By Tom Hunter (@)
Toronto Maple Leafs super-prospect Mitch Marner is currently in the middle of a post-season run that should have every Maple Leafs fan excited. After winning the Wayne Gretzky ‘99’ Award as the OHL’s playoff MVP, Marner is now four points away from breaking the all-time Memorial Cup scoring record.
Marner’s playoff performance has been out of this world, but it’s not exactly unheard of. In fact, when comparing him to historical data, Marner’s OHL post-season most favourably compares to… Justin Papineau.
In his draft +1 year, Papineau put up an almost identical point per game pace for Bellville as Marner did in this year’s playoff. He then went on to play all of 81 games in the NHL.
Before you yell at me, I’m not comparing the two players, I’m just saying that while it’s fun to watch a Leafs prospect dominate like this for the first time ever, it’s also important to put the playoff run into perspective and not get carried away.
Mitch Marner is proving on a national stage that he is too good for junior hockey. But far too many people are equating ‘too good for junior’ with ‘ready for the NHL’.
Thanks to the NHL/CHL transfer agreement, players drafted out of the Canadian Hockey League are ineligible to play in the AHL until the age of 20. It is an antiquated rule that serves no other purpose than to help the CHL hold on to their top talent for an extra year. The rule is dumb, but thanks to its existence, Mitch Marner isn’t eligible to play in the league that would likely be the best for his development.
Being unable to play in the NHL means that Marner will have to prove over the summer that he is ready to play in the NHL, something that isn’t as much a certainty as many fans want to believe.
I’ve been accused on more than one occasion of being a ‘Mitch Marner-hater’. I prefer to view myself more as a Marner-realist. Apparently to some, my inability to anoint the Leafs prospect as the second coming of Wayne Gretzky means I think he’s not any good.
The fact of the matter is, I think Marner is an incredible hockey player, a blue-chip prospect and a key piece to any success the Maple Leafs will have in the future. That said, I am not willing to compare him to the current 2016 Art Ross Trophy winner, nor am I willing to gift him a regular spot in the Leafs lineup for next season as so many in this fan base are doing.
Every time I hear the comparison made to Patrick Kane I cringe. Maple Leaf fans have long been angered by the reputation that we overvalue our own prospects, but then many will go and compare Mitch Marner to the most offensively dynamic player in all of hockey. Marner is a 19-year old kid who has never played a game of pro hockey and yet people think it’s a good idea to compare him to a perennial Art Ross contender.
I don’t know, that just seems silly to me.
Sure, I see the similarities. Smaller than desired, a magician with the puck on his stick, dominating in a London Knights uniform. Marner has many attributes that would lend themselves to a Patrick Kane comparison, the one aspect of his game that puts him a step behind is his speed.
Marner is a great skater, he knows how to shift edges in a way that makes him incredibly agile on the ice. One think he isn’t though is a straight-line burner. When Patrick Kane has the puck on his stick he is able to make moves at a top speed that leave NHL defenders dizzy. Marner makes the same plays in the OHL, but he doesn’t do it at the same high-end speed, he does it in a slower, more methodical way. Almost like a 5’10 Jason Spezza.
I’m sure I’ll get flack now that I’ve said he doesn’t play the game like the best point producer in the NHL and therein lies the problem. Suggesting that I don’t believe he’s a certainty to be a hall of fame calibre player does not mean he won’t be a very good (even great) NHLer.
Just because I believe Mitch Marner likely won’t be a superstar the way some think he will, don’t mistake that for me bashing him. Marner is an elite talent. Over this season in London, we have seen him grow from a kid who looked disinterested early in the year to someone who realized he could dominate the competition and decided he would show everyone he’s the best player in the league.
Marner won the Ted Lindsey award for most outstanding player in the OHL for a reason. He was one of the two best players in the league. He and Christian Dvorak have given the Knights a duo that is unmatched in junior hockey. The two were side by side all year long and if anyone says one was carrying the other, they weren’t paying attention. Marner and Dvorak played off of each other so well that the team had to flip a coin to determine which would be the team’s nominee for the Lindsey award.
OHl fans have seen this a lot. Give & go between Dvorak and Marner. Add another couple pts to their totals tonight. https://t.co/goTZYLykrE
— Kathryn Jean (@msconduct) May 21, 2016
When you watch Marner’s highlights you see a guy who does things with the pick very few can. He plays with two elite linemates and he knows it. The way Marner played off of his two-way center Christian Dvorak makes me think that a Matthews/Marner pairing would work wonders for Mike Babcock in a couple years.
When you watch him on TV (or in highlights) you see a prospect that is among the best in the world. When you’re in the building watching him play, you see the kid that is still very much a junior hockey player.
You see a player that stands on the ice watching the scoreboard to see his own highlights during a break in play or you see a player getting yelled at by Dale Hunter for taking a shift off or committing a bad turnover because he was trying to be too fancy. Of course, you then see him get on the ice and do something spectacular that most OHL players couldn’t do against 12-year-olds.
That’s where the debate comes in. Is Mitch Marner mature enough for the NHL next season?
Some will say emotional maturity is necessary but come on, NHL players aren’t exactly the most mature bunch. There’s little doubt that the Leafs have the right coach behind the bench to handle any lack of focus that might arise.
The real concern is Marner’s physical maturity. Marner is small, but more importantly he’s skinny. Despite his four assists against Rouyn-Noranda in his final round-robin game of the Memorial Cup, Marner was pushed around a lot. If that happens against a QMJHL team, what would happen against NHLers?
Putting on weight this offseason is a necessity if Marner is going to have any hope of playing anything close to a full NHL season next year. The fortunate thing is that Leafs management knows this. Kyle Dubas mentioned as much on the Fan590 this morning.
“He needs to get bigger and stronger to handle the rigors of a professional season”
Dubas pointed to an offseason program that the team will get him into almost immediately following the Memorial Cup. He spoke of maximizing strength for his frame in a way that would properly suit Marner’s game. The organization knows what needs to happen for Marner to have a chance at succeeding in the NHL next season, but Dubas wouldn’t comment on where he thinks the talented winger would be playing.
Many in Leafs Nation don’t want to hear it, but there is a very good chance Marner doesn’t spend more than a couple months in the NHL next season.
A scenario I’ve thrown around over the past few days is one in which Marner stays up with the Leafs into the season. He’ll be up to learn from Mike Babcock et al with no real guarantee that he’s in the lineup every night. Then come December, he’s loaned to Team Canada for the World Junior camp/tournament. It would give him a chance to put on a show in front of his home fans and hopefully lead a redemption story for a team that fell flat last year.
That’s the easy part. But come mid-January where will he be? I would not be at all surprised if the organization sent him back to London for the final 6 weeks of the season. London will be good next year but a run like this season is improbable as they’d be losing their top scorer and would have to get past a Windsor team that could very well be as strong as the Knights are this season. Sending Marner back to the OHL for two months could facilitate a move to the Marlies for the stretch run and playoffs.
It may not be what Leafs fans want to hear but it might be the most logical path for Marner’s 2016-17 season.
All that said, the hope is that Marner puts on some solid muscle this summer and shows up to training camp looking like a player that shouldn’t be anywhere but the NHL. Wowing the fans is one thing, but wowing Mike Babcock and Leafs management is another.
They took the slow road with William Nylander last season, it’s a different situation but there’s nothing to suggest that the Leafs won’t do the same with Mitch Marner next.