5

Mitch Marner is still elite, even if it doesn’t look that way

There has been a swell of vitriol growing around Mitchell Marner. Who could blame anyone for being frustrated that the team’s supposed best player is not living up to the expectations?

Especially when he basically set those expectations for himself with the very public contract negotiation where he was clearly demanding to be paid like a star — like his teammate, Auston Matthews, who is verifiably a star.

The problem with public negotiation is that it can be thrown back in your face when you’re not playing your best. The case that Marner and his agent, Darren Ferris, were making was so abundantly obvious that there wasn’t room for interpretation: they wanted what Matthews got.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

While what’s past is in the past, and we have to remember that the player probably isn’t involved in everything the agent puts out there, Marner and the Leafs now have to live with the fact that he’s a $10M player, above the ranks of similar top tier wingers that signed around that time, like Sebastian Aho, Mikko Rantanen and Mark Stone.

Watching his uninspired play in the COVID lockdown series, where the Leafs technically didn’t make the playoffs, and then that same ineffectiveness in the 2021 playoffs, was frustrating. Maybe frustrating isn’t even sufficient for you, maybe it was infuriating. Our editor, Jon Steitzer, breaks this down very reasonably in his article from a 2 days ago.

However, long preamble over, time to get to the point: Mitch Marner is still a top tier winger in the NHL, and the Leafs are blessed to have his talent (though perhaps a bit hindered by his contract).

Let’s start with some basics. Over the last 3 seasons, plus the first few games of the 2021-22 season, Marner ranks (from Evolving Hockey):

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
  • 16th in points per 60 minutes of ice time
  • 17th in primary points per 60 minutes
  • No player has more primary assists, total or per 60 minutes, than Marner other than Connor McDavid

We can also talk about how much he has contributed to Matthews being a star. His ability to pass the puck in areas that make dangerous plays happen on the ice. Look at how this graph (by the amazing Corey Sznajder) from last season shows the two Leafs’ stars dominating the scoring chances; Matthews in taking them and Marner in creating them.

It’s clear that Marner’s ability to generate scoring chances is eminently valuable and puts him deservedly into the conversation of one of the best playmakers in the league, barring McDavid.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

We can also look at these fun player cards, that show Marner being in the 93rd percentile of all forwards for the 2020-21 season, which is really good, and an elevation from the two years prior as shown in the top right.

This Wins Above Replacement (WAR) model is by TopDownHockey, and tests pretty well at predicting future standings points, as shown in that linked article.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

But that’s past seasons, right? Marner has clearly lacked initiative this season, so how does that bear itself out in the stats?

His start to this year looks pretty much exactly the same as last year, to the point where I had to triple check that I hadn’t accidentally loaded the same heat map twice. It is different, but ever so slightly. He’s still having a slightly positive effects on offence, defence, and the penalty kill (negative on defence is good), and a good effect on the powerplay.

This tells a different story than the above stats, so that is certainly concerning. His play as told by the Expected Goals model on HockeyViz, made by Micah Blake McCurdy, just isn’t very good. That puts a dark spot on tagging him as elite, that’s for sure, but why could that be? Expected Goals tell us that while Marner is on the ice, the volume of shots or the location of the shots is mediocre. The tracking from Corey Sznajder above says he creates scoring chances at a crazy high rate, so, my take is that he is well below average at the volume of chances from areas outside the most dangerous ones right in front of the net. That hurts his play in this visualization. But, at least this visualization shows that, so far this year, Marner doesn’t seem to be doing anything different than last year. And, I’ll remind you, he was very good last year, as shown in the sources above.

Final Thoughts

Of course it’s fair to criticize Marner for feeling like he doesn’t show up in the critical moments of the game. I feel that too and have complained about it before. But when you look at his play on aggregate, regardless of the situation, he’s so, so, good. He’s an elite passer, not a liability on defense, and helps to make the Leafs powerplay dangerous (as it should be).

He doesn’t do these things when the moment counts, though. I’ll admit that. But the moment will come where he does. It has to, right? There’s no way he can be this good all the time but continue to fail to come through in the key moments. It isn’t logical. The law of averages will win out, eventually. We just have to be patient, even though that’s really hard.