Sometimes a hockey player goes viral, and Mitch Marner is finding out what that’s like right now. I’m not absolutely sure, but I might have started it in print with this:
Is this the end for Mitch Marner?
I wrote that at midnight after Game 7, and published it the next morning. Chris Johnston also published this on June 1:
Think about it: They are loaded with high-end talent, basically the main ingredient missing from the Canadiens roster, and should be able to overcome one error per game. Yet just like in last year’s play-in series loss to Columbus that error proved to be fatal.
If you’re going to tie up half of your salary cap space in four forwards, you need to overwhelm opponents with that skill. You must dictate the terms. Playing safely isn’t a sound strategy.
This is why Sheldon Keefe’s performance in this series merits the same scrutiny as Marner and Matthews. The Big Two produced one goal against Carey Price and were key cogs of a power play that went 12-for-110 from March 1 onwards. They played essentially every 5-on-5 shift together and became major defensive targets after John Tavares was knocked out of the series with a concussion and knee injury.
Which states the problem nicely, and fandom as a whole focused in on Mitch Marner as both the cause and the future solution — by being removed from the team.
After Game 7, I asked the rest of the masthead to check the temperature of my take on Marner in that playoffs. I said to them what I wrote in that article, that I’d seen Marner be great all season, but then it evaporated, again, in the playoffs. “Am I just mad?” I asked. We talked about it, and everyone had varying levels of disquiet about both Matthews and Marner in the playoffs, but this is the clear thing that we all understand: Auston Matthews cannot shoulder the blame, even if it might be deserved. No NHL team is trading a unique, elite talent because he performed badly in a few playoff games.
The next obvious thing is to, like Johnston says, scrutinize Sheldon Keefe. I did that before Game 7, and now that I’ve heard his post-season comments, and Kyle Dubas’s, I don’t even think there’s much point. Dubas believes in him and their system. Keefe believes in himself and their system, and they both are taking the public position that the Leafs just need to find that missing ingredient inside themselves, and the actual players making up the core are fine, and the pay they get is fine, and the cap space is fine. Everything is fine, said all of the management team. We’re sad the house burnt down, but this is fine.
It’s inevitable that, if the Leafs won’t fire their GM or their coach, people will find “the one thing” that’s wrong and focus on it. And that one thing has become Mitch Marner in everyone’s mind. And so it’s almost necessary, given everything being said about him, to state your position on Marner. So here I am, doing a listicle because the only alternative is a manifesto, and no one wants that.
One: Mitch Marner works his ass off
Kyle Dubas said that in almost exactly that way last year. I think this is true. He plays defencemen-level minutes, he plays against top competition all the time. Here, have a chart:
What this shows on the right is that Marner played in 2020-2021 against top three forwards and top two defenders on other teams more than league average. He almost never sees third pair defenders and he plays less against the bottom six of other teams than the average. He also plays exclusively with top players on his own team. The only reason there is any time with anyone else is that he gets scraps of time post PK shifts with whoever comes out next. Often because he ends the PK with possession of the puck.
This is typical of a top-line winger, and you can look at Mikko Rantanen and see something very similar.
No one coasts through usage like that.
Marner also backchecks like he’s never out of position, he picks off pucks from the other team, maintains possession by working hard in the offensive zone, and is an excellent winger.
Two: Mitch Marner believes he’s worth his cap hit
I have no real facts to support this other than the man’s own words and actions, but I believe this absolutely. He thinks he’s as good as Auston Matthews, as important as Auston Matthews, and he doesn’t think assists mean less than goals. He doesn’t want to hear about secondary assists or anything else you might have to say about his points. He’s a star. He’s not conning anyone, he’s confused that you all don’t see this.
Three: Mitch Marner is not at fault for the power play
Except for how he is. I think the power play is too easy to defend, that the endgame, like in Washington, is visible from space: someone will pass to Matthews, and he will shoot one of those wicked deceptive wristers and the goalie will look stupid. Keep the puck from getting to Matthews, and you’ve nullified a power play that is actually excellent when it gets setup.
In Washington, there are other scoring threats, so the endless questions about why don’t they just check Ovi are actually kind of stupid. On the Leafs it’s not stupid, it’s what works. And that’s not Marner’s fault. That is on the coaching staff to create a system that works from of one of the best collection of forwards in the NHL, one that includes a shooter of Matthews’ calibre.
Four: Mitch Marner is not worth his cap hit
You have to believe that Mitch Marner is responsible for a very high percentage of Auston Matthews’ success to think he’s worth the same pay. I don’t. No evidence has ever been presented to back that claim.
Five: The four players for forty million plan is not going to work
When the Matthews and Marner deals were signed, making the Leafs top four cost almost half the available salary cap space, I was not terribly concerned about the way that would impact the team. That was then, this is now, and the cap will likely be flat for the full term of Marner’s deal.
To play under this system, the Leafs will need to flesh out the top six with players making $2 million or less, either by having them on ELCs, bargain deals, or deadline acquisitions with salary retention.
The Leafs just don’t have enough players on ELCs right now, and won’t for years, and once that top six is filled in, the third line needs to be built too. Everyone thinks Alexander Kerfoot is overpaid because anyone making over $2 million is too much on this team. That’s a problem.
And the one I don’t believe: Mitch Marner failed in the playoffs just because of puck luck
A lot of the players in the post-season interviews talked about bounces and pucks not going in. Zach Hyman took it one step farther and said something to the effect of sometimes they just do have to go in.
Mitch Marner is a dependent player. Someone else scores the goals, and that someone is usually Matthews. Matthews had a terrible shooting percentage in the playoffs, and that’s not Matthews’ fault. It’s not all bad luck either, likely. Carey Price was also really good. But when the games mattered most, and Montréal stepped up, Matthews got worse, and backing up to the question of belief in Marner as responsible for Matthews success — to the extent that he is, he didn’t get it done either.
Marner came across in his post-season interview as a man who still believes absolutely in himself. He’s ready to get back up, dust himself off and do it all again. And I’m not. Not anymore, but it’s not because I think he’s a bad player or at fault or “the reason” for the team’s abject and total failure.
I think the Leafs need to spend his cap hit more wisely.