It literally could not be any closer.
During our voting process, Mitch Marner edged out William Nylander as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top prospect by just a single vote, with four of the seven voters leaning Marner and three leaning Nylander.
Personally, I went back and forth on the matter several times before submitting my final list. At first, I leaned Nylander. A true blue chip prospect when he was drafted by the Leafs with the eighth overall pick in the 2014 Draft, Nylander still somehow managed to exceed expectations with both MODO and the Toronto Marlies last season. His scoring clip – 20 points in 21 games in the SHL, 32 in 37 in the AHL – as an 18-year old in both leagues was insane.
Then I started gravitating towards Marner, who was still playing junior hockey against admittedly lesser competition, but putting up a significant amount of points in his own right. The Markham, Ontario native scored 44 goals and 126 points in 63 games with the London Knights of the OHL, which is just about as impressive as Nylander’s accomplishments as a first year pro.
Why Marner over Nylander, then?
Personally, I see the offensive skill and skating ability as a wash – those are two massive categories where Nylander could very well prove to pass Marner as they continue to develop. It’s their play away from the puck where I see a greater difference, with Marner being a better 200-foot player at this stage in their careers. I wouldn’t go so far to say that Marner will win Selke Trophies for his defensive aptitude, but it’s an area of the game where Marner has a clear advantage.
That said, I’m not a scout. Take my assessment with a grain of salt. That’s why I went out and talked to one of the best prospect guys in the industry, ESPN’s Corey Pronman, to get his thoughts on Marner vs. Nylander. Recently, he named Marner the fourth best NHL prospect, while Nylander landed two spots behind him in sixth. Heads up – it’s a paywall, and well worth the price of admission. Here’s what Pronman had to say…
With players who are very close in talent levels and styles, it’s really just about degrees, usually slight degrees. I see a reasonable case for Nylander even though I lean Marner.
Marner for me has a nudge higher level of creativity, as well as is better defensively. However Nylander has shown in his time playing versus pros the ability to execute the same type of high level plays at a higher tempo versus different kind of players.
Marner’s 17 year old season statistically was unique, and while Nylander’s was fantastic it wasn’t at the same level, although his 18 year old season was unique. One could argue though that while the 18 YO campaign is a strong case, Marner hasn’t had a chance yet to prove he can reach or extend beyond that level at that age. So the argument only gets so much merit.
They’re both high upside players, and Nylander based on what he’s shown in the SHL and AHL has lowered his risk factor. Marner though seems to have a trajectory that points towards the highest of echelons if he keeps progressing like this, which is by no means a guarantee.
The thing that I always look for when scouting players is uniqueness, when one stands out from your peers, either current or historically. Putting these two side to side, and Marner does that a little more for me.
For more traditional scouting reports on Marner, check out the in-depth profile we did on him immediately following the 2015 Draft.
Marner will return to the London Knights and the OHL for one more season. It’s likely he will dominate the league in scoring all year long, but there’s certainly room to grow – both in a hockey skills-sense as well as physically. Listed at 5’10, 160lbs on his NHL.com Draft Profile, Marner will need to gain muscle mass and strength, and maybe hope for a small growth spurt as well.
It might seem like Marner is already too good for junior hockey, having scored at a two-points-per-game clip in just his second OHL season, but options for 19-year old stars are limited when you’re coming up through the Canadian Hockey League. Too young to be assigned to the AHL, unlike Nylander who played overseas, Marner is in an NHL-or-bust situation where the Leafs are also God awful and would not make for a happy developmental home.
The best path for Marner is certainly to return to the Knights and also play a key role for Team Canada at the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Hell, London is going to be such a stacked team (again) that an OHL Championship and a trip to the 2016 Memorial Cup should be less of a dream season and more of an optimistic expectation.
After that, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Marner fast track past the AHL and suit up for the Leafs in 2016-17, where he’ll be skilled enough to make an almost immediate impact on the scoresheet.
This article kicked off as a Marner-against-Nylander breakdown. Because this is an unforgiving prospect ranking, that’s who it has to be, but it’s not like these two should really be in any sort of competition with each other. It’s a great problem to have when you’re nitpicking and debating over two supreme talents belonging to the same organization.
What makes all of this so interesting is that, since I began organizing the Top 20 Prospects feature several years ago, this is the first time there was any sort of tough decision to be made at the top of the list. Hell, it’s the first time there’s been a tough decision in the top five or ten. In years past, players like Rielly – and last year, Nylander – would stand alone atop a mountain of long shots and tweeners. I can’t stress enough how dramatically improved this year’s group is, and it’s even better that they all are hovering in and around that 18, 19 and 20 year-old mark.
The Leafs won’t be Stanley Cup contenders for a long while, but there’s a new wave of talent that should enter the NHL at almost the same time. In three or so years, you should start to see a brand new, much better brand of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey with Mitch Marner leading the charge.
- #1 Mitch Marner
- #2 William Nylander
- #3 Kasperi Kapanen
- #4 Scott Harrington
- #5 Jeremy Bracco
- #6 Travis Dermott
- #7 Andreas Johnson
- #8 Connor Brown
- #9 Brendan Leipsic
- #10 Stuart Percy
- #11 Nikita Korostelev
- #12 Freddie Gauthier
- #13 Nikita Soshnikov
- #14 Viktor Loov
- #15 Carter Verhaeghe
- #16 Martins Dzierkals
- #17 Rinat Valiev
- #18 Dmytro Timashov
- #19 Sam Carrick
- #20 Matt Finn