Even after Mitch Marner was drafted fourth overall in one of the best draft classes of the post-lockout era, there was apprehension over how his game would translate to the NHL level. Even after he became a four-time MVP in his post-draft season, debates raged over whether the diminutive winger should be sent back to the London Knights for one final season.
The NHL needed a more lenient agreement with the CHL which would allow teams to send top prospects to the AHL, Leafs Nation said. After all, Marner struggled in his first training camp with the Leafs as a scrawny, timid teenager and he didn't dominate rookie camps and tournaments like he was expected to either. The 19-year-old was the perfect case study, too good for junior but not quite physically developed enough for the NHL, they said. He was destined to be in and out of the press box, a healthy scratch as he found his feet, they said.
But from the first day of his second training camp, it was clear that there was something about Marner’s game that would enable him to make it work. Quickly, the doubts faded.
By the time the regular season rolled around, even as Auston Matthews and William Nylander stole the show on opening night with a combined six points while Marner went scoreless, it was his six shots and shift-to-shift creation that wowed viewers. When the inevitable 10th NHL game mark arrived and a decision had to be made on whether to burn a year of his entry-level contract, the answer was simple.
Ever since that first game in Ottawa, the generously listed 170-pound forward has battled poor powerplay luck and a low early shooting percentage to climb back into the picture as one of the NHL’s best rookies.
But what about his game has enabled him to create, produce, and even dominate so early in his NHL career?
Well, what better way to find out than against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions on the tail end of a back-to-back.
I recorded the entirety of Saturday’s Leafs game against the Penguins, including all of Marner’s shifts. Below I have meticulously broken each of those 20 shifts down descriptively, before drawing certain conclusions about how Marner has adapted his game to succeed in the NHL.
Editor’s Note: All of the sequences below are organized sequentially from left to right.
First Shift: 1:22-2:15
Sequence 1: After Zach Hyman opens the scoring, Marner’s line comes on for the centre ice draw. When the puck is pushed deep, Marner applies pressure twice on his natural right wing, once forcing a turnover to Bozak and once forcing a wraparound after he pursues the puck on his off-wing. Here, Marner is the primary retriever on his line, with Bozak providing support higher in the zone.
Sequence 2: After the puck is forced out of the zone, Marner identifies that he needs to provide weak-side support at the blueline above the puck and receives it when the Pens force a chip play up the boards. Having identified a potential entry on his off-wing, Marner feigns a blueline carry and drops a behind-the-back pass to Bozak, who is able to enter before turning it over. Prior to the turnover, Marner continued his path on the far side, before curling back to centre ice to provide more support above the puck.
Sequence 3: After Gardiner receives another chip play in the neutral zone, Marner (already well-positioned in centre ice), skates once more to his off wing to provide support for Bozak in the event he is checked. That support enables him to receive a pass from Bozak, create another zone entry and find the trailer — who he had previously identified — for a scoring chance.
Freeze Frame: Notice how, at the end of the third sequence, Phil Kessel circles back to retrieve the loose puck in the slot and Marner circles behind the Pittsburgh net. After a hard back check, Marner is the first man back, providing support above the puck and forcing Kessel to push the puck back into the neutral zone for a line change.
This is a near-perfect shift spent entirely in control of the play, even when the Pens have possession.
Second Shift: 4:27-5:35
Sequence 1: After a clean offensive zone draw win for Bozak, Marner goes straight to the high slot without turning his back to the puck. After Matt Hunwick’s shot is blocked, he immediately begins to hunt the puck, eventually chipping it down the boards to maintain control of the play. After pushing the play down the boards to Bozak, Marner goes back to the slot (again) to receive a pass, putting his scoring chance just wide.
Sequence 2: After the puck is forced up ice moments later by the Pens and Bozak goes for a quick change, Marner stays on the ice to provide help defensively as the deep support. By staying low in the zone, Marner creates a 50/50 battle in the corner.
Freeze Frames: Knowing he has his back to the play and that he’s being pursued by a bigger 6-2 Tom Kuhnackl, Marner decides against pinning the puck up against the boards to attempt a clean retrieval and instead leans away from contact to one-touch the puck up the boards to Kadri for a chipped exit and a line change.
