How can Mitch Marner take yet another step forward for the Leafs?

Photo credit:Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jaden Ho
1 year ago
@Mitchell Marner has been a key part of the Toronto Maple Leafs ever since he first burst onto the scene in 2016-17, as part of that core group of rookies that helped the Leafs in their surprising push to the playoffs. Ever since that magical first season, Marner has only gotten better. There have been ups and downs for the star winger, from a controversial contract, to struggles in the playoffs, but he has undoubtedly been a key cog in the Leafs’ regular season success, and he will need to continue to do so if the Leafs wish to remain competitive.
But can Marner find yet another level in the 2022-23 season? He’s been nothing short of dominant alongside @Auston Matthews the past few seasons, and despite the first-round loss, the two of them finally seemed to have it all together in the playoffs this season. Remember this?
That might have been the best Leafs fans have felt during the playoffs since 2004, and Marner will be on a mission to try and improve on it even further this season, with the burden of trying to bring the Leafs past the first round for the first time in what will be 19 years when April 2023 rolls around. That burden has seemed to weigh heavily on Marner in the past, especially after the raised expectations that came with the $10.9 million contract he signed in the summer of 2019. People noted that he seemed to try to do too much, especially in the playoffs, trying to be a hero. Between 2019 and 2022, he went 18 playoff games without scoring a goal, before he finally broke the streak in game one against the Lightning this May.
Marner will need to continue to flip the narrative around him this coming season, with expectations once again sky high for the Leafs and their young (but not for much longer) superstars. The playoffs will obviously be where Marner and company will be judged the most, but how can Marner continue to up his game in the regular season?
Looking at the way Marner’s career has progressed to this point, the area where he took the biggest step last season was his goal scoring. In 72 games, he smashed his previous career goal total of 26, soaring to 35, just under half a goal a game. Marner is well known as a pass-first kind of player, and you can hardly blame him when he’s playing with the best goal scorer in the world in Matthews. But adding that extra element to his game like he did last season made the Leafs top line a much more challenging threat to opposing defence. While in the past it was a safe bet that Marner would be looking to pass of to Matthews whenever the puck came his way, defenders were now forced to adjust to the growing threat of Marner burning them for a goal. If he can continue to develop his goal scoring abilities in the coming year, and once again looks like a possible 40 goal scorer, that Leafs top line will be just about unstoppable.
Marner has also made consistent strides in his play off the puck in the past few seasons, becoming an important part of the Leafs penalty kill, and receiving votes for the Selke this past year. Since 2019, his defensive WAR percentile has climbed from 39% to 93%, and he’s become a player who Sheldon Keefe is able to trust in late game situations when the Leafs are defending a lead in big games.
Marner’s defensive ascendance has been helped along by Matthews growing alongside him, and if the two of them can continue to develop into dominant players in all three zones, they could both be real threats to win a Selke in the years to come (as soon as Patrice Bergeron retires.) If the Leafs top line can become that kind of dominant group, that’s able to go toe to toe with the best offensive players in the world and shut them down, and then go up against the top defenders in the league and create offence, it makes the team far more dangerous. This will be especially true come playoff time, when line matchups are so crucial. If Sheldon Keefe is able to trust his top guys against anybody, the Leafs will have more playoff success.
As we get closer and closer to the beginning of another crucial year for the Leafs, it will once again be a crucial year for Mitch Marner. With the weight of years of failure on his shoulders, he will need to figure out a way to take a step forward to help finally carry the Leafs over the bump they’ve been stuck on for nearly two decades.
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