On May 27 TSN published an article arguing that the NHL and CHL should modify their transfer agreement to allow “exceptional” drafted CHL players to play in the AHL, which they currently can not do until their 20-year-old season. The focus of the article is on Mitch Marner, who just finished tearing up the Memorial Cup with the London Knights. Gary Lawless, writing of Marner for TSN, says:
He may not, however, be ready for the NHL. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 164
pounds, it’s quite possible Marner will need some time in the AHL to
adjust to the pro game. But that’s not available to him next season.
. . .
Marner, almost all would agree, would be best off adjusting to the challenges of the pro game in the AHL.
Size is a frequent theme in discussions of Marner. Despite the way he continues to put up huge numbers in the OHL, many people believe Marner will struggle in the NHL because he is smaller than most NHLers. I think that line of thinking is wrong. While no one can predict the future with certainty, all of the available evidence suggests that Marner will be able to jump into the NHL next season and contribute at a reasonably high level.
It’s well-known how thoroughly Mitch Marner has dominated junior, but I’m going to recap some numbers here just to highlight how exceptional he is. In 2014-15, Marner’s draft year, he put up 126 points in 63 games, exactly 2.0 points per game. This year he repeated that effort with 116 points in 57 games. There’s only one player in the NHL who I was able to find who scored two points-per-game in the CHL in both his draft and draft +1 seasons. That player is Jonathan Drouin.
Like Marner, Drouin is a small, skilled player who many pundits have doubted on account of his size. When Drouin was drafted, he was listed at 5’10” and 186 lbs. His current status is an inch taller and two pounds heavier, which is to say that he’s the same size now as he was at the time of his draft. That didn’t stop Drouin from putting up points in his rookie season when he scored 32 points despite playing just 13 minutes a night. In fact, Drouin’s 1.98 points per 60 minutes at 5v5 that season put him only a little bit behind Steven Stamkos (2.14), despite Stamkos playing with better players. And of course, we all know what Drouin did in the 2016 playoffs just a year later.
It’s true that Marner is lighter than Drouin, but concerns about size have followed Drouin around, and he’s shown that it isn’t an impediment. As the only player in recent memory to transition to the NHL after putting up CHL numbers like Marner’s in two consecutive seasons, he serves as a good comparison.
As exciting as Marner’s regular season scoring has been, it’s this year’s CHL playoffs where he’s really taken off. After last night’s game, Marner finished with 58 points in 22 playoff games, an unbelievable 2.64 points per game. That’s even higher than Connor McDavid, who finished with 2.45 points in the 2015 CHL playoffs.
That puts Marner is some elite company. No one believes that Marner is as good as McDavid, but if he’s even half as good as a 19-year-old as McDavid was this past year at 18, Marner could be expected to play at a 44 point pace over 82 games, which is roughly what you would expect out of a good 2nd liner. If Marner is able to contribute like a good 2nd liner next season, that would be a pretty strong showing from a 19-year-old rookie. Certainly the kind of skill level that deserves to be in the NHL.
Those two comparisons are just anecdotal, though. A better way to judge Marner would be to look at how similar players have done in the NHL as teenagers. Since the main knock on Marner is his size, I’ve grabbed a list of every player in the past 10 seasons who was under six feet tall as a teenage rookie. I set a cut-off at 40 games played so that we’re only looking at players with a reasonably large sample.
I’m also including a few other players who I think are relevant here. David Pastrnak is an inch taller than Marner but has a similarly tiny frame. William Nylander was below the 40 GP cut-off, but I’m including him because as a Leafs prospect he’s interesting to look at. And Johnny Gaudreau is on the list for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.
|Player||Drafted Ht||Drafted Wt (lbs)||Current Wt (lbs)
||Rookie GP||Rookie Pts|
(Drafted year height and weight gathered from various sources but primarily NHL Central Scouting lists for various draft years. Current weight was collected from NHL.com).
A closer look at the list suggests some of these players might not be great comparables. Guys like Duchene and Yakupov might have been the same height as Marner when they were drafted, but they were much bulkier. Even at 5’11”, a player approaching 200 lbs isn’t really “small”.
We still wind up with a list of five players who were of a similar size to Marner when they were drafted: Patrick Kane, Nikolaj Ehlers, Robby Fabbri, David Pastrnak, and William Nylander. All five of those guys had successful rookie seasons as teenagers. The last four played between a 40 and 50 point pace, which as mentioned above is about what you’d expect from a good 2nd liner.
One player on this list clearly stands out, and that’s Patrick Kane. Kane was even smaller than Marner when he was drafted, but he had no trouble adjusting to pro hockey, jumping into the NHL just a few months later. Kane’s 72 points as a teenage rookie led the Blackhawks that season. What Patrick Kane did may be a bit lofty to expect from Mitch Marner next year, but it’s more evidence that guys who have truly elite skill (which Marner does) don’t have difficulty scoring in the NHL as teenagers, even when they’re small by the standards of pro hockey.
The last player on my list is Johnny Gaudreau. Gaudreau didn’t have his rookie season until he was 21 years old, two years older than Marner will be next year, so he doesn’t fit the criteria I’ve been using. But even now, at 22 years old, Gaudreau is listed at 10 pounds lighter than Marner, and that’s after putting on quite a bit of weight since his draft season. Despite his diminutive stature, Gaudreau has 143 points in 160 career NHL games, further testament to the fact that small players are not held back when they’ve got high-end talent.
All of this taken together shows that there’s no reason to believe Mitch Marner’s size will hold him back next season. Small, skilled players have not had difficulty finding success as teenage rookies in other recent seasons. Players like Nikolaj Ehlers, who played last year at just 172 pounds, have jumped into NHL lineups, and those players have consistently scored like top six forwards. There’s no good reason to believe Marner can’t do the same.