TLN Top 20 Prospects 2016: #2 Mitch Marner

TLN2

Imagine that you’re playing road hockey on the street with your close group of friends. It’s been the relatively same group of buddies for a few years now, but you notice one day that you’ve only got 11 players — one short of the 12 needed for two full teams.

You’re debating your options, when you remember there’s a kid you saw practicing against the wall of your school around the corner by himself, and he looked pretty good. Not as good as you and your friends, of course, he’s a little small for that, but maybe it’s worth it to give him a shot, so you wander over and sure enough, there’s the kid.

So you, your friends, and the kid put your sticks in the middle of the street, picking teams at random.

“Just stay back here,” you say to the kid, who ends up on your team. “We’ll handle this for you.”

The game starts and it’s classic road hockey. There’s chippy stick movements, some hard defence, long shots on net of people trying to emulate their NHL heroes, and a bunch of yelling. 

Everyone’s expecting the kid to be the weak point. Except, suddenly, he isn’t. 

In fact, it’s pretty clear he’s the best player out there. Two defenders covering him? That’s a cross-ice pass to the open target. Diving at his legs? Well, he’ll just shoot it over you. You’re too tired to cover him? That’s great, he’s just created yet another scoring chance while playing twice as much as you. 

After a while, the game slows down a bit. He’s been on the road hockey ball the whole time, it seems, and surely, he’s done now. He’s got to be too tired to keep going.

Of course, he isn’t. As the game’s winding down, he’s just standing there, when suddenly he breaks out another deke, slowing down the opposition while speeding up your team.

And guess what? He’s smiling the whole damn time

Now that new dude, that’s basically the story of Mitch Marner, at every single level of hockey he’s played at so far. 

And you and your friends, well, you’re basically everyone who’s assumed he wasn’t going to cut it.  

The Votes

Jeff Ryan H. Shawn Ryan F. Adam Dom Jess Katy Readers
2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 2

Marner was ranked #1 on our 2015 list.

Player Bio

Position Hometown Height Weight Hand 2015 Team Acquired
C/RW Thornhill, ON 5’11 163 Right London Knights 2015 Draft (1-4th)

Marner’s past two seasons of junior hockey were an absolute dream scenario for a player who entered the OHL draft at 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, amid uncertainty if he’d even play in the OHL. 

Most recently, he’s been measured at 5’11 and 163 pounds – quite far from the average NHL weight at about 200 pounds. It’d be easy to try to forget Marner’s size, but to do so would be a disservice to the path he’s taken to become what he is today: one of the entire NHL’s most promising young talents.


The Stats

 SEASON AGE TEAM LEAGUE GP G A TP NHLe PIM +/-
 2012-13 15  Don Mills Flyers Minor Mdgt AAA  GTMMHL 55 41 45 86 N/A 34 N/A
  15  St. Michael’s Buzzers  OJHL 6 1 3 4 7.1 0 N/A
 2013-14 16  London Knights  OHL 64 13 46 59 24.19 24 38
  16  Canada Ontario U17  WHC-17 5 6 3 9 N/A 2 N/A
 2014-15 17  London Knights   OHL 63 44 82 126 52.48 53 36
 2015-16 18  London Knights   OHL 57 39 77 116 53.4 68 45
  18  Canada U20  WJC-20 5 4 2 6 54.12 4 0

Wow? Yeah, let’s just say wow. You do not find many stat lines like Marner’s two most recent OHL seasons at the ages he did them. Of course, many of the players who put up over 2.0 points per game make the jump to the NHL right away, but that doesn’t take anything away from his junior dominance.

One of the GTHL’s best players in his OHL draft year at age, the same size concerns followed Marner around like a dark cloud at age 15. 

That same 2012-13 year, Marner was an affiliate player of the OJHL’s St. Michael’s Buzzers Jr. A team, picking up six regular season games. 

What’s not shown in the statline was his playoff performance at his first time playing amongst mostly 19 and 20-year old players – a two-goal performance in Game 7 of the league final to push his team over the top as OJHL champions. It’s one of the best, yet least-known aspects of Marner’s junior career.

