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Mitch Marner is one of the best passers in the game and all he wants to talk about is his shot

All he wants to hear is “he shoots, he scores.”

New Jersey Devils v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

It seems like all anyone has talked about for years is Mitch Marner’s shot. That’s largely because the talking points the Maple Leafs have been using for years about Marner have been all about shooting.

It’s very clear the Maple Leafs do use a “talking points” style of PR interaction stolen right from your favourite political party. The topic of the day will be revealed in a carefully crafted Sportsnet video piece, the players who are capable of hitting a mark and delivering lines will produce the quotes required, and the coach will give a little more depth on what the team wants you all to hear. One of the players tells a cute story that casts the right light on today’s main character, and the headlines in seven or eight different media sources will all tell you that Marner is shooting more. At least that used to be the topic in heavy rotation.

Maybe they got tired of me saying that wasn’t true? Or more likely their own analytics department told them it was unsupported by the numbers, so they massaged the message and switched to Marner is working on his shot and he’s more deceptive now.

That’s a cynical view on my part, but the Leafs style of interaction with the press inspires cynicism. So, let’s ignore all of that and look at some facts instead. First a very brief look at Marner’s shot rate over the years. I’ve looked at this occasionally for years, and it is fairly simple and fairly unexpected (players don’t change their shooting habits much at age 25).

Marner’s Shooting Rates

Season TOI iCF/60 iCF/60 - EV iCF/60 - PP
Season TOI iCF/60 iCF/60 - EV iCF/60 - PP
16-17 1294.38 15.07 13.94 20.43
17-18 1343.82 17.81 14.74 32.44
18-19 1625.43 16.61 15.3 23.44
19-20 1271.68 13.07 12.22 20.21
20-21 1233.48 14.35 12.94 21.17
21-22 1144.95 16.45 15.35 23.37
iCF is individual Corsi For or all shots taken by a single person.

It does amuse me that they’ve stopped talking about Marner shooting more when his rate has gone up. It hasn’t risen out of the realm of what’s normal for him, though. If you look at his whole career, you can see that it might seem as though it’s very different now because when they talked about it all the time — the last two seasons — his shot rate had actually gone down a noticeable amount.

I picked Even Strength, not five-on-five because Marner plays the four-on-four situations, and he’s very good at it. It seemed important to leave that in. I left out shorthanded play, but I looked at it, because for a player like Mikheyev, his Expected Goals shorthanded skews the view of his talent in all-situations. With the bigger minutes Marner gets, it’s not really a problem. He’s shot the puck 24 times shorthanded, when it was 14 last year. This is such a small number of minutes that I consider it interesting, and maybe influences how he’s perceived, but it’s not really a sign of changed behaviour.

Enough about rates, the question of the day is about shooting better, which is much tougher to define than shooting more. Goals are the obvious place to begin. As most people likely know, and I had to look up, Marner has 27 goals, a career high, and only 20 behind the team leader! So he’s scoring more. (All the numbers here are from before Sunday’s game.)

Before I try to figure out why, or at least how, he’s scoring more, let’s remember where goals come from. Goals are a function of: ice time, usage at 5on5, usage on special teams, teammates, opposition, offence creation experienced by the player (including their own), luck, random chance, the “bounces” and their own shooting skill and the choices made on how to use that skill. A lot of those things a player doesn’t control, but generally speaking you don’t get the power play, the ice time and the offensive zone time without earning it. Not on a good team.

Where in all those causes are the 27 Marner goals? Buried in creating offence is shot rate. And we know Marner’s is higher than it has been lately while not being wildly out of the ordinary for him. He’s 67th for all forwards over 300 minutes played this season for shot rate, making him an ordinary top-six player in this respect. He’s not just shooting more and getting more goals as a result, though.

A funny coincidence is that Marner has 17 Even-Strength goals this season in 55 games, which is exactly what he had last year in 55 games. And 2018-2019 in 82 games. His 2019-2020 scoring was poor at only nine goals in 59 games. If all you care about is this year over last, then his “more” is his four power-play goals and his two shorthanded goals and we can call that the bounces, teammates, whatever you like and stop now.

But goals are such a poor indicator of offensive skill when you only look at a season at a time. All six years? Sure, that’s doable, and yet, you can’t talk about more or better when you lump it all in together.

