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Mitch Marner is not a prospect

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When you make your “pick and a prospect” fantasy trades, it helps if you first know what a prospect is.

NHL: New York Islanders at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of the year again! It’s time for fantasy trades, trade speculation, trade rumours and arguments about all of the above. You need to know the players on the scorecard before you start making deals, though.

One of the stock NHL trade deadline deals is a pick and a prospect for a rental. We know what a rental is, or at least we should: that’s an expiring UFA who is not agreeing to an extension before you trade for him.

Now, then. What’s a prospect? It seems that a lot of purveyors of rumours, speculation and fantasy seem to have conflated the word young with the word prospect. While all players develop at their own pace, and there’s no one path to the NHL, a 25 year old is rarely legitimately a prospect, but a 21 year old might be. They also might not be.

I grabbed a selection of the Leafs system players, playing in North American pro hockey and born in 1996 and 1997. They are all going to turn 20 or 21 this year, and this is how they’ve got to where they are now:

Each season refers to the one that begins in the year the player turned a given age. So even though we tend to think of Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews as one year apart because of draft years, they are the same age. All stats are points per game if there were 10 or more games played. Playoffs, WJC etc. are not included.

Selected Players in the Leafs System age 20-21 this year

Name Age 18 League AHL NHL Age 19 League AHL NHL Age 20 League AHL NHL Age 21 Team AHL NHL
Name Age 18 League AHL NHL Age 19 League AHL NHL Age 20 League AHL NHL Age 21 Team AHL NHL
Autson Matthews 1.27 NLA - - - - - 0.84 - - - 0.93 - - - -
Mitch Marner 2.03 OHL - - - - - 0.79 - - - 0.67 - - - -
William Nylander 0.95 SHL 0.86 - - - 1.18 0.59 - - - 0.75 - - - 0.70
Kasperi Kapanen 0.51 Liiga 2pts in 4 GP - - - 0.57 0 pts in 9 GP - - 1.00 1 pt in 8 GP - - 0.86 0.27
Dmytro Timashov 1.36 QMJHL - - 1.49 QMJHL - - - - 0.38 - - - 0.53
Jeremy Bracco 1.31 OHL - - 1.46 OHL - - - - 0.54 - - - - -
Travis Dermott 0.74 OHL - - 0.84 OHL - - - - 0.41 - - - 0.64 0.36
Adam Brooks 0.97 WHL - - 1.67 WHL - - 1.97 WHL - - - - 0.18 -

Auston Matthews is not a prospect; he’s a top line centre in the NHL. He’s our control to test the rest of the players against.

Now, note that Mitch Marner hit the NHL at the same age as Matthews after ripping up the OHL the year before. William Nylander had his half-and-half AHL and NHL season at 19, and didn’t become a fulltime NHLer until age 20. He’s a 1996 birthdate, so he’s playing his Age 21 year right now.

These three players form a distinct group, obviously different from the players below. They aren’t prospects. They are top line NHL players who happen to be very young. All that means is that they are very, very good top line NHL players. Mitch Marner (or William Nylander) is not the prospect who will come to your team along with a first round pick for your ageing and decrepit expiring UFA defenceman.

It’s not absolutely unheard of for a trade for a 20 or 21 year old player of that calibre to happen, it’s just vanishingly rare, and seems to involve Peter Chiarelli and Tyler Seguin.

Much, much more common are trades involving players on the cusp of NHL ability, or still in the AHL and needing a few years of development. Even then, in deadline deals, the names are usually not ones you know if you aren’t a fan of the team in question.

I’m sure you all vividly recall Aleksi Saarela at 20 going to the Hurricanes as part of the Eric Staal deal last year.

Now let’s jump to the bottom of the list and look at a player we know is a prospect: Adam Brooks. He spent more time in junior hockey than anyone else above him, and he’s in his first year pro in the AHL. He might develop into an NHLer, he might not. He has potential. Potential is the hallmark of a prospect.

Travis Dermott is next, as a player just moving into the NHL, but shoved further down the road a little in development at least in part because he’s a defenceman. He’s played 11 fun NHL games, but he is still a prospect with potential. He might become a full time NHLer soon, but he’s just not quite there yet.

Jeremy Bracco and Dmytro Timashov are also prospects. All they have is some junior glory and some AHL games to their names. They have potential in nearly as large a quantity as Dermott, but they aren’t NHLers at all yet. Remember, these guys are all the same age right now: 20 or 21 this year.

And now we have the question mark: Kasperi Kapanen. Is he a prospect still, or is he an NHLer, just not a top liner like our big three guys? I think he is an NHLer, not a prospect, and if the Leafs were to trade him, they’d expect much more back than a rental.

A few years ago, the Leafs traded for Connor Carrick. The deal was Daniel Winnick and a fifth-round pick to the Capitals for Brooks Laich and his enormous contract that had another year on it coming back. Carrick was the payment for taking that contract. That’s the kind of deal you make with a guy like Kapanen on deadline day. Chicago sent Teuvu Teravainen and Bryan Bickell to the Hurricanes in a similar deal that netted them a couple of picks as a return.

Luckily, the Leafs don’t have big contracts to dump, so if they move Kapanen, it would be for a real player coming back, someone with at least reasonable youth and term, and it would likely involve some other assets.

When you step up a level to Marner or Nylander, you’re into Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen range. Jones turned 22 the year he was traded, so he was a little older than our two non-prospects. Johansen turned 24 that year.

The sort of trade being bandied about — Ryan McDonagh for Mitch Marner is only one of many variations on the scheme — would need to involve a sci-fi subplot to de-age McDonagh down to about 23 or 24 to make it reasonable. And even then, you’d have to give it a long, long second set of thoughts.

The reason these trades are so rare is that when you have a very good NHLer at 20 or 21, no one knows what the limit is on his growth. His team doesn’t know what his value is or how good he will become. If a team trades him, they’re taking a massive gamble, and they’d need a very good reason to do it.

A jones for a young and elite defender isn’t enough, not unless you’re really sure you’re getting the better end of the deal. And even with Seth Jones, Columbus only really knew that in hindsight. So, will Columbus swap Zach Werenski for James van Riemsdyk? Not a chance. They wouldn’t even flip him for Mitch Marner.

So, sorry fans of preposterous fantasy trades, Mitch Marner is not a prospect. Start imagining trading for a pick and Jeremy Bracco instead.