Projection Stats

pGPSn pGPSs pGPS% pGPS PPG pGPS PP82 pGPSr
25 (14/18) 16 (8/18) 64.0% (3/18) 0.82 (3/18) 67.11 (3/18) 52.38 (2/18)

  • pGPSn: The number of matches between the subject and the player-seasons (one season by a single player, i.e, John Tavares 2008 OHL) in the historical sample.
  • pGPSs: The number of statistical matches that became NHL regulars. This is determined by playing 200 NHL games.
  • pGPS%: Simply s divided by n, this is the percentage of statistical matches that successfully became NHL players.
  • pGPS PPG: The NHL points per game of successful matches.
  • pGPS P82: The same as pGPS PPG, but stretched over 82 games.
  • pGPSr: A bit of a hybrid number, this pGPS Rating combines the percentage and points per game to produce a number that includes both likelihood of success and potential upside.

Based on the success of his historical comparables, Marner is projected to become a top-six forward in the NHL.

To learn more about the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System, check out this post.

The Eye Test

In the profile’s introduction, I clearly hyperbolized a bit, but watching Marner play junior hockey these past two seasons really is a bit like watching a created character dominate a video game. 

He doesn’t necessarily “look” the part of the majority of junior hockey players who succeed, but there’s a beautiful art form in his playing style. There’s the highlight reel plays, sure, and the point totals and the awards. But coming with all that is a player that’s earned the label “too good for junior hockey” – and with good reason: he’s really got nothing left to prove in the OHL.

From TSN’s Bob McKenzie in December:

I think he’s probably taking shifts that are probably considered too long, I think there are some nights where he can score his two or three points and never break a sweat, and sometimes the junior game might almost be too easy for him.

McKenzie’s comments weren’t meant to be disparaging, but rather the honest truth. Marner’s playing style is as much about beating opponents with his head as with his hands and feet. He’s in immense physical shape despite his smaller frame, but often he’s able to make the right move in a tight space.

Watch any highlight reel or game tape and you’ll notice the little things about the way Marner does his business on the ice: the casual nature of many of his passes that end up with an easy scoring chance for his teammate, or the almost slow-motion nature of the two similar between-the-legs goals he scored that were replayed over and over and over again. 

In just about every London Knights game since he’s risen to the OHL’s elite, Marner’s ability to create offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates led a deep roster even further ahead of the pack. 

Of course, it helped often being on a line with two talented forwards in Matthew Tkachuk and Christian Dvorak, and being fed by puck-moving defenceman in Olli Juolevi.

In 2014-15, Max Domi was among the Knights’ top players, and in Marner’s rookie season of 2013-14, current Vancouver Canuck Bo Horvat was leading the charge as well.

Marner’s certainly had no shortage of talent around him to help make his junior career a great one. 

READ MORE: IS MITCH MARNER NHL READY? (Shawn Reis)

But when you add it all up, Marner’s game was really a step ahead of just about everyone he faced this past season. The best player on junior hockey’s best team, Marner was the prime attraction in the CHL this season.

In an interview at the Memorial Cup, Knights coach Dale Hunter touched on some of Marner’s other unsung qualities and their translation to the NHL.

“He kills penalties for me. He blocks shots. He does the little things, too, that a guy like Mike [Babcock] would like because that’s what coaches like,” Hunter said. “That their best players can also block shots, kill penalties, do the little things to win. He’ll do that. He’s a character kid that way.”

No one’s bringing in a player like Mitch Marner solely to kill penalties, but it’s never a bad thing to have that sort of extreme trust with your coach.

“Vision” might be an impossible quality to quantify, but his teammate Tkachuk affirms that Marner’s got loads of it. “He’s got eyes in the back of his head… he’s able to find you anywhere on the ice,”  he said to Sportsnet earlier this week. 

In Marner we find more strengths than weaknesses, and very few glaring holes in his game. His skating ability is often noted as agile and quick by most scouts, his stickhandling abilities are very high, and his offensive production speaks for itself. 

Try to find a scouting report or Marner that outlines a major weakness that’s anything other than size-related or “might take some time adapting to the pro game”. 

The truth is, you won’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean he’s a perfect junior player or doesn’t need refining, but he’s a player that’s been so good amongst his peers that it’s extremely challenging to find something that he’s doing wrong. Marner’s disadvantages are few and far between, and any reason most will tell you why he won’t develop into a upper-tier NHL talent are almost entirely size-related.

He won’t likely be able to play exactly the same way he did in junior in hockey’s toughest league with as much space and time to operate, but he’s a player so quick and with a very high hockey IQ and vision that adapting to the next step up should only be a natural progression. There might be an initial adaptation period (10 games? 25? A full year?), but there are very, very few prospects who enter the NHL with his combination of skills.