Expected goals might tell a completely different story from the one random forces and various goalies help to obscure. That is, after all, what they’re for.

Expected Goals Rates

Player Season TOI ixG/60 ixG/60 - EV ixG/60 - PP
Player Season TOI ixG/60 ixG/60 - EV ixG/60 - PP
Mitch Marner 16-17 1294.38 0.93 0.86 1.14
Mitch Marner 17-18 1343.82 0.83 0.66 1.78
Mitch Marner 18-19 1625.43 0.9 0.66 1.1
Mitch Marner 19-20 1271.68 0.76 0.63 1.22
Mitch Marner 20-21 1233.48 0.99 0.77 0.99
Mitch Marner 21-22 1144.95 1.08 0.83 1.73

Marner’s overall Individual Expected Goals are the highest they’ve ever been, but not by much over last year and two other years. Again, the dullness of 2019-2020 stands out more than this season. And the overwhelming majority of that rise is on the power play. He’s not terrible at Even Strength. .83 ixG is a good forward, just not an elite one at individual offensive creation and opportunity. If you add a really good shot to that rate, you get a sniper. If you don’t, you get a player who needs some other attributes to justify the ice time. Marner is 108th for forwards over 300 minutes by ixG this season.

How much of a sniper is he? This is where a tiny hint of some change can be seen in this season.

Marner’s All-Situations Shooting %

Player Season TOI xFSh% FSh% Delta Sh%
Player Season TOI xFSh% FSh% Delta Sh%
Mitch Marner 16-17 1294.38 7.86 7.42 -0.44
Mitch Marner 17-18 1343.82 6.71 7.94 1.23
Mitch Marner 18-19 1625.43 7.64 8.15 0.51
Mitch Marner 19-20 1271.68 7.6 7.58 -0.02
Mitch Marner 20-21 1233.48 9.78 9.62 -0.16
Mitch Marner 21-22 1144.95 8.65 11.3 2.65
Fenwich Sh% is the % of goals or expected goals on all unblocked shots.

This is the first year since 2017-2018 that Mitch Marner has actually shot over expected by any sort of meaningful amount. He’s usually an average shooter. Back in 2017-2018 all of his extra goodness from shooting was on the power play. And this year? None of it is from there, it’s all Even Strength.

Marner’s Even-Strength Shooting

Player Season TOI xFSh% FSh% Delta
Player Season TOI xFSh% FSh% Delta
Mitch Marner 16-17 1080.4 7.71 7.43 -0.28
Mitch Marner 17-18 1123.43 6.26 7.11 0.85
Mitch Marner 18-19 1246.97 6.19 7.73 1.54
Mitch Marner 19-20 913.25 6.88 6.47 -0.41
Mitch Marner 20-21 904.07 8.11 11.89 3.78
Mitch Marner 21-22 844.28 7.2 10.49 3.29

So that’s two seasons of actually shooting a decent amount over expected. By his actual shooting % on unblocked shots, he’s 69th in those forwards who have played over 300 minutes at Even-Strength, or a decent top-six winger who does something else well or a very good third-line winger.

That’s mostly how he got his goals this season. The why of it is much more elusive. His growth in shot quality is not showing up on the power play. If you can separate out the system from the individual skill, good for you, but I can’t. As for his Even-Strength numbers, that’s also system plus teammates, plus randomness and a whole host of other things.

There’s no reason to think that the work Marner says he’s been doing on his shot aren’t one of the host of things helping him score. Anyone, including me, could make up a nice story about how he’s doing this or that thing, which is just the one neat trick making him score more. But this has not been a dramatic change that’s beyond what could be simple variance, just like last season’s power play zero was not really his personal failing as a human being.

Marner hasn’t stopped being a player who is relied on and paid well primarily for his playmaking skills and his impact on shotshare overall. What you think of him is still all bound up in how much of Auston Matthews’ league-leading 1.3 ixG per 60 minutes at Even Strength you think is Mitch Marner’s creation. If the Leafs want to quiet some of the discontent around Marner, they’d likely be better off sticking to discussing the things he’s actually elite at, as we all saw in Sunday’s game against the Panthers.

The big and totally unanswered question is this: will this increase in shooting over expected actually persist? Considering how volatile shooting percentages are, any prediction is a take, not analysis. The extra goals sure are handy, though.