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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: Mitch Marner moves up to No. 3

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Drafted fourth overall last year, Mitch Marner has moved up to take the third spot in the top 25.

Terry Wilson / OHL Images

The Voting

Mitch Marner finished the voting so close to being in a tie with William Nylander, they should be sharing the second place ranking. Exactly half the voters ranked Nylander higher, and half had Marner higher. Only one person had someone ranked between them, and the majority of voters had the pair of them as second and third.

I didn't. I had them in third and fourth with Morgan Rielly in at second. But I did have Marner higher than Nylander. My reasoning was simply that Nylander has not shown any reason to think he has outperformed his draft ranking. Not yet. And Marner has certainly not shown in his point-soaked, trophy-heavy, final year in junior that he was overvalued at his draft. I see no reason not to expect Marner to be a touch better than Nylander in the fullness of time.

Player Scott Wheeler 67 Sound Birky Arvind Elseldo Emily Achariya JP Nikota Species Burtch Katya Fulemin Mike B Chris H
Mitch Marner 3 2 2 3 4 3 3 2 2 2 3 4 4 4

Last year PPP writers had him fifth and both they and the commentors had Nylander higher.

With that out of the way and beyond his most recent year tearing up junior hockey and winning all there is to win, who is this Marner guy, anyway?

The Player

Size

The London Knights list him at 5'11" and 164 lbs. And I don't care. I don't care how small he is or how much he bulks up this summer or what his genuine height is.

Every few years, a player (or two or three or four) on the wrong side of six feet with elite skill catches the attention of the masses, and everyone tries to remember the last time a guy so tiny made the NHL as if it is some amazingly rare feat. It is not. There are all sorts of successful players his height in the NHL and there always have been. There always will be. Five foot whatever is simply a size that NHL players come in.

Marner has stated a plan to add muscle mass, and he is working on that this summer and telling the traditional stories of getting sick of eating protein. I don't care what he weighs. Shoving a 25-pound bag of flour down the back of your hockey pants does not make you a better player.

All that matters is that he develops the conditioning to play hockey as a series of very hard sprints (45 second NHL shifts), not modestly-paced marathons (four-minute junior hockey shifts) while ensuring he has the strength to keep on his feet in the slot. The kind of edge strength that players like Sidney Crosby and Matt Duchene have is going to do him more good than bigger biceps.

Position

Marner is a right-shooting centre/right wing, and he has one main competitor for the top right winger's job: a guy who is a right-shooting centre/right wing and is about 5'11". William Nylander is about to become Mitch Marner's greatest competition on the ice, not just on PPP spreadsheets.

Is Marner a centre or a winger, though? He played a lot of centre on the Knights before his final year, but he is almost certainly going to end up at wing on the Leafs, just given that the competition for the top centre's job is a little tougher. But as a winger capable of playmaking in the offensive zone, like Nylander is as well, no one should expect him to be a passenger on any line, not once he gets his skates under him.

There is a meaningful difference between the two positions. Centres make more money, get drafted higher, have more trade value and are often considered the backbone of a team because of their greater responsibilities on the ice.

But the difference is shrinking. Here is Carolina Hurricanes' coach (and former Mike Babcock protégé) Bill Peters talking about a similar "problem" he has.

"I know exactly where I see Teravainen slotting in. I have Aho, Lindholm and Teravainen," said Peters. "Now, where they go, I don’t know. Lindy played a little center for us last year, at the end of the year, and was very good. Teravainen was very successful in Chicago playing the off-wing, as a right winger. He also has some ability to play center. I think that’s going to be a line. That way, one guy can take faceoffs on the right side in the ‘D’ zone and the other guy can take faceoffs on the left side in the ‘D’ zone and all three are responsible defensively.

So, the Leafs have Auston Matthews, Marner, Nylander, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk who will all, eventually, be high level, playmaking, goal scoring forwards, four of whom have experience at centre. That seems like a problem that isn't a problem at all.

History

Marner is from the suburban Toronto area, so he played hockey in Vaughn and Don Mills as well as a private academy before he was drafted into the OHL.

He was obviously good in the minor junior leagues, but he was only selected 19th overall in the 2013 OHL draft, because he was, oddly enough, shorter then than he is now. Taken ahead of him were Toronto draft pick Nikita Korostelev, as well as Lawson Crouse and Dylan Strome, who went second overall, and a group of not exactly household names like Ethan Szypula, Matthew Kreis and Hayden McCool.

Marner was better in the OHL than all of those guys, even Dylan Strome, although Strome came closest of any of them to Marner's lofty achievements.

Marner had a good rookie year at 16, but it was not until his draft year at 17 that he really became the elite level talent we are all anticipating making his NHL debut soon.

He finished his OHL career with 96 goals, 205 assists for 301 points in 184 games. That gives him an astonishing career OHL points per game of 1.64. His playoff results are even better. In his final two seasons in the OHL, he scored at a rate of over two points per game.

Of all the players in the last five years to have been drafted top ten out of junior hockey and to have played one more junior year post-draft, only two have higher points per game in the CHL: Jonathan Drouin and Sam Bennett.

Marner was not exactly unnoticed in his draft year, putting up points like it was easy and winning all of the things to be won—except in the playoffs—but everyone knew he was no Connor McDavid. (McDavid left the OHL with 1.72 points per game in the regular season without playing at age 19 like Marner did.)

Now that Marner has won in the playoffs, taken the Memorial Cup and is finally about to join the NHL, everyone will know he is no Auston Matthews.

He is never going to escape this fate, and he does not care.

"I had a couple coaches tell me when I was younger, ‘Have fun playing minor hockey, because that’s all you’ll ever play,’" Marner says. "That’s why I always play like it’s my last day."

(From a Sportsnet interview when he was 17.)

His assistant coach Rob Simpson had this to say in that same report:

Earlier this season, London was down 2–1, pushing to tie things up, when four players got caught deep in the offensive end. Marner was on the opposing team’s goal line when a two-on-one materialized the other way. He backchecked, caught up, slid from the hash marks and deflected the puck away. "That’s something you don’t always see from high-end players, that commitment to defence. It shows his will to win," Simpson says.

Simpson is right, it is not exactly common to have an elite quality scoring forward who is not immediately defensively suspect.

Research shows that there is little to no relationship between shots for and shots against at the player level. James van Riemsdyk is not excellent defensively, Nazem Kadri is. Steven Stamkos, really, really is not, while Jonathan Drouin is. Claude Giroux is a complete player with and without the puck, and is perhaps, the centre/winger, mobile, playmaking, high-scoring, defensively reliable model of a player that Marner can one day become. (Guess how tall Giroux is? He also had 321 points in 187 games over three years in junior hockey.)

Future

One thing we know for sure about Marner is that he is experienced at lifting trophies. I think we should expect him to want to do that some more. The other thing we know is that he cannot play in the AHL this season. Giroux entered the QMJHL a year later than usual, so he played half of his first pro season in the AHL. Marner will one of three places: on the ice in the ACC, in the pressbox, or back in London.

Unless he is very unusual, it is too much to expect for him to walk out of camp and onto the top six plus special teams full time. It is not unheard of, but it is rare. It is just as rare for a player at his level to flame out, so I am confident he will be an NHLer in a very few weeks, and he will be good at it. (A few weeks!!!!)

Someday soon he will be great.