As Seen on TV

Marner’s definitely had no shortage of highlight reel plays in his time in junior hockey. 

Instead of being picky, here’s all of them from this past year.

And the video’s made the rounds before, but if you haven’t seen it yet, watching 10 year-old Mitch Marner’s quite the treat as well.

The Buildup

The most interesting thing about Marner’s past season might have been the hype that followed it. 

Having already put up 126 points in his 2014-15 draft year, there wasn’t much left for Marner to accomplish individually in the OHL.

Or so it seemed.

Held pointless just three times over his final 52 games and putting up points in his final 16 playoff games and every game in the Memorial Cup, Marner was a man on a mission in 2015-16.

Once he officially became a part of the Leafs organization after he was taken fourth in the 2015 draft, Marner went from a very good junior hockey player playing in Ontario, to a very good junior hockey player playing in Ontario that was now the property of a team with an extremely large fanbase bored with their NHL roster.

In the “social media age” with highlights more easily accessible than ever before, Marner was perhaps the perfect player for Leafs fans to focus on in an eventful year full of, well, really unwatchable NHL hockey. As much as the efforts to tank for a top draft pick were in full force, a fix for winning, exciting, highlight reel hockey pushed Marner’s season with London Knights to tantalize with new exploits just about every weekend, each one seemingly topping the last.

READ MORE: MITCH MARNER SHOULD BE IN THE NHL NEXT SEASON (Draglikepull)

The best example of this would be a three-day stretch approximately halfway through the season.

On December 4th, Marner scored a hat trick against Windsor. The next day? He scored a hat trick again, and added two assists against Ottawa. And on the third game in three days? Well, he didn’t score three again, but had a goal and two assists in his last game for around a month as he’d head off to the World Juniors.

In his first WJC, Marner produced six points in five games for Canada, including a two-goal third period in the quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Finland. In a disappointing tournament, Marner served as arguably the team’s best forward, tied for the team lead in scoring.

Following the WJC, there was another major factor that likely helped fuel some attention towards Marner: injury to William Nylander, the Leafs’ other young star.

Of course, attention remained strong on the high-flying Marlies despite the Nylander loss, but Marner continued to play an a unsustainably good level… for the remainder of the season. 

It wasn’t uncommon for a Friday night or Sunday afternoon Knights game to become prime Sportsnet material, and with good reason: the team’s +137 goal differential over the course of the regular season stood 49 goals better than any of their OHL counterpoints. 

Marner produced three points or more 23 times over the course of the OHL regular season, just a hair over 40% of his games.

Think about the number of GIFs, Vines, and Twitter videos you watched this past season of Marner.

Think about the number of articles and discussions about him on a near-weekly basis.

Even from two, three years ago the way we consume hockey highlights has become much more advanced, simpler, and more frequent. 

It’s not hard to say that without the technology we have today, Marner’s 2015-16 season would’ve been a different one. Perhaps the on-ice results would’ve been the same, sure, but without the Leafs blogs and Forums, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other online communities, Marner’s season simply couldn’t have been followed as extensively by a non-London area resident as extensively as say, a prospect in a similar situation in say, 2000, 2005, or even 2010.

Despite missing out on the Hamilton Spectator Trophy due to their head-to-head record with the Erie Otters (both teams had 105 points), they were, by the majority opinion, the team to beat heading into the OHL playoffs. 

It was a good pick for those who chose it, as they won their final thirteen games of the OHL playoffs before going 4-for-4 in the Memorial Cup. 

Without taking anything away from his season, let’s be honest, even though he was arguably the best talent in junior hockey last season, there was another major contributing factor that caused Marner to be one of the key focuses in the OHL: 2016 was a down year for top-end Canadian draft-eligble OHL talent. 

The highest Canadian OHLer taken? Mikey McLeod, at 12th, a far cry from the three OHL players taken in the top four last season in Marner, and Erie Otter teammates Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome. The game’s “top” prospects in 2015-16 all came from “not-Ontario”.

Marner’s as much a talented player as he is a product of his time period.  

So let’s celebrate the success of 2015-16 Marner, but let’s not forget the uniqueness of that season too. It’s rare a player of his skill level and point production goes back to junior and steals the show for a second year in a row following his draft year, and it’s never been done in a year where that player also belongs to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There were other great junior performances: from his teammates Christian Dvorak, Matthew Tkachuk and Olli Juoelevi, from Kevin Labanc in Barrie, who put up a higher point total at 127, but fell behind Marner in points per game (and was also nearly two years older), and from his buddy Dylan Strome, who was in a similar role in a draft+1 year putting up 111 points.

