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Mitch Marner is staying in the NHL; his contract isn’t sliding

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After 9 NHL games, the call has been made. Mitch Marner is an NHLer.

Montreal Canadiens v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Yesterday, we discussed the idea of Marner moving back to junior hockey with the seriousness that idea was crying out for. Today we will look at Marner’s NHL usage to see what the coach thinks of him and how he’s handling the NHL.

A lot of teenaged players who could contribute well enough to hold down a regular or semi-regular roster spot in the NHL often end up back in junior hockey. Entry level slides are the reason.

Cap Friendly has the following definition:

If a player who is signed to an entry-level contract and is 18 or 19 years of age (as of September 15 of the signing year), does not play in a minimum of 10 NHL games (including both regular season and playoffs; AHL games do not count), their contract is considered to ‘slide’, or extend, by one year. For example, if a player signed an ELC for three seasons from 2015-16 to 2017-2018, and their contract slides, their contract is now effective from 2016-17 to 2018-19. An exception to this rule is that if the player is 19 on September 15 of the first year of their contract, and turns 20 between September 16 and December 31, their contract does not slide.

This is the old nine games and back to junior or you burn a year of the contract. By sliding an ELC, you gain a year before the player is an RFA, and that can mean a much cheaper overall cost for the player over the life of their contract.

You pay for that reduction in cost by losing that player's services for a year when they are young. The vast majority of players never play more than nine games before they are 20, while for a few it is never a question if burning a year of the contract is worth it. Auston Matthews is one of the few.

For others, it is a matter of debate. William Nylander was doing a lot of developing in the NHL, and there was an argument to be made that leaving him there and not playing him beyond nine games last year was the wise move. The Leafs chose to give him a serious run in the NHL, and they look like they are reaping the benefits of that this year.

We are approaching the nine game mark for some players, and soon, decisions will have to be made. For Mitch Marner it became a moot point in his first couple of NHL games.

A look at his five-on-five time on ice compared to the rest of the teenage NHLers this year is revealing:

Player Pos Tm GP ES TOI/Gm
Patrik Laine RW WPG 9 14.3
Auston Matthews C TOR 9 14
Mikko Rantanen RW COL 2 13.8
Mitchell Marner C TOR 9 13.5
Travis Konecny C PHI 10 13.4
Sebastian Aho RW CAR 8 11.9
Pavel Zacha C NJD 8 11.8
Anthony Beauvillier LW NYI 8 11.3
Joel Eriksson Ek LW MIN 5 10.3
Jesse Puljujarvi RW EDM 7 10.2
Dylan Strome C ARI 3 10.1
Matthew Tkachuk LW CGY 8 9.8
Denis Malgin C FLA 9 9.4
Mathew Barzal C NYI 2 9.1
Blake Speers C NJD 3 8.3
Lawson Crouse LW ARI 5 7.8

This filters out the defenders and shows you just the forwards who are, or were in Konecny's case, eligible for a slide. Thirteen minutes in even-strength ice time means top line. Maybe not line number one, but it's not a low minute third line, which the Leafs don't have, or the fourth line. It's not subbed in occasionally while someone else double shifts other times.

We can see that Marner is in with a small group of players with more than 13 minutes: the one and two draft picks this year, both of whom were assumed to be NHL-ready players and both of whom have at least one year of pro hockey behind them; Rantanen, who already played a few NHL games last year and had nearly a full year in the AHL; and Konecny, the only other player who has skated out of junior hockey onto a full-time NHL roster spot so far this year.

To get an idea of how their coaches see them, we can look at faceoff location, and special teams usage.

Player Pos Tm GP oZS% FOW FOL FO% PP TOI/GM PK TOI/GM
Patrik Laine RW WPG 9 55.3 0 1 0 4.9 0.2
Mikko Rantanen RW COL 2 88.2 2 0 100 3.8 0.1
Sebastian Aho RW CAR 8 52.5 0 0 3.4 0.1
Auston Matthews C TOR 9 67.9 43 48 47.3 3.1
Mitchell Marner C TOR 9 58 2 1 66.7 3.1 0.1
Dylan Strome C ARI 3 86.7 10 12 45.5 2.7
Travis Konecny C PHI 10 55.7 0 0 2.1
Matthew Tkachuk LW CGY 8 25.9 1 1 50 1.9
Pavel Zacha C NJD 8 57.1 34 34 50 1.6 1.2
Jesse Puljujarvi RW EDM 7 51.6 0 0 1.6
Denis Malgin C FLA 9 73.3 13 32 28.9 1.1
Mathew Barzal C NYI 2 66.7 6 7 46.2 0.5 0.1
Joel Eriksson Ek LW MIN 5 53.3 16 18 47.1 0.3 0.1
Blake Speers C NJD 3 58.3 0 1 0 0.1 1.1
Anthony Beauvillier LW NYI 8 51.4 1 1 50 0.1
Lawson Crouse LW ARI 5 58.3 0 0 0.5

A quick look at faceoff location (OZS%) to see how they're being used by coaches shows only Tkackuk with anything like a defensive usage. But our 13 minute players are in the middling range with the exception of Rantanen. Their usage may have been gentle so far, but it is not extreme.

Power play time on ice shows Marner in the top five with Laine, Matthews, Rantanen and Aho. Konecny has less, but the number of power plays each team will have had will vary. Very few of these rookies are playing meaningful penalty killing time.

You can see who is taking faceoffs and how often to judge which centres are being used like any other roster player and also which wingers sometimes take draws. Although Marner is listed as a centre in this data, he has played exclusively as a winger so far.

It is clear that the thirteen minute players are being used as regular full-time NHL players, exactly the way Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid were last year at this time.

While there are a few on this list of 15, and some defenders, who will join Konecny and stick past their nine games, so far Marner and Rantanen are the only other players who have been placed in a class with Matthews and Laine by his coach’s usage.

Mitch Marner is doing the opposite of sliding; he is staking a claim to a regular full-time NHL job, and he is doing it by convincing Mike Babcock that he is ready for it. Within his own team, Marner is third in ice time, both five-on-five and all situations, and while he does not have the best shot differentials, he is in range of his usual linemates, who aren’t gifted at defence.

Last year there were only 12 teenagers who played over their nine games. Not all of them played those games at the top of the year. We can expect this year's list of burned contract years to grow soon, but to get some names added later in the year too.

Bob McKenzie explains that many teams are more concerned with the longer-term implications of the 40-game limit.

The truth is fewer and fewer teams are worrying about the nine-game/10-game decision and are much more cognizant and careful about the 39-game/40-game threshold. In some cases there are actually financial benefits to burning the first year of a player's entry-level contract, but once a player is on the NHL roster for the club's first 40 games, that counts as a year's service toward free agency.

And that is a very big deal.

When the Leafs play the Oilers today, there will be two teenagers who won’t be sliding. Weeks from now, when the forty game threshold looms and the World Junior Championship is around the corner, Mitch Marner may well have answered the 40-game question before it is asked too.

Acknowledgements

Tabular data is from Hockey Reference, and some other information is from HockeyViz, Natural Stat Trick and Hockeystats.