Mitch Marner’s career year and Selke nomination still not quite good enough

Photo credit:Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
10 months ago
In reviewing Mitch Marner’s year and current status with the Leafs there is an absurd juxtaposition from what he delivered and what many people believe should come next for him. At the same time I think it is entirely possible to praise Mitch Marner for his accolades at the same time we debate whether he should be shown the door and that’s what we’re going to do here as we look back on his season.
  • 30 goals, 99 points (a career high)
  • Selke nomination (beating Bergeron during swan song is a stretch, but good for Mitch)
  • 4 Shorthanded goals (career high), 5 shorthanded points (career high)
  • 14 points in 11 playoff games (not as narrative changing as he’d like, but we’ll get to that)
  • League leader with 104 takeaways
  • That $10.93M cap hit with a looming July 1st No Movement Clause (here’s why were never get to talk about Marner free of a “but…” statement)
So yeah, let’s first go back to the regular season and out of kindness to Marner we’ll skip past the early days of the season when every Leaf except for William Nylander seemed to be on a collision course for the draft lottery. In fact, if we skip past the rough start it is worth remembering that Mitch Marner was one of the first Leafs to pull himself out of the deep funk and got the team started on having two productive top six lines and after that it seems pretty hard to argue against Marner being the Leafs best forward of the season.
Marner hitting the 30 goal mark for the second time of his career is huge. No longer viewing Marner as an automatic pass has definitely contributed to things like the Leafs getting out of the first round this season and having home ice advantage in the playoffs.
Damn. All of that looks pretty good. If you don’t want to get into the bar and line graph aspect of it and prefer to focus on the percentile rank, it’s hard to be disappointed with a 97. For context, Auston Matthews is also a 97 (with a lower defensive score), William Nylander is a 90, and John Tavares is a 72. Also for no reason at all, Matthew Tkachuk was a 99. Of all those players I’ve listed off, Mitch Marner is by far the most balanced offensively and defensively and the only one who can be counted on as a defensive star as well.
Marner had the 10th best goals above replacement in the NHL this season, with the third best even strength defensive GAR of that top 10 group. And the second best shorthanded defensive GAR. (Please don’t look to see that Jared McCann was ahead of him on all accounts.)
It was a great season for Marner, and when you look at players like Hyman who benefits heavily from linemates or someone like Jared McCann, who might never have another season quite like this again, it’s worth appreciating that we when we talk about Marner we are truly talking about a player who is in that top ten player in the league conversation and he is certainly in the discussion as a top five winger.
I think it’s painfully obvious how good Marner is. Offensively he has made his living finding space all the wall off the rush and throwing impossible passes into the middle to elite finishers who have greatly benefited from Marner’s ability to put them in positions to succeed that few other wingers will provide for them.
Many of those offensive rush chances that Marner has been generating offense from is his uncanny ability on both the penalty kill and in neutral zone coverage to read the opposition’s pass intentions intercepting the puck.
Marner has become more comfortable playing near the high danger areas of the offensive zone as well, but there isn’t any danger of calling him a net crasher. He is better at quicker plays with less room than he was a year or two ago, but he still prefers the luxury of time and space, and we saw him revert to that more in the playoffs.
Since I’ve brought up the playoffs it’s now time to deal with the perception of playoff Marner and really the reason why after a career year and a Selke nomination there are still vocal critics of Marner and many believing that if the Leafs core gets blown up, Marner is the player who needs to go.
On the surface, there was a big improvement for Marner in the playoffs over previous years. 14 points in 11 games looks pretty good. They are mainly assists (11), but that’s how things go for Marner typically, and that seems pretty reasonable. You can also hang you hat on the fact that the one win in the Florida series came from Mitch Marner very much showing up with a two point night in a 2-1 win. The first four games of the playoffs featured Mitch Marner multi-point performances. He had a point streak through the first five games and was amongst the league leaders in playoff points heading into the second round.