Pierre-Luc Dubois had a great year in the QMJHL, and imports Alex Nylander and Mikhail Sergachev provided plenty of entertainment for OHL audiences.

Even if three of the first four players taken in the 2016 draft didn’t play in the CHL, there was a lot to like about junior hockey last year, for sure.

But if you wanted to watch the CHL’s best player last season, the expectations were on Marner all year to deliver… which he did just about every night all year long. Marner was a ticket-seller, bringing in hundreds of Leafs fans from across the province solely to see one of the most crucial pieces of their rebuild develop and wow last season right in front of their eyes. The London Knights already have the distinction of being one of the league’s most popular (or unpopular) OHL teams, but the casual Leafs fanbase that took it upon themselves to track Marner’s every move was a wholly unprecedented one.

And, well, as it’s been said many times, it really couldn’t have gone much better for him.

Marner won four individual MVP awards: OHL regular season and playoff MVP, CHL Player of the Year and Memorial Cup MVP, and the OHL and Memorial Cup Championship to boot.

Video game stats, and an entire NHL fanbase loving every minute of it.

Next Season

Where will Marner spend the majority of 2016-17? It’s a question many have asked.

Can he make the NHL? Will he be in the press box? Can he handle the minutes? What line will he play on? Will he play centre or wing?

Most agree he’ll make the opening day roster, but where he goes from there is anyone’s best guess.

Though the league will likely be different than any other he’s played before, the challenge for Marner is the same one that’s followed his entire career — Sure, he’s really good, but can he step up to the next level? For all the talk that’s assumed he won’t cut it, it’s hard to really argue with his resume. 

Whether his size will legitimately hinder him, or just be a talking point for an older generation to focus on is unforeseen.

But for what it’s worth, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said earlier this year to TSN 1050 about Marner’s weight, as transcribed by our friends at MLHS:

I think it’s a mistake if we focus on a number and say, “this has to be your weight.” I think all we have to say to Mitch is just, “become as strong as you possibly can by the time September rolls around.” If that means you’re 163, or you are 165, or are you 170 – it really doesn’t matter. You can’t manufacture weight, especially for a guy like Mitch. He’s not a player that, even if he’s at 170, is necessary going to be using his weight as an advantage for him.

In a roster full of uncertainty, Marner’s usage is one of the biggest question marks heading in 2016-17. Projecting an accurate point total is near impossible, especially when it’s unknown exactly how he’ll perform. But for a player who often approached 30 minutes of ice time as a junior forward, conditioning and NHL-ready fitness shouldn’t really be an issue. 

Closing Thoughts

No matter what method you use, Mitch Marner’s ceiling in the NHL is an extremely hard projection to make. He’s an exciting, flashy, smart player who’s impressed at every level he’s played at.

Marner himself weighed in on the issue of his NHL-readiness, and the most common concern that follows him around:

 “The NHL’s changed. It’s not about height. It’s not about cross-checking as hard as you can. It’s not about hooking. A lot of those will get you a penalty nowadays,” Marner said. “It’s about the speed game now; it’s about thinking. If you have the brain to play in the NHL, you can play. If you can dodge hits, you can play. It’s up to you to put the work in.” 

There’s been more than a few examples of players at a similar height and weight who have been able to not only “cut it”, but succeed and excel.

While Marner does play an agile game and is often looking to “dodge hits”, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s afraid of contact or “getting in the dirty areas”. Take, for example, this play from a drill earlier this summer: 

It’s a challenge to truly evaluate him and perhaps we’ve all gotten ourselves a little stir-crazy over a player who’s had an absolutely exceptional junior career.

We’ve got the GIFs, the videos and the MVPs. We’ve got the statlines and the debates and the doubts and the things to praise.

Soon, we should be able to see what he can do at the NHL level. It’s lazy analysis to say “we’ll have to wait and see,” but really, that’s all we can do this point.

In the 2015 NHL playoffs, Marner was interviewed about his future ambitions. He compared himself to Tyler Johnson.

“A guy who wasn’t even drafted is leading the playoffs in points, always being told he was too small, and look at him now. 

That’s what I’m trying to do.”

If all goes well, hopefully Marner will be that role model for another undersized player a few years down the line.

