Please don’t yell at me for my paragraph lengths.
Mitch Marner is a very good player. He can elevate good players and make them better, he gets good defensive results, and he’s a pain in the ass to goalies in his own unique way. I can appreciate him as a player, but I think he’s been miscast.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Mitch Marner thinks he’s a superstar, and he tries really hard to play at that level. Some people agree that he is a superstar, some disagree, I am unfortunately in group two. There just aren’t enough tools in his toolkit for me to believe he is a top 10 player in the world. One could argue he’s a top 10 winger, but there are things other players do that he doesn’t.
The Leafs, based on how he’s been played, believe Mitch Marner is a star who must play with other stars (or a superstar in Matthews) in order to be successful, and that deployment maximizes his ability. I mostly buy that assessment and I think most people would. But I think there are changes that can be made both to his teammates and his deployment that would better maximize Marner as a player. Areas where he can show elite aspects of his game that have gotten buried, and areas of other player’s games that Marner can elevate.
We often talk about the big four forwards on the Leafs (Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander) are interchangeable and it doesn’t matter what order you put them in. I’m here to argue that the two lines headed by Matthews and Tavares should be coached differently in order to maximize the strengths of each duo and create some strategic diversity in how to attack an opposing team.
Ways Mitch Marner can be used better
Give him a different centre
If Marner’s job title (playmaker) is defined as elevating good-not-great players, he needs to be in that position, like Nylander was in the playoffs last spring when he scored over a point per game with Kerfoot, Galchenyuk, and an array of other players along for the ride. Maybe John Tavares is at the point in his career where he would be better utilized with a more direct, simplified game, rather than having to rely on a lot of high end skill at the top of the offensive zone.
We all remember the 47-goal season Tavares and Marner had together, and the type of goals they were able to score. It wasn’t setting up for shots from the slot that got these two a combined 73 goals, but driving hard to the net and making a mess in front. Marner, unlike his stereotype, is great at that because of his agility and vision. What’s the harm in bringing this back?
A pairing of Marner and Tavares (and maybe Nick Ritchie?) would force fewer open-ice passes and more attacks straight at the net. We’ve seen how much trouble Marner and Matthews had making those cross-ice passes last season, eliminating those and focusing instead on cramming away at the front of the net with Tavares and Marner as a second layer to find the puck and make that last 1% play to get the puck across the line.
This would open up a pair of dual threats in Matthews and Nylander to play together on the first line, like they were early in their career. I think at this point in his career Matthews is so strong defensively that he can play with someone like Nylander and they won’t struggle to defend, especially if Tavares can take on tougher minutes with Marner. Nylander is one of the best transition forwards in the NHL and successfully getting the puck out of the zone would decrease the overall time spent in the defensive zone. Play them with a responsible winger like Kerfoot or Kase, and I think you have a line.
I think this new idea for the top six has a lot more chemistry, especially since last year the pairings felt forced. It felt like the Leafs were either playing the friends together or they just saw what they believe is their two best players and put them together without thinking any deeper than that. I think this new alignment is much more difficult for a defense to gameplan around.
Get the puck out of his hands on the power play
What I said above also applies to the Leafs on the power play. Marner being a lack of a shooting threat from the wing hurts that position’s effectiveness significantly. In the few times Nylander was stationed in that spot, the first unit ended up looking more versatile and fluid. It was different and less predictable to know where and when the shot was coming from. The shooter on the right side of Matthews needs to be respected, and right now Marner has no respect from the rest of the league on the power play, so teams just overload to Matthews’ side and either cut off the pass or block the shot.
So where should Marner go instead? Similar to what I said about a Marner-Tavares second line, put Marner in the bumper slot and have him bring a second layer of offense to that section of the ice. Like Nazem Kadri did in his time with the Leafs, the bumper needs to have the ability to redirect pucks, move to the perimeter to cover for other movement (ie. Nylander or Matthews driving the net), or kick out to the side of the net or behind the net for a quick passing play. Players in that position need to be strong puck handlers, have good reactionary skills for rebounds and openings, and visually aware of everything going on around him. That’s Mitch Marner!
