Mitch Marner believes in himself so much, it doesn’t matter if you don’t. He ranks himself first every time in any vote.
Marner should be the symbol of the new hockey age. He began as the “size doesn’t matter” king of the OHL, and he vaulted straight to the NHL, ignoring the naysayers from day one. As a surprisingly deep-voiced man, he floats above the ice like a bit of dandelion fluff on the wind, not really getting much bigger than he was when he started. He plays the puck like few other people can dream of, piles up points, and you should love him with your whole heart.
The irony that the best symbol of modern hockey — okay wait... the best symbol of modern hockey is Sebastian Aho, drafted way too low, not Canadian, and brilliant at the game in all the modern ways. He’s accidentally paid handsomely because his agent played the Habs like a damn violin, and forced the owner of the cash-poor Hurricanes to turn out his pockets and search in the sofa for loose change to pay him less than he deserves, but more than anyone expected. But no one really cares about a player in a small market in the southern USA who has a funny name and an accent. No, Mitch Marner was meant to be the best small man to deke and dive his way to glory since guys like him were the norm in hockey, not the exception.
They were the norm. The first number 16 to be famous in Toronto (his Arenas jersey hangs in the Leafs dressing room) was Ken Randall. He was 5’10” and 180 lb and he played for the Arenas, the Blueshirts and the St. Pat’s a hundred years ago. What’s interesting about Randall is that he played as a forward and a defenceman, which means he could see the game frontwards and backwards. He could understand the things you had to do to make goals and to stop goals. He had the brain for the game.
The question about Marner is this: is he that good too? His answer is yes. Look, this is the thing about Marner that has not endeared him to Leafs fans. He isn’t humble. He wanted the Matthews deal for himself, and he kept saying no to anything less until the clock had ticked down, and he magnanimously offered a token discount to get the deal done. I picture him picturing himself as a noble team player making a huge concession in this moment — possibly in a halo of heavenly light.
Points vs Models
Forget how fond of himself Marner is. Let’s check in with the nerd-o-sphere.
Well, that’s some deep purple on that bar chart. The one on the right, that is. Can we just take this as read right here that Marner is a unique talent at reading the play on the power play and can make you cry if you take a penalty against the Leafs? Not everyone agrees with this, but I can’t move off my position that he’s damn near a genius at this one thing, no matter how much the most recent Leafs power-play formula favoured Matthews’ skillset over Marner’s.
But that graph on the left, that’s a thing. What this graph says is that Marner is barely okay at keeping the puck in the right end of the ice, has a real, if modest, effect on defensive results and that his main benefit at five-on-five is his effect on goals for well above his effect on Expected Goals for. HockeyViz’s newest model largely agrees with that, but sees less of a value to Marner’s offensive contributions and more to his defensive. Both models account for teammates, competition and usage