The Rankings So Far

  • MigBoron

    I don’t get this obsession with his size. Hes not even 20 years old and just under 6 feet. WHen I was that age I could barely crack 170 at the same height and that was without playing hockey 6 times a week and eating very unhealthy. Now at 28 its hard for me to stay under 200 and if I got down to a low bf% 185 would the lowest I could get to.

    MORAL OF THE STORY You put on a lot of natural weight in your early 20’s even without hitting the weight. EVeryone needs to shut up about his weight and at 6 feet, he is the average height of an NHLer.

  • magesticRAGE

    What’s going to be a ‘little’ hard for Marner, is that he’s a fringe smaller player. He weighs like a 5″9′ player, but at least 2″ taller. Sure he will evade hits, Kadri good at that too (@190lbs, 6′), but there’s needs to be strength to resist the rub outs along the boards, as he is a winger. Actually, Nylander is a good example, and has put on a lot of strength. Tyler Johnson is a smaller player, but has thickness. Johnny hockey is a small player, and with his height is a very small target.
    Marner will do well, just don’t be surprised if it takes a good while for him to figure it out, and earn the minutes he needs.

    • Gary Empey

      I think your comparison to Doug Gilmour in terms of playing style is right on the money. He plays the game with the same intensity Gilmour did. He has the same type of skating, playmaking and scoring skills.

      Doug Gilmour – Height 5.11 — Weight 175

      As for playing center, Dale Hunter starting him off last year at center then quickly moved him back to the right wing. So it remains to be seen if Babcock will continue to develop his potential at center.

      It is hard to believe the Leafs have so many good young prospects. I can hardly wait to see them on NHL ice.

      Most other teams will be exhausted half way through the third period, chasing these guys around.

  • Trevor5555

    There have been a few guys who had better PPG rates in the OHL but not many. Marner is 53rd all-time in OHL PPG. A lot of the guys ahead of him were from the 80’s or 90’s or only played 1-2 years like Tkachuk or Kane both of whome were in their draft years when they did it.

    Kane had 145Pts in the OHL in his draft year which is a lot better than Marners but Kane is one of the 10 best players in the world maybe even 5th best. When you look at guys with better numbers than Marner its the very best in the NHL.

    Tavares had 72 goals one year and averaged over 100Pts for 4 years from 15-19.Crosby had over 300Pts in two QMJHL seasons. So its not like Marners numbers are the best ever but they are definately in the top 10% of NHL players.

    Marner should be a sure thing to be a productive top 6 forward in the NHL. But comparing him to Crosby, Tavares, Kane and McDavid is a bit of a stretch. If he turns out to be a Kessel im very happy.

    Matthews is going to be the guy who has a shot at winning Art Ross and Hart Trophies. But Marner and Nylander look like they could be very good support players capable of 60-70Pts.

  • MigBoron

    Players like Marner & Nylander are why players like Polak & Martin were signed up. It gives these kids a chance to utilize their talents while giving them a little extra room to work their magic. Watching some of the set-ups Marner made in the Memorial Cup showed ELITE hockey sense ! Looking forward to this season .

  • silentbob

    The projection tool showcased in all of these rankings is the worst kind of modelling possible. It builds in the size bias and by filtering out players based on size instead of incorporationg it into a multifactor model it throws data points away unnecessarily, an absolute mathematical sin!

    This hurts a player like Marner the most. Because of the filtering Marner doesn’t get credit for the fact that he’s outperformed players like Stamkos, Hall, Seguin, Perry, Tavares etc.. in fact adjusting for age era and league the only two chl players in the last quarter century to outperform Marner were McDavid and Crosby.

    Nhle which while imperfect is still by far the best indicator of a prospects talent has Marner far and away our best prospect. And far and away the best bet to win the Calder.

  • Gary Empey

    marner is better than johnson. marner isn’t even out #1 prospect and he was the top prospect in the chl all year lol! we’re stacked. it’s hard to compare him to one specific player because he has a lot of different attributes from different players. i can see the johnson comparison, the kane one, the st. louis one, the gaudreau one and maybe even the gilmore/yzerman one. hopefully he’s just as legendary.

  • JB#1

    “There might be an initial adaption period (10 games? 25? A full year?)…”

    “Adaption” isn’t a word. You’re looking for “adaptation”.

    Otherwise great piece.

  • SEER

    the departure of Grabner who was a big part of the Leafs penalty kill and about the only thing that the leafs were average at leaves a hole that Marner could fill. Coach Babcock said that the puck seems to follow him around