Welcome to the TLN Year in Review series on the Leafs players. One by one we’ll go through the entire roster and assess what went right and what went wrong for each player last season and what we think the futre holds for them. Rather than keep you all waiting for his name to come up at a random point, we’re starting off with a bang and going with a player that might be the most polarizing Leafs player at the moment, and rightfully so.
For three of the last four seasons Mitch Marner has been the Leafs leading scorer. He was on pace to finish with a career best regular season point total of 98 points, and have a legitimate shot at a 100 point season. After a 16 goal season last year, Marner worked on his shot and came back with 20 goals in 55 games this year. He’s received votes for the Lady Byng, Selke, and Allstar teams in the past, and this year, more than any other he has a legitimate shot at being named to either the first or second all-star team as he led all RW in points. Yes, there’s a lot to like about Mitch Marner, if you only look at the regular season results, unfortunately the playoffs tell a very different story and that’s where the debate begins.
The playoffs. On the surface four points in seven games looks like something that warrants concern, but not necessarily worth getting the pitchforks out for. You could also point to the fact that Marner’s role is that of a setup man, and as such goals aren’t what is expected of him. Fair enough, though the fact that you have to go back to Marner’s two goal effort in the first game of the 2018-19 playoffs to find the last time when he scored in a playoff game is a problem. That’s 18 goalless games. That’s not good. Nor is the fact that only the 2017-18 playoffs saw Marner produce offence at the rate we’ve expected from him. His other four postseason appearances had him limited to 4 points a series. The 2017-18 series he peaked at 9 points in 7 games, with two of those points being goals.
Under Sheldon Keefe, Marner has also had increased opportunities. With Marner averaging around 22 minutes in the regular season under Keefe he’s jumped to north of 24 minutes in both post season series under Keefe. Considering that Keefe has been hellbent on keeping Nylander’s icetime the same while Nylander was producing in the post season, the fact that he gives more time to Marner while he struggles is perplexing to say the least.
There’s also a need to jump into who scored those goals that Marner assisted on during the playoffs, and most concerning is that only one of those goals was scored by Auston Matthews. Marner makes nearly $11M a year to be the guy who finds Auston Matthews no matter what, and that didn’t happen. That was Matthews only goal of the post season, and he finished the playoffs with 1 goal and 4 assists.
There’s also the matter of Marner only picking up one powerplay point during the playoffs, which the powerplay at large is going to require some dissection, but when you have a player like Marner, who is labelled as a premiere playmaker and setup guy, not being able to create is failure that Marner not only slows himself down but the other Leafs on the unit.
Marner and the Leafs failures largely came down to one thing, and that was predictability. With the Leafs first powerplay unit failing to utilize their best puck carrier in William Nylander, and relying on Morgan Rielly and Auston Matthews to do the heavy lifting, it was easy recognize roles on zone entry, and Marner’s was primarily one of a bumper. When the Leafs were in the zone, Marner would attempt to direct traffic from the half boards, looking for Auston Matthews, but with the Habs addressing that obvious avenue of play by putting additional coverage around Auston. Marner would then cycle in attempt to find a different outlet, and would often find himself in the position of a high perimeter shooter, which his shot didn’t make for much of a threat for Carey Price, and the unit would fail. In many ways the 5v5 shifts would parallel the powerplay shifts, but with the Habs having the benefit of an additional player to execute this plan even more effectively.
The lesson that probably needs to be learned here is that when teams have the time to commit to practicing and playing a style specifically to shutdown the Leafs top unit, they will be able to pull it off, and we’ve got five years of playoff evidence that supports that simply out skilling the opposition won’t work.
This of course is meant to be a full review of Marner’s season so let’s step back from the post season and look at the regular season, a season that was very good, but still one that warrants being picked apart.
The first thing that stands out is the lack of special teams goals for Mitch this year. Marner as an offensive weapon on the penalty kill should have yielded better results than zero goals, and with top unit work all year on the powerplay it seems that by the law of averages something should have bounced in off him. Looking at Matthews goals as an extension of Marner, the fact that Matthews had 7 power play goals in his first 20 games, but only 3 in his final 32 does reflect on Marner as the guy who should be setting Matthews up. The might be a wires crossed situation between Marner and Manny Malholtra, but ultimately Marner needs to find a way to get pucks to Matthews and into the back of the net.
|Marner comparison to previous year||2020-21||2019-20|
|Corsi For %||51.77||52.82|
|Expected Goals For/60||2.72||2.73|
|Expected Goals Against/60||2.01||2.2|
|Expected Goals For %||57.52||55.36|
The on ice numbers for Marner speak to a definite improvement defensively as the there was a drop in opposition chances, and high danger chances in particular. So while complaining about special teams and post season offence is warranted, the defensive efforts by Marner were there and his effort at both ends of the ice can’t be questioned. The fact that there was very little given up in expected goals for to achieve the improved results, is worthwhile, and the fact that the reduced event approach resulted in both Matthews having 41 goals and Marner having a 98 point pace over a 82 game season shows that the team could give up some of their wide open style and retain the results.
