Mitch Marner through 19 games last year: 7-9–16
Mitch Marner through 19 games this year: 2-11–13
But apparently the world is ending.
It’s true, a 17-game goal drought is rough. It doesn’t look great, and it probably feels even worse. But 1) it’s finally over(!), and 2) from a pure production standpoint, Marner isn’t really struggling. He’s only three points back of where he was last year after the same number of games played, and last year was a pretty hot start for a rookie.
Even the NHL’s biggest stars have the occasional slow start or rough patch, and a little sophomore slump doesn’t mean a player has been over-hyped and will ultimately let us down. (Although, these days, the phrase “Leafs rookie” apparently comes with an express ticket to Hypeville–no refunds.)
Sure, Marner just has not been finding the back of the net, and sure, his play hasn’t been as flashy as we got used to, but it’s not like he hasn’t found ways to contribute. The dude knows where to put the puck, and slump or no slump, that instinct won’t be hurting the Leafs’ chances.
So, what’s the deal?
I’m not the first to take a look at Marner’s play this season, and smarter people than me have pointed out all kinds of likely reasons that Mitch Marner hasn’t been quite as successful in the early days of his second NHL season. Those reasons range from shooting percentage (duh) to a lingering injury (hope not) to him not quite fitting anywhere in Babcock’s “buddy system” (the most interesting).
There’s been some concern about Marner’s February injury slowing him down ever since he returned to the ice to finish out the 2016-17 season, but his shooting percentage this year is 5.7% (4.55% at 5-on-5).
Compared to 10.8% in 77 games last year (12.1% at 5-on-5), I’m thinking maybe there’s more to the story. (Namely, his shooting percentage is in the toilet, and that’s just not a thing that lasts.) He probably could stand to shoot more than he has been, but Marner himself will tell you he’s always been more of a pass-first guy. He doesn’t spend a lot of time right in front of the net, which is a place that is known to pay off in goals, sooner or later. As we’ve seen this season, that’s hurting his chances of getting the puck behind the goalie.
As a team, the Leafs tend to shoot from close in, and Marner is the exception to that. Pushing into the dirty areas and picking up rebounds may be daunting for younger players, but there’s a reason guys score when they hang out in the goalie’s grill, and it might benefit Marner to take notes from some of his bolder teammates.
Mitch Marner isn’t the only one on the Leafs who isn’t living up to last year’s success. A lot has been made of Tyler Bozak’s struggles, too, and the frequent line shuffling in recent games would indicate that Babcock isn’t sure what changes will help solve that question. He’s tried quite a few combinations, and we still haven’t seen anything close to what Marner, Bozak, and James van Riemsdyk were doing last season. The shuffle that caused the most uproar, of course, was Mitch Marner’s apparent demotion to the fourth line after five games.
“Demotions” aren’t all about one player, though, and they aren’t all about punishing a poor performer. Mitch Marner might have been dropped to the fourth line for a couple of games, but he was given a chance to make a positive impact there, since things just weren’t working with Bozak and van Riemsdyk.
Babcock reminded us more than once that Marner–the kid–drew the short straw when it came to the shuffling. And it’s worth mentioning that Marner’s move to the fourth line had a positive impact on Dominic Moore and Matt Martin (and thus the entire team), despite the perception that goes along with lower ice time and less skilled linemates. Together at 5-on-5, the three M’s have come in at 57.89 CF%, and Moore and Martin are at an abysmal 38.30 CF% without Marner this season.
Career shooting percentage is hard to gauge so early in a career, but, given a few years to even out, it’s a safe bet to say the numbers will probably fall somewhere closer to Marner’s 10.8% from last year rather than his current 5.7%. And goals scored isn’t the only measure of a player’s success. Marner has actually registered more assists through nineteen games this season than the same sample in 2016-17, and his time shifting across the lineup has given us a few more glimpses at his potential to grow in the defensive zone.
It may not have a direct impact on his production, or his value to the team, necessarily, but shout out to Mitchell for not taking a penalty yet this season (despite remaining Babcock’s go-to guy for serving bench minors). He wasn’t exactly a PIM monster last year, either (unless you consider 38 monstrous), but most of his infringements were careless stick penalties, and he’s looking more disciplined this season.
From the perspective of growing his overall game in his second pro season, this is definitely positive, and it supports the school of thought that isn’t too concerned with Marner’s slow start as an indicator of his future NHL career.
To reiterate, Mitch Marner’s slow start this season is not an indicator of his future NHL career, and it’s probably safe to relax. He’ll keep scoring goals, and setting them up, too. He’ll continue to improve defensively, and he’ll settle in with linemates that make him better and boost the team. Mitch Marner is fine. I promise.