Third Shift: 8:02-9:23
Sequence 1: Fresh off the bench, Marner receives a pass in the neutral zone and uses his footwork to go wide, leaning on his inside edge to cut to the net and attempt an inside-out tuck on Murray. Here, rather than using raw speed or size he doesn’t have, it’s Marner’s puck protection that creates the scoring chance. Rather than stopping up to retrieve the loose puck on Murray’s pad and find Corrado at the far point from the right wing, Marner keeps his feet moving to go to the far post and open up a lane cross-ice for the feed to Corrado, forcing Murray to move laterally and make a tougher save.
Sequence 2: Later in the shift, after another quick Bozak change, Marner stays on to provide deep support (again) and puck pursuit. As with the 50/50 play on his second shift, Marner turns away from the forechecker here, this time with the puck rather than chipping it up the boards, creating another zone exit and a completed line change with a quick, decisive play — and no engagement physically.
Fourth Shift: 13:31-14:25
Sequence 1: When the puck is sent down the ice, Marner is forced into a footrace (one he starts from behind) against Justin Schultz. After he beats Schultz to the inside track, Marner looks over his shoulder at the top of the faceoff circle to identify not only how much space he has over Schultz but also to locate the trailer (van Riemsdyk). When he arrives at the puck, Marner keeps his feet moving to avoid being checked and perfectly wraps the puck around the boards to van Riemsdyk for a chance on net — broken up by a nice defensive play by Ian Cole.
Sequence 2: Later in the shift, Marner provides backside help for Morgan Rielly, who gives Marner the puck deep in the zone because he didn’t have any other outlets. Marner looks, identifies the forechecker (Matt Cullen), spins away from contact (this is a recording) and leaves the puck for Nikita Zaitsev to create another exit.
Fifth Shift: 15:59-16:55
Freeze Frames: When the Marner line is hemmed in for the first time, it is Bozak (circled in red) who has assumed the more traditional role as the deep man in the defensive zone. Here, Evegeni Malkin (Bozak’s man) is allowed to retrieve three loose pucks and make plays in space before eventually picking up a shot on goal. Unlike Marner, who had applied puck pressure when he was the deep man on his line throughout the first period, forcing the Pens into turnvoers, Bozak remains stationary (taking himself virtually out of the play) in front of the net for the entirety of the defensive zone shift. In frame 2, when Malkin goes to the front of the net and Bozak does have his man for the first time, he lets him go, rendering Marner neutralized.
Sixth Shift: 19:07-19:25
Kadri takes a delay of game penalty and Marner takes an inconsequential 18-second shift before the PK unit comes on.
Seventh Shift: 21:35-22:21
Sequence 1: Through the neutral zone, Marner keeps his feet moving to gain some speed and create a clean zone entry before he’s taken down trying to cut to the inside. Here, for the first time in the game, Marner makes the wrong decision with the puck. Rather than going to his backhand for a shot or a net-drive, or turning away from traffic to stop up and find the trailer, Marner cuts into two defenders for a lower-percentage play.
At the other end, Corrado takes a penalty to end the shift and bring on the PK unit.
Eighth Shift: 23:28-24:30
Sequence 1: On a neutral zone faceoff, Marner gets underneath Kuhnackl to gain the inside track on a scrummed draw. Coming away with the puck, Marner decisively cuts to the outside under pressure and throws it on net — instead of pushing it deep — in an attempt to make a play.
Sequence 2: When the play goes the other way, Marner actively stays above the puck and forces Kuhnackl to the outside, resulting in a Pens dump-in that cedes possession to Matt Hunwick.
Sequence 3: After Hunwick finds van Riemsdyk on his wing, van Riemsdyk ices the puck for a 50/50 race. For the second time in the game, Marner beats the icing, turns away from the check without instigating a physical man-on-man battle, keeps his head up to identify his trailers and finds Bozak down low.
Sequence 4: After the puck is wrapped around to Rielly at the far point, Marner goes directly to the front of the net where — rather than engaging in a physical fight for his space — Marner spins off of Brian Dumolin and Kris Letang to successfully disrupt, stay on top of the crease, and nearly get his stick on a scoring opportunity.
Ninth Shift: 26:28-27:35
Sequence 1: After receiving the puck just outside the offensive zone, Marner pivots and looks cross-ice to identify his linemates, cutting to the middle of the zone to draw attention before flipping a backhand pass to a streaking Bozak. When Bozak throws a shot on net, Marner engages below the goal line. Once again, he gets underneath Dumolin and Bonino spinning away twice from both before deftly pushing an off-balance pass across his body to Bozak.