So much of what we’ve talked about with Marner so far has included Auston Matthews as part of the statement, and that is because they were inseparable throughout the season. The only time they played apart was during Matthews injury when Marner immediately started playing with Tavares and both of their numbers tanked. While the purpose of this article isn’t to spark another Marner and Nylander debate, but it’s important to note that Marner’s play has always required a top tier center and Nylander has proven himself capable of driving his own line, something that is worth considering if decisions are going to be made regarding expensive wingers in the near future.
It’s probably also important to note the quality of competition that Marner faces and 45% of the time Marner was facing elite competition (using the PuckIQ.com numbers and methodology) and while he was still on for a 65% goals for share against that elite competition, his corsi for was 45% during elite competition compared to 55%-57% against other matchups. If we’re drawing conclusions here, it’s that we probably shouldn’t be surprised that when teams are getting the matchups they want against Marner, he disappears to some extent. This might not be something that will become a regular season issue, but if the Leafs want to get something about of Marner in the playoffs they’ll have to find ways of getting him away from the oppositions preferred matchup and Marner may need to figure out how to produce with someone who isn’t the first line center.
That brings us to what’s next for Mitch Marner?
So right now no one is more aware of how poorly Mitch Marner did in the playoffs than Mitch Marner. While there seems to be no shortage of people lining up to say he did nothing wrong, you’d have to imagine that someone who has committed their life to the sport is very aware that things went wrong than they are directly connected to him. The whole argument that Mitch Marner doesn’t care is also a falsehood. There is no doubt that Marner cares, and the fact that he was golfing after being eliminated is probably nothing more than a guy needing to escape to get his head straight. He’s allowed that. Any axe that you are grinding for him should probably be based on what’s happened on the ice, not an interpretation of whether or not he cares.
That said, it’s very much a crossroads for what to do with Marner, and publicly the organization has been adamant that they will be keeping him, so we’ll explore the keeping Marner option first.
The keeping Marner option is committing to keep one of the top right wingers in the game, and a player who compliments your top player and makes him better the majority of the time. Keeping Marner does mean working somethings out with him though and part of that means getting comfortable making plays in tight places, not always circling back to create time and space. Making the quick play without room is what will move him to the next level of offensive producer, and there’s certainly a need to be able to make average players look like superstars, not just rely on superstars to complete his plays. When Matthews is injured it shouldn’t be necessary to break up the Tavares and Nylander pairing, there should be an ability for Marner to make players like Hyman or Kerfoot look better than they are offensively, and so far that hasn’t been part of Marner’s game. If there are times that the Leafs can run a Marner driven line against a third pairing, that will benefit him as well as the Leafs.
Keeping Marner also has the advantage of being a known, being part of the core that claims they want to win together, and the Leafs know what they are building off of. There’s also the small matter of the fact that it’s next to impossible to win a trade for Marner because short of a one for one swap for Jack Eichel, any package you get in return for Marner isn’t going to add up to what the Leafs have with him.
That said the Leafs need to be comfortable with the idea of losing a Marner trade if they want to consider making significant changes to the team next season. Up until now I think I’ve gone relatively light on bringing up Marner’s $10.903M/yr cap hit, mentioning only once so far. Now we need to discuss it for real. This group has had a number of kicks at the can, and mathematically they should have accidently moved on to the second round by now, but instead they’ve actively been playing down from their abilities in the playoffs. That’s not an inspiring group to keep together, and the reality is that a nearly $11M/yr winger isn’t a luxury a team that hasn’t had playoff success can afford. Moving on from Marner recoups some of the prospects lost in the decision to bring in Nick Foligno, which is a very poor justification for trading Marner. Trading Marner also potentially gives the Leafs a secondary good futures piece, and probably a pretty solid NHLer that might even solidify the 3C position or given the Leafs a more affordable top six winger in the process. A trade also gives the Leafs cap space to make another free agent signing or two of significance, and while none of this comes close to what Marner is worth as an individual, it allows for the Leafs roster address some of the other significant areas of need without compromising depth.
Whether you or I agree with it or not, it seems the most likely course of action is that Marner will be back next season and back on Matthews wing and while doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity, Marner is also an incredibly talented player and the Leafs aren’t starting from scratch. If developing into a more aggressive version of his present self is possible, the Leafs would be an improved team next season and next playoffs.