The Toronto Maple Leafs are giving Mitch Marner reps on defence, and it could be a masterstroke that helps the team take the next step this season.
The past few weeks have seen the Toronto Maple Leafs suffer a sudden flurry of injuries or absences, with the majority of them coming along the blueline with the likes of Timothy Liljegren, Jake Muzzin, Jordie Benn and Carl Dahlström all missing time during the pre-season. The latter two had to leave the Leafs’ 3-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens this week, leaving the team with just four defencemen.
The situation forced head coach Sheldon Keefe to be creative, bringing defensively responsible forwards Alex Kerfoot and Calle Järnkrok into their own zone to plug the gaps. The results were positive and the Leafs earned the shutout victory despite the injuries, and it appears to have turned on a lightbulb inside Keefe’s mind.
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It has been reported that the Leafs are now giving star forward Mitch Marner a serious look on defence, operating four forwards and one defenceman at certain situations at even strength, similar to how their powerplay units are comprised. This look would give the Leafs, who were one of the top offensive teams in the NHL last season with a franchise-record 115 points in the regular season, an opportunity to overload opponents with their deep forward talent.
The choice of Marner is also a logical one. The 25-year-old Markham, Ontario native has been one of the team’s top points producers since entering the league, registering 455 (138 goals, 317 assists) in 427 games, making him a threat in front of the net every time he steps on the ice. However, Marner has also been developing his 200-foot game exceptionally well and has received Selke Trophy votes in each of the past four seasons, finishing tenth in voting in the Covid-shortened 2021 campaign.
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He plays on the penalty often and is a responsible player with the puck in his own end while having a net positive in terms of takeaways and giveaways across his career with a 419-382 split. Marner being a right-handed shot is also another benefit to the team, who are stronger on the left side of the blueline and could do with some new looks on the right when coming up against some of the strongest teams in the league or when trailing in games.
The idea of position-less hockey is not necessarily a new one, and the idea of position-less sports, in general, is one that has almost been pioneered by another team in Toronto; the Toronto Raptors. Under creative head coach Nick Nurse, the Raptors have built a roster that targets players with specific skills rather than specific positions, with the team regularly rolling a group of four forwards and one guard since Kyle Lowry’s departure, often ignoring the centre and other guard positions while favouring player attributes.
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Using players with particular skills in situations not typically expected of their position could be the innovation that helps the Toronto Maple Leafs in their hunt to progress beyond the first round of the playoffs. The Leafs have some genuine superstars on their roster, and a potential future Selke Trophy winner in Mitch Marner if he can continue to develop his all-around game in the same ilk as Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron has.
Having Marner support the team on the back-end in some situations, providing both elite offence and serious defensive reliability, is something that will be seen early on this season and could flourish and become a staple of the team’s identity as the campaign progresses, especially if it bears positive results right out of the gate. It’s a unique approach and shows that the team are always looking at how to improve the team and compete at the very top of the NHL for the foreseeable future.
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