The end is approaching, my loyal Leafs friends here at The Hub.
End of what you might say? That would be the close to a season here in Toronto that would make Hell say “Didn’t come from us, boys. We wouldn’t be so cruel.” At Leafs Hub, we have shifted focus away from a roster we’ll happily wave goodbye to, and have begun the discussion on what most are now embracing. The proper rebuild fans have longed for. Believe it or not, there is reason for guarded optimism. That faith in the future comes in the form of hockey men even the most cynical Leaf fan make prose “Maybe, just maybe, the new regime can fix this right.” One member of that group who should provide Leaf Nation with a quiet confidence going forward, is Mark Hunter.
It’s well documented that Hunter pounds the pavement. When it comes to scouting, the devil is in the details. Nobody dissects those details like Hunter. You can’t fake it in this game, you have to put the time in. Taking that lead, it wouldn’t feel right for me to write this story without doing a small bit of the same. Heading out to the arena, making phone calls and leaning on whoever I can in an attempt to delve into what our next move could be. The move I’m eluding to will come when Shanahan and his OHL experienced executive approach the draft table this June.
Two weeks ago, I took in a couple Erie Otter games and along with my own notes, I picked the brain of any scout or person familiar with the team I could find to help get a feeling for what Dylan Strome will bring to the pro table. As for McDavid, less questioning and notes were required. He is what he is, and that is absolutely fantastic. Strome, a fantastic talent in his own right, is a more interesting case. With this 1st round selection being such an important decision for Leafs brass, every possible concern must be addressed. Considering Toronto’s probable draft position, last night my homework brought me to the press box to take a look at another viable option. The odds on favorite in many eyes, it was time to cap off the information I’ve gathered and see Mitch Marner, first hand. One game wouldn’t tell me enough, so I sought out the thoughts of those close to the player every step of his OHL career.
In observing a prospect, or any skater for that matter, it’s best not to take snap shots. You want to look at the whole photo album. Baby pictures and all. That being said, I will share you my own impressions before we move on to more educated opinions.
First off, you can never teach the two things that stand out right away about the youthful London forward. His obviously natural hockey sense and remarkable skill are world class. The puck didn’t find him throughout the early going, so his play without it was under my microscope. The understanding of his on-ice responsibilities away from the puck was evident. As an example, during one sequence, he followed his check throughout the zone and only left him when he read that he could position himself in a lane that if a pass was attempted, he’d be likely to intercept and head up ice. A difficult play to explain, but trust me, it was savvy.
As the game went on and the puck came his way, it was clear that when he gets it he’s going to try and do something with it. Zero panic in his game and he’ll hang on to the puck until something develops. Hand in hand with that, he didn’t force things or hold on to it too long or turn it over. A great combination, now add to it lovely vision and passing skills, an ability to cheat and anticipate the play and it’s no wonder he leads the OHL in scoring. It wasn’t until the middle frame on a PP where I saw the first exhibit of his speed. He has a wonderful stride. No game will be too fast for him, though I’d like to see more of him before making a call on his skating/acceleration. In the 3rd frame, a puck came to him in the slot that most guys would have shot immediately. Instead Marner showed patience, pulled the puck into him and showed off a wicked snapshot, just missing high. The goalie didn’t move until it was by him for a half second. Looked like a high quality pro shot to me. A small sample size, yes. Let me tell you though, it was enough to impress.
Scouts from the Oilers and Sabres were on hand, along with Mike Palmateer, who was there on the Leafs behalf. We didn’t discuss Marner in our brief meet, but it wouldn’t take Columbo to figure out that he was likely the focus of his visit. With many questions left to be answered on #93 for the London Knights and how he projects as a pro, who better to ask than his coach, Dale Hunter. All great coaches know how to delegate, and my inquiries were responded to by Knights assistant coach, Dylan Hunter. This was probably a blessing, as I doubt Dale would have as much to share with me. The younger Hunter was overly accommodating and we engaged in an honest conversation on Marner, which we at LeafsHub.com certainly appreciate.
Jude: “What sticks out most about Marner’s incredible season for you guys?”
Dylan: “Well, obviously there’s the production and numbers, but it’s more so the fact that he’s doing it as a 17 year old. Not only that, but he’s doing it under a great deal of pressure. For Mitch, it really comes down to the intangibles. He’s a heady player. Aside from the skill, he just gets it. And by that I mean if we say “Mitch, we need you to block a shot” late in a game, he’s willing to do it (which he did during the game I should add). That’s the thing with him. It’s all the other stuff that comes with being a special player. And the guys in the room love him. He’s a leader and he’s extremely grounded. There’s no ego with Mitch, he wants to do whatever the team asks of him and he’ll do anything to help. That’s not to say he isn’t confident. Sure he is, and you have to be in order to be successful. He believes in himself but in the correct manner.”
[quote font=”0″ font_size=”23″ arrow=”yes” align=”right”]”For Mitch, it really comes down to the intangibles. He’s a heady player. Aside from the skill, he just gets it. And by that I mean if we say “Mitch, we need you to block a shot” late in a game, he’s willing to do it. That’s the thing with him. It’s all the other stuff that comes with being a special player.”[/quote]
J: “I’m here to watch Marner as part of the possibility of him being drafted by Toronto. Much is made of positional needs here. Where do you him playing in the NHL. Is this an NHL winger or a centre?”
D: “Our belief here is that we want our guys to be able to go out there and be comfortable at all three positions. In that regard, I go back to his smarts. Mitch can play wherever you put him and do it well. We want versatility and he has it. In the pros and here, if a guy goes down or you want to adjust, we want players to do that. And Mitch certainly can. As for playing centre, we’ve worked hard with him on his face-offs and who knows what the future holds, but I see no reason the he can’t play center in the NHL or wherever he is asked to line up.”
J: “Marner has compiled 124 points to lead the league (followed by Strome – 116 pts and McDavid 112 pts), which is remarkably impressive. How’s he doing it?”
D: “It is pretty amazing when you put it into perspective. He’s drawing all the top checking lines, night after night. When Domi wasn’t here, we were throwing him out there almost 30 minutes a night sometimes. He just doesn’t ever seem to tire (Hunter chuckles). But I really go back to the fact that this is a complete player, and a very popular teammate. That makes what he’s doing all the more enjoyable to see.”
There is no doubt that the Maple Leafs have a difficult decision ahead. Who they choose with their first pick in the 2015 entry draft is as big a call as we’ve seen in quite some time. The Maple Leafs are extremely lucky have one of the Hunter’s leading the discussion at the draft table. Mark Hunter hit a home run in the OHL entry draft when he chose this sensational teen once before. I can’t help but wonder if history repeats itself and Hunter, along with the Maple Leafs staff, approach the table and Leaf Nation hear the words…
“With their 1st selection in the 2015 Entry Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs choose from the London Knights, Mitch Marner.”