Where the wheels came off is that in the final six games of the playoffs, Marner only had points in two games. One is that win against Florida, but people are going to focus on those stinkers. There’s also going to be a focus on what people want to see in the playoffs, especially when you aren’t scoring, and that’s physical play. It’s kinda funny that Marner did have 11 hits over the last two games against Florida, and he was absolutely trying, but with Marner being 181 lbs (presumably they weighed him when he was soaking wet) he isn’t a particularly punishing physical presence and hitting when he didn’t have the puck didn’t make up for the minimal punishment he is willing to take when controlling the puck.
Marner’s defensive game wasn’t there the way it was in the regular season. When it came to takeaways, Ryan O’Reilly led the Leafs, with Alex Kerfoot, Michael Bunting, Erik Gustafsson, Auston Matthews, and Matthew Knies all having a higher rate of takeaways/60 than Mitch Marner.
Marner’s 5v5 GA/60, and xGA/60 remained among the lowest on the Leafs during the playoffs, so again it comes down to the perceptions of how he was doing on specific events and the year test rather than it being a truly damning numbers situation. The lingering issue of Marner’s playoff “absence” really stems from the first three games of the Florida series, and you can see from below he wasn’t alone when it comes to that criticism…
So yeah. In there lies the frustration. A seemingly great regular season player and a playoff player who has a hard time living up to what he demonstrates over 82 games. If you couple that playoff frustration with a $10.93M AAV, you get outrage. And with Auston Matthews being the face of the franchise and with John Tavares and Morgan Rielly being well into their No Movement Clauses, that leaves William Nylander and Mitch Marner as the players who are going to get talked about as potential trade options. Not surprisingly the one who has a $4M higher cap hit and has more recently disappointed fans is the primary focus of the discussion.
Since this really isn’t about Nylander at all, let’s talk about the future for Mitch Marner. If he’s back, great, he’s going to take turns making Auston Matthews and John Tavares look good over the course of the regular season. Hopefully the Leafs will recognize the Groundhog Day type situation they’ve been in with Marner in the playoffs and develop a few contingencies so they are maximizing his abilities as teams are more prepared for cute passes towards the middle, know where he likes to enter the zone, and don’t throw meatballs up the middle as often as they do in the regular season for Marner to collect. If all goes well the Leafs will be negotiating a contract extension with Marner next summer and history has shown that he has little interest in hometown discounts, taking a pay cut to build a contender around him, etc. It was a messy summer when he was an RFA, expect it to get 10x messier now that he’d have a NMC and UFA status as leverage.
On the other hand, what would moving on from Mitch Marner look like? It seems impossible to win a trade where Mitch Marner is leaving Toronto and it needs to be a commitment to using the cap space that comes from his departure more than the actual return. Can the Leafs flip Marner for a chance to move into the top five of the draft? Is there a top prospect out there who makes sense? Or can Brad Treliving and the Leafs find a hockey trade. Given the unicorn nature of hockey trades, the Leafs might be better off with the cap space and draft pick capital to wield in future moves.
At the end of the day, the Leafs are better off with Marner provided they aren’t handcuffed from future improvements. And while that handcuffing doesn’t appear to come into play this year, the no movement clause does force the issue a bit sooner or create the risk of losing him for nothing. He has been a great player and arguably their best for much of the year.
For all the talk from Brad Treliving about connecting with Auston Matthews, hopefully connecting with Marner and determining his long term interest in being a Leaf is part of the first month of work for the new GM as well.
As for what the Leafs should ask from Marner for next season, it’s hard to say anything other but more than the same. He’s not going to come to camp two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. His little guy game is where he’s at and there isn’t going to wake up tomorrow and decide to be Brad Marchand. If there is anything criticize about the superstar’s game it’s that he needs to find the moments where the simple play is best and to develop a strategy for playing a defense that has a strategy for playing him. It’s in those points that I wonder if the best thing for Marner is finding the coach that can get that through to him.
It will be an interest month for Marner before his no movement clause kicks in and in the post Dubas world there seem to be plenty of Leafs rumours. For a player who doesn’t deal well with media criticism, this seems like a month from hell for Mitch.
Data sourced from Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick

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