Tenth Shift: 28:08-29:00
Sequence 1: On for his first powerplay shift of the game, Marner sets up on the blueline for the entry as part of a set play. When Bozak passes it to him, Marner has three choice: put the puck around the boards for a likely retrieval by van Riemsdyk, chip it into the corner for a tightly-checked Bozak or blindly drop for Rielly. As part of the set play, he drops the pass for Rielly. Rielly, who goes to the boards anticipating a bank-pass off of Marner’s backhand, isn’t prepared when Cullen blocks the passing lane with his stick, forcing Marner to put the puck towards the centre of the zone instead, resulting in a failed exit. Here, Marner makes the higher risk play, hoping to find Rielly in the slot rather than setting up the powerplay down low for van Riemsdyk.
Eleventh Shift: 31:06-31:47
For the second time, the Marner line is hemmed in against the Malkin line with an inactive Bozak in front of the net and van Riemsdyk and Marner covering the points. Andersen smothers an easy point shot after Corrado loses a footrace against Malkin without support from Bozak.
Twelfth Shift: 34:04-35:05
Sequence 1: On an offensive zone draw, Marner once again gets the inside track on Letang. Despite losing the physical battle for the puck, Marner’s pressure forces Letang into a dump and a turnover.
Sequence 2: After Gardiner carries the puck through the defensive zone, Marner identifies an open lane on the far-side boards and turns his back to the puck, anticipating a reception. After receiving the pass, Marner stops up and spins to look to the slot before being tripped up from a stick-on-shin play from Letang — without a call.
Sequence 3: Towards the end of the shift, Gardiner and Marner link up on a nearly identical play. This time, Gardiner’s pass is behind Marner and he is forced to stop up and put the puck deep to effectuate a line change. Here, it would have likely been more effective to put the puck back to Corrado to buy time and maintain possession.
Thirteenth Shift: 38:41-39:42
Sequence 1: When the puck is flipped off the glass, Marner is already in motion, gathering speed through the neutral zone to pick it up, create an entry, cut to the high slot and get another shot attempt. Here, Olli Maatta does an excellent job staying with Marner to get a stick on the puck and avoid a scoring chance on Murray.
Freeze Frame: After Bozak receives a pass in the neutral zone, he turns it over. Marner, too high in the neutral zone after the turnover, is caught behind the play. At the other end, Chris Kunitz scores on a scramble in front.
Fourteenth Shift: 41:11-42:25
Sequence 1: When Bozak receives the puck along the left-wing boards, Marner sets up behind Carl Hagelin to give himself a cushion to receive a pass in the high slot. He faces the play, receives a pass and pivots to find Corrado. After Corrado’s shot is blocked, Marner is already in position to redirect the loose puck to Gardiner for a second completed pass.
Sequence 2: When Gardiner’s shot is blocked, Marner hunts the retrieval and has the wherewithal to bank the puck off the boards to himself, somehow maintaining control before protecting the puck on his backhand to feed Bozak with time and space.
Sequence 3: After van Riemsdyk’s chance cross-ice is prevented, Marner continues to pursue the puck before the Pens carry it up ice.
Freeze Frame: Marner, behind the play after Gardiner pinches and gives up an odd-man rush, back-checks to disrupt a Kessel chance.
Fifteenth Shift: 44:28-45:01
Bozak bobbles a pass in the offensive zone from van Riemsdyk after a draw, Maatta goes the other way for a shot, Frederik Andersen smothers it and Marner takes a quick shift.
Sixteenth Shift: 47:42-48:53
Sequence 1: Marner, pursuing the puck on his off-wing while the Matthews line changes, slides it out of a man-on-man battle between Gardiner and Kessel. Thanks to his edgework, he is able to quickly pivot towards the net and shoot (blocked by Kessel).
Sequence 2: After Kessel retrieves the puck and goes the other way, Marner back checks hard from the middle of the offensive zone to remove Kessel from the puck with his first (necessary) physical man-on-man play of the game.
Sequence 3: Back the other way, in the offensive zone, rather than trying to win an out-numbered puck battle on his own, Marner pins Bonino against the boards and stick-checks Maatta, buying time for Bozak to pull it out and start a passing play that ends with a Rielly chance.
