Mitch Marner Should Be In The NHL Next Season

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.

MARNER’S NUMBERS

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.

HISTORICAL COMPARABLES

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
Kane 5’10” 160 177 82 72
Skinner 5’10” 187 200 82 63
Duchene 5’11” 196 200 81 55
Ehlers 5’11” 162 172 72 38
Fabbri 5’10” 170 180 72 37
Drouin 5’11” 186 188 70 32
Yakupov 5’11” 189 195 48 31
Pastrnak 6’0” 167 181 46 27
Nylander 5’11” 169 190 22 13
Gaudreau 5’6” 137 157 0 0

(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.

  • silentbob

    AHL players are every bit as big as NHL players and often are way dirtier. Many AHL players are trying to make a name for themselves as being tough guys. Marner would be no safer in the AHL than he would in the NHL.

    Furthermore size correlates negatively with injuries! Lighter players do not get hurt more than heavier ones, they get hurt less! Few concussions, fewer games lost to injury.

    Every tool that compares players between leagues suggests Marner is Elite. The Pat Kane comparison is an apt one, but I’ll disagree with Marner not being as good a junior player as Kane. Kane may have had more points per game but he played in an era where everyone had more points per game. Adjusted for age, era and league the only junior players in the last quarter century to put up more points than Marner are Crosby and McDavid. And Marner’s defensive play is every bit as elite as is points scoring.

    This is the classic example of prejudice over analysis. There isn’t one stat or data point that suggests that Marner’s size somehow hinders him being in the NHL. People just think you have to look a certain way to be a hockey player in the NHL.

    • magesticRAGE

      I don’t think you can substantiate that claim. When the right weight is put on, it fortifies the body, preventing injury. When you’re trying to change your body type is where you might get into trouble. It would be good for Marner to get his weight to 185, mostly core and lower strength, increasing his shot velocity and quickness. All the small players listed are shifty and are hard to hit. Marner will dictate where he plays.

      • silentbob

        The thing with the statement “Marner will dictate where he plays” is that for it to be true there needs to be an established criteria for what a Maple Leaf is. Then its on Marner to either meet those expectations or not. If there isn’t a solid, pre-determinted criteria then its not up to Marner at all and Babcock or whoever can put the goal posts where ever they want.

  • Jeremy Ian

    I agree; Marner should be playing for the Leafs next year.

    The question is how will Babcock coach him? It’s not such a big challenge; Marner’s skills and smarts must surely be a coach’s dream. There will be some interesting experimenting going on with the third line. Something like Leivo-Nylander-Marner?

    Let Matthews and Kadri anchor the first and second lines. As the transition unfolds, Marner can move up and down the right wing.

  • Kanuunankuula

    I’d slot him next to Matthews honestly. Marner has shown to click well with a good 2-way center like Dvorak. So AM is the logical choice.

    Marner is a playmaker at core, and need a finisher for his plays. To me Nylander is too similar to him. And Nylander is pretty likely to play at W anyway.

  • vermie22

    all this does is prove that it is doable, which is good, but now add all the undersized players that played only a handful of games before being injured early on (thus not making your 40 game cutoff), who were never able to make a significant impact after that.

    • Harte of a Lion

      Can the argument be made about the injuries of smaller players? Seeing as you mentioned the undersized players who got hurt and didn’t come back to play after that, could you name them please.

      • vermie22

        No I can’t, and I will concede that it might be a very small list, or not even exist. My point was more along the lines that the criteria chosen in the comparisons only included the successful players, it was a one sided list compiled. I personally don’t know if there is a list of comparables with similar junior production and size who never made it. If there is, it would only make sense to also include those players to get a complete picture of the situation.

      • nobonusfornonus

        Remember Kozun? He got hit hard early and ended up playing in Europe. Andreas Johnson got concussed in his 2nd AHL game and hasn’t been back yet. I suspect there are a few more examples of small players being prevented from reaching that 40-games played mark.

  • magesticRAGE

    I don’t understand why this topic is beaten to death. we already know he’s too good for the ohl and small size won’t hold him back in sheltered minutes and soft minutes. he will be in the NHL. case closed. this repetitive back and forth is annoying.

    • nobonusfornonus

      further to your point. the league is desperate for Toronto to succeed. it would not be good for Marner to be Gudassed so maybe a directive is implied to lay off the skill players on Toronto cause like or not as Toronto goes so goes the league and the cash cow ain’t giving out milk the way she used to.

  • nobonusfornonus

    After watching Marner the past 2 months dismantle one top team after another during the run to win the Memorial Cup, I think that Marner’s hockey IQ, similar to Kane’s, will help him avoid hits and thereby helping to prevent injury. I have been a vocal proponent that he may need another year in junior.

    Anything is possible however I think that unless he has a terrible camp and first 9 games (highly unlikely) he will play with the Leafs until December, 25-30 games, then play for Team Canada and depending on many factors including his early success at the pro level, could be returned to that point to London. The Leafs probably do not want to burn a year of his ELC especially since Matthews and Nylander will both come up for a raise the same year. On the other hand, Marner might do from day 1 what he has at every level he has played, put up points, play a responsible 2 way game while vying for rookie of the year with Matthews and Nylander.

    I’d like to see Leivo or Soshnikov on the left side of Matthews and Marner. Both are great on the forecheck, can cycle the puck and work the boards but can also finnish when the opportunity presents itself.

    I believe that Babcock will have Michalek in that spot (depending on training camp, chemistry and whether he bolts for the Czec pro league) I read a rumour that he is considering pulling a Datsyuk

  • silentbob

    To me its as simple as this:

    The Leafs don’t need Marner next year. They’ll have Matthews, Nylander and a whole slew of rookies and inexperienced players next year. There won’t be any glaring holes in the roster they need Marner to fill, and Marner won’t be the difference between making the playoffs and missing them. So whats the point in putting him in the NHL next year? They can afford to take their time, bake him a little longer, let him get some experience in the AHL the season after next and bring him to the NHL as a young man instead of a teenager with years more experience

    We, as a fan base, have been screaming for years for the Leafs to create and use a real development system. Well we are doing that now, so why are so many now so quick to skip some players over it?