction. McDavid never did it. Jaromir Jagr didn’t do it. Guy Lafleur didn’t. In fact, the Montreal Canadiens have never had a player match that feat.

All Matthews needs is 18 points in his final 34 games to join Marner on that list, something that even a slumping Auston Matthews should be able to accomplish with relative ease. But what was once an open-and-shut case – Matthews is the franchise and Marner will always be relegated to being Cal Naughton Jr. driving the Old Spice car behind Rick Bobby in the Wonder Bread car – might just be getting a little blurry.

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