Seventeenth Shift: 50:14-50:54
Sequence 1: On a zone entry, Marner delays to allow van Riemsdyk to carry the puck over the blueline. When van Riemsdyk finds him as the trailer, Marner cuts across the offensive zone blue line. There, he lifts his head and has a split second to decide on one of three options; feed Hunwick off the wing, feed Bozak who is well covered by Hagelin, or cut to open space in the middle. Immediately after lifting his head, Marner pivots to the slot, goes to his backhand and follows his shot to the net for a second chip-shot at the top of the crease.
Eighteenth Shift: 51:39-52:06
After van Riemsdyk wanders off of his wing, he’s bailed out by a big glove save from his open wing by Andersen, resulting in a quick shift.
Nineteenth Shift: 54:44-55:35
Sequence 1: After coming back deep in the defensive zone on a wing-swap with van Riemsdyk, Marner picks up the puck and leads a perfect sequence — with van Riemsdyk — up ice, making two quick passes before picking up a drop pass to nearly find Corrado in the slot.
Freeze Frame: Knowing that Corrado (circled in red) is now deep in the zone, Marner imediately takes over his point, despite that being Bozak’s assignment.
Sequence 2: Thanks to his strong positioning, Marner is ready when the puck comes back to the point. After receiving it, he quickly redistributes to van Riemsdyk and then cuts hard to the slot to draw attention. This was a perfectly played shift, late in the tail end of a back-to-back.
Twentieth Shift 58:09-58:55
Sequence 1: On his final shift of the game, Marner recognizes that Gardiner has no outlets and flees the zone early. Gardiner sends the puck down the ice to the opposite corner and Marner beats his third icing of the game, forcing Murray to come out and play the puck.
Sequence 2: After the play goes the other way, Marner back checks hard, picks up a loose puck and keeps his feet moving to draw a penalty as Malkin trails just out of reach.
It is uniquely difficult to digest a player’s game through his performance on the tail end of a back-to-back against one of the league’s best teams. Late in the game, pace can become an issue, taking away some of the advantages an up-tempo team like the Leafs might have. But what’s clear from the tape of Marner’s 20 shifts on Saturday night, is that the success of his game is in the details. While Marner’s puck skills and an increasingly elusive release allowed him to cleanly beat opposing teams at the junior level, it’s the little things in his game that have allowed him to transition so successfully to the NHL.
Despite being held scoreless and picking up a minus-1 rating, Marner was not only the deep defensive zone man on his line but also it’s primary puck retriever. Without the puck, Marner either filled in to provide support for teammates, supported the puck, or hunted on the forecheck to force turnovers, avoid icings, and regain possession. The end result was that in a game where the Leafs were outshot 49-36, Marner led all forwards in Corsi For% at 58.33% (28CF, 20CA) at even strength.
In puck battles, despite being one of the least-physical players on the ice, Marner routinely came away with the puck by choosing to engage primarily without initiating contact. Instead, he leans in and out of tight spaces to make quick decisive plays on pucks or to turn away from forecheckers to identify his teammates.
With the puck and without the puck, Marner is rarely ever stationary, always above the puck, and often in motion, keeping his feet moving to draw attention as a carrier or to force plays in pursuit. As a carrier, Marner uses edgework more than speed to evade checks and make fast plays on net, to the point, to the slot, or to teammates on the cycle. On a line with two of the Leafs’ most veteran players, it is Marner who was consistently checking, making plays, and providing defensive support to retrieve possession. Oftentimes, it is Marner who is compensating for Bozak, a centre who is counted on to be defensively responsible and more engaged in the play than he is (or at least was on Saturday night).
And while the flash is still there, and evident in spurts on cuts to the inside or blind spin passes, it’s the shoulder checks on a beat-icing or the body positioning on one of the world’s best defensemen in a 50/50 puck battle that have made the difference at the start of his NHL career. Marner seldom made a mistake and when he did it was in the offensive zone when the lower-risk play also had an uncertain result and he wanted to attempt to make something happen.
Really, the magic of Mitch Marner exists in his on-ice maturity. His enchantment captivates in the details we don’t expect out of a scrawny, junior hockey scoring champion. In youth, we are trained to look for the wow factor, the dazling breakaway speed or forceful power that isn’t always there. With Marner — the better-suited for the AHL case study — the magic is in the sum of many little parts, working in unison to dictate one touch-pass and inside lane at a time.