I keep looking at this power play and thinking: what would it look like if Matthews had gotten that cross ice pass from Nylander while Marner was in the bumper, maneuvering the open spaces around. You can see on this clip and any Leafs game you’ve seen in the past two years that when Marner has the puck on the wing there are so few options for him other than to reset back to Rielly (who might as well shoot at that point).
nylander is able to make cross seam passes from the right wall like nobody else on the leafs PP. it sends the penalty killers scrambling every time. he carries it toward the line until the lane opens up and he zips it across fast and hard. if no lane opens up, buttonhook pic.twitter.com/9AykPiMMtF
— dylan (@dylanfremlin) May 31, 2021
Get better role players so he doesn’t end up overplayed
Mitch Marner is a gosh darn trooper for how much he plays on the penalty kill, but it would be really nice if the Leafs had more forwards that can reliably be used, like at all. The Leafs had a lot of offensive dead weight last season, starting and ending with all but five players. This season, one of those five are gone and there’s some more expensive guys in to potentially fill in the load.
I like the idea of the power kill, using those odd man rushes to your advantage against the Tyson Barrie’s of the world, but Marner has had to play a lot and I don’t think it should be too hard to find guys with speed and skill who can also kill a penalty. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a cloning machine that churns them out yearly. Adam Brooks and Michael Bunting are both guys I think could take some of the pressure off Marner in this regard.
The last two seasons we’ve seen the Leafs reduced to a one-line team whenever they’re losing because Sheldon Keefe can’t put together a useful second line with a third player to skate with Tavares and Nylander. If the Leafs had two reliable scoring lines, and maybe a third line that pitched in once in a while, I wouldn’t feel so bad about Marner playing a lot on the penalty kill because he wouldn’t be playing 25 minutes a night win, lose, or shootout.
It’s just too much right now, and even if exhaustion hasn’t been a cause for his poor play in the playoffs, it wouldn’t hurt to manage his workload.
Mitch Marner is a good player. The contract is what it is. At this point, all the Leafs can do is maximize him in the lineup in order to make him worth the money. That means saying no to forcing him with Matthews, and understanding that a power play is a unit, not just a collection of guys. If these things can work out, I’ll get off the trade Marner bandwagon, but at the moment things just aren’t working, namely in the playoffs.
Mitch Marner has incredible dexterity, but he becomes the most stiff, petrified player I’ve ever seen when he’s asked to do something he can’t, or just generally in the playoffs. Finding what Marner can do and giving him that role is the only way forward in my mind.
How we voted
Marner was a unanimous second place in our list for the first time ever.
What the Voters had to say
Scouch: At this point, two things are undeniable. 1) Mitch Marner is an outrageously talented hockey player and one of the better playmakers in the NHL. 2) The Leafs could win 82 games with Mitch Marner breaking Gretzky’s assist record in a season but literally nothing matters unless the Leafs start winning series in the playoffs. Whether it’s Mitch’s fault or not, he makes “I’m leading this team” money, and “not having it” is not excusable anymore.
Seldo: If Nylander was still eligible I’d have him here after the postseason. At least we’re getting workout and training clips of Willy. Where’s Mitch’s image rehab tour videos?
Brigstew: He’s a brilliant offensive winger with surprising defensive impacts and I’m just so goddamn tired of the constant and dramatic discourse around him. He’s been good in the playoffs before, or at least better than he has been the past two seasons, and by god he’d better figure out how to do it again.
Katya: Lemme see if this makes sense or I swear I’ll do a flow chart. Close your eyes, forget about Marner. Do you believe a winger who does not shoot or score at an elite level can elevate a top six line? I think we’d all say yes to that and gaze with loving eyes at Artemi Panarin. So now the question is, do you think that winger can make an ordinary middle six centre look plausible on the top six? Depends on the guy, right? So what if your bar is that he makes a good second line centre better? That’s valuable. That’s what a playmaker is for, to make plays for the guy that isn’t so good at it. Now, riddle me this: Does Mitch Marner make Auston Matthews better? Your answers likely tell you how you feel about him. I know mine. And yet, he’s still the second best player on this list.