Editor’s note: Today we are kicking off our new series taking a look at the current state of the Leafs roster and each player’s season so far. Based on what we’ve seen we’re trying to put together or best guess at how they’ll fare in the play-in against Columbus and if we’re lucky, the playoffs beyond that. We’re kicking off this morning with the always interesting Mitch Marner.
It’s hard to believe that we’re almost a year removed from the Mitch Marner contract debacle. Something that I’m most of us would happily never wish to go through again, and with a few years of having Marner, Matthews, Nylander, and Tavares locked into their deals, we can relax. Except there still might be some lingering buyers remorse on $40M worth of contracts for four players in a salary cap world that won’t see those numbers budge for the next few season. At least they are all good players.
Mitch’s regular season ride was a wild one. His 1.13 point per game pace was nearly identical to his 1.14 point per game pace of the previous season, but there might have be some frustration that he didn’t magically leap forward after getting a new contract. The goal production might also be an issue for some, as we know the talent is there, but Marner is first and foremost a playmaker and reluctant to trust his own shooting ability.
For all the mud that gets thrown at Marner by some, he was an excellent performer and the kind of player who can make a difference in the playoffs for the Leafs. It will just take some getting used to having an $11M winger, but only in Toronto do we think having one of the top players in the world at their position is a problem.
By the Numbers
Like I said, Marner is pretty darn good. He was above the 90th percentile for Game Score, well into the 80s for points per 60, and had strong xGF and Corsi differential as well. The low number of high and medium danger shots are some concern, and the low rebound numbers might point to Mitch Marner being the real perimeter player of the Leafs forward group, although when you’re one of the best in the game at hugging the half boards, that’s not a bad thing.
For a crafty player like Mitch, it’s interesting that he doesn’t draw more penalties and this could be something that could help the Leafs as they move into the playoffs. If Marner occasionally lets the odd defenseman hook him or trip him, the Leafs would likely benefit from his quarterbacking skills on the powerplay as well.
What we’ve seen so far
Marner is a human highlight reel (as seen above). He’s a fan of the cute plays, but for the most part he has enough common sense to pull off these moves without putting the Leafs at risk if they fail, though they also seem to fail at a surprisingly low rate considering what he tries.
Marner’s aspirations towards becoming a Selke contender are interesting, but still seem far off, as outside the involvement in the penalty kill and our fond memories of his shot blocking demonstration in the last playoffs, Marner hasn’t done a whole lot to improve the Leafs defensively at 5v5. He’s generally not a puck carrier, but there is no doubt that he can make the pass necessary to move out of the zone and start the offense.
How will he do against Columbus?
In theory Marner should be dominate. He had 4 points in the 2 games against Columbus this season, including scoring 2 goals against them. While Columbus had a hot goalie down the late part of the year after the Leafs were done with them, and a solid defense, when healthy, there is no reason to believe that Marner won’t get his chance to shine offensively.
Depending on who Marner lines up with, either Tavares or Matthews, will determine which line Marner will be playing against. Instinctively I’d assume we see Marner with Tavares, hoping to have a line capable of shutting down the top Columbus unit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hyman with them as well. This might put Marner in a few more defensive situations, and that could hamper his offensive production, but I would assume it wouldn’t be by a lot.
With great contract comes great expectations. If Marner’s production dips at all, I’d assume he’ll have an angry mob on his hands. Last season Marner was held to 4 points in 7 games, a drop from his 9 in 7 the previous year, and overall he is sitting a very respectable 17 points in 20 playoff games. It would be nice to see Marner return to the form consistent with his season production, and 2018 certainly proved it’s possible, but as an undersized winger there will always be the narrative that he’s not built for playoff hockey.
Let’s throw that narrative out the window, and acknowledge that Marner isn’t going to hit or fight anyone. He’s not suddenly going to become a net presence, or be the forward we see retrieving loose pucks out of the corner. What we can reasonably ask is that the best version of Marner shows up, and he dominates on the half boards and continues to complete passes that appear to be impossible.
For the Leafs to move forward Marner will need to be a leader. He’ll need to be a special teams linchpin, and he’ll have to begin making a case for that Selke award he one day aspires to win. There is no doubt the pressure is on him, and hopefully he’s ready for that.