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‘We’re looked upon as gods’: Maple Leafs’ Marner after another 1st-round playoff exit

Mitch Marner stepped in front of the cameras and spoke to reporters for roughly three minutes.

The Maple Leafs winger — a lightning rod of criticism in the aftermath of Toronto’s latest playoff failure — said he would like to stay long-term with the organization he cheered on as a kid growing up just north of the city.

“It means the world,” Marner said Monday of suiting up for the Original Six franchise. “We’re looked upon as kind of gods here, to be honest. Something that you really appreciate.

“The love that you get here from this fan base … this attention is [unlike] any other.”

Head coach Sheldon Keefe then took a seat in another part of the team’s practice facility and said that, while he accepts responsibility for expectations not being met, his confidence in the group’s — and his own — ability to succeed is at an all-time high.

“Now more than ever, I believe in myself and our team,” he said. “That I will win and our team will win.”

It will be up to general manager Brad Treliving — and his bosses — to decide if both Marner and Keefe get that chance.

Toronto forced Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in the first round of this spring’s playoffs after falling behind 3-1, but lost the do-or-die finale 2-1 in overtime for a seventh opening-round loss in eight seasons.

Marner, who represents nearly $11 million US on the Leafs’ top-heavy salary cap, will enter the final year of his contract in October and can sign an extension July 1.

“I’ve expressed my love for this place, the city,” said the product of nearby Thornhill, Ont., who has a full no-movement clause and would have to agree to any potential trade.

Marner has taken heat after Toronto’s ouster thanks to a one-goal, two-assist showing over seven games against Boston. Going back to last spring when Toronto made the second round for the first time in nearly two decades, he has seven points in 14 playoff contests.

“In my time here, I’ve learned that there’s always a scapegoat, there’s always a narrative,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. “When you see guys go through stuff like that, it’s hard on everybody.”

Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly, the longest-serving member of the current roster, put the mood around the team in perspective.

“We’re in a wonderful position where anything other than a championship is a disappointment,” he said. “But it makes anything other than that very difficult and very challenging for the group on many levels.”

Keefe, who could take the fall despite a contract extension signed last August, guided the Leafs to that series win last spring, but the club has also lost four winner-take-all games under his watch.

“Year in and year out, I think you see improvement in a lot of areas,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “He’s done a really good job.”

‘Not an easy thing’ to win Stanley Cup

But here the Leafs find themselves again after a potent and high-paid attack led by the so-called “Core Four” of Matthews, Marner, Tavares and William Nylander came up short, including going an ugly 1-for-21 on the power play against Boston.

Treliving, set to enter his second season as GM, is scheduled to address the media Friday morning alongside new Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president and CEO Keith Pelley, who now runs the team’s parent company, and Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.

Marner was asked why a nucleus that hasn’t been able to get it done deserves yet another shot.

“Because we’re great players,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to do to win the Stanley Cup.”

Toronto was minus Matthews (two games) and Nylander (three games) against the Bruins, but stretching back to last spring, the team has scored two goals or fewer in 13 of its last 14 playoff outings.

“Everything is tighter,” Nylander said when asked about why the offence dries up at key times. “Games are won 2-1.”

So how close are these Leafs to being on the right side of those scores as part of a deep playoff run?

“I don’t know … we’ll see,” said Rielly, Toronto’s locker-room conscience. “It feels both attainable and a ways away.

“That’s what drives you as an individual. That’s what drives a team forward.”

Whether or not Marner and Keefe are part of that group will be answered in the coming days, weeks and months.

Matthews details illness, injury

The 26-year-old sniper scored 69 goals during the regular season to lead the NHL, but had a miserable time after a monster performance in Toronto’s 3-2 victory April 22 evened the series 1-1.

Matthews battled through an illness in Games 3 and 4 before taking a “weird hit” that kept him out of the next two contests. He returned to action at far less than 100 per cent for Game 7.

“Really frustrating,” he said. “It sucks and was killing me to watch.”

Samsonov wants security

After two straight one-year contracts, goaltender Ilya Samsonov will be looking for a longer deal ahead of next season.

The pending unrestricted free agent had a trying 2023-24 that included passing through waivers and losing his starting job to Joseph Woll in the third period of Game 4, but he returned to action in Game 7 after the rookie suffered an injury.

Toronto’s list of potential UFAs coming off one-year deals also includes forwards Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re steel human … you still think about this,” Samsonov said. “I want to get some more stability.”

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