Maybe I should have seen it coming last season.
Quite possibly it should have been even before that, the year he was Drafted. I had heard the questions. Is he too small? Can this skill translate to the NHL?
I was fortunate enough to travel to a few OHL barns to watch this kid live in his Draft plus one season. Marner was absolutely dominant. He did everything that was asked of him. He scored, he distributed, he played special teams, yes the kid can play on the PK. When it came to the final minutes of the game it would seem that he and his line would never come off the ice. They were that shutdown group.
Mitch Marner won every award imaginable during the run to the Memorial Cup. And then he won that as well. Top scorer. Check. Tournament MVP. Check.
He was (and is) a Leader on a very talented team. He clearly loved winning for that London Knights logo, and his fellow teammates.
Fast forward to his first NHL season. Skeptics continued to step up.
Just too small. Needs another year in the OHL.
Mitch Marner took all of that negativity and went toe to toe for the scoring lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs with the highly touted and 1st overall pick, Auston Matthews.
Good friends off the ice, the two along with another incredible talent William Nylander, were providing the Leafs with scoring that I cannot recall witnessing in my 40 plus years as a Maple Leafs fan.
A three-headed beast I kept referring to it as. Talent, charisma, and most of all…..team first.
So during that rookie season, Coach Mike Babcock entrusted Mitchell Marner, a 19 year old (who was too small) to ‘generate and drive production’ on a line with seasoned veterans Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. It wasn’t until a late season shoulder injury occurred, during a game of frustration in Columbus, did the Leafs scoring lead elude his grasp. Amazing what he was accomplishing, and creating during his first season in the NHL.
While he was getting quality powerplay reps, the 5 on 5 time continued to slow down as the line would score but give up opportunities against. Still, Marner would create offense that would lead his linemates, to their HIGHEST POINT TOTALS of their careers. Yes, the kid who was too small for the NHL, might be decent after all.
As an aside, those same voices said Marner was a liability in his own end. He finished as an ‘even’ on the season, while Nylander was a -3, Kadri a -7, and JVR (his wingman) a -5. If we are going to talk about it, lets be honest.
Even while he was posting 42 assists, I could hear the voices. It ranged from fans to Ron McLean all saying “He has to shoot more”.
Did Adam Oates and Jari Kurri need to shoot more? No. They were playmakers. So is Mitch Marner.
Having said that, Marner did score 19 times in his rookie season, a fact that would be lauded in the market at any other time, but much tougher when your teammate scores 40 in his rookie year.
So during the off season, Marner listened. He hit the gym and put on good weight. Muscle.
He worked on his shot. Because it did have to get better, and because he heard it needed to be better.
He was a ‘good professional’. Mitch Marner has done everything that has been asked of him. He has been a Leafs fan since he was a kid, and loves that logo to this day.
Fast forward to the start of this season.
Saddled with the same linemates, the ones who have been minus players most of their careers, the Leafs have gotten off to a terrible 4-1 start.
Marner has 4 points in those 5 games but is a -6. I do understand that there needs to be work done. 5 on 5 work.
Shuffling Marner to the 4th line where he will see 8 minutes of 5 v 5 ice, does not make sense to me. He will still get powerplay time, but is that really where you want him to improve?
Is Marner perfect? No, of course not.
What I would like to see is him stick to his point during the defensive assignment. There are times he gets sucked into attempting to cover for his defensively poor linemates and gets exposed for doing so.
Also, either block the puck or let your goaltender see it. Scrambling to get into defensive position because he is trying to do too much is creating a screened goalie at times, which is obviously never good.
With those two thoughts in mind, we all must remember that Marner is 20 years old. One who would do anything for his teammates and anything for that Maple Leaf that he wears on his chest.
Matthews, Nylander, Marner are an essential part of this core group moving forward in Leafs land. Constantly in this particular fanbase we need to look for faults. Have a scapegoat during each game. Look for perfection even when a team is 4-1. Give all of them an opportunity to succeed, and for me, two of them have been afforded that luxury.
For me, I would prefer to see a message sent to one of Marner’s veteran linemates if one was needed to be delivered.
Should they not grasp the concept of team defense at this point in the career? Or are they so above being delivered a strong message, based on seniority?
Please spare me the concept that moving JVR down the lineup would hurt his trade value. The entire NHL is aware of what he is at this point. There are no secrets.
If it were up to me, there is already a certain chemistry/mentorship developing between newly acquired Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner. Maybe put those two talented players together, and allow Marner to learn how a 2-way forward is supposed to play in the NHL. Seems to have worked for Marleau.
Can we also please discuss this shift by Marner, Marleau, and Zaitsev? pic.twitter.com/O7k4EvzY88
— Flintor (@TheFlintor) October 10, 2017
Maybe we should surround this kid with talent that will compliment him. Give him an opportunity to grow and thrive. Did Mitch Marner forget how to play a defensive game when he made the leap from the OHL to the NHL? Of course not. Are there adjustments to be made? Of course there are.
Maybe instead of sending him to the fourth line, we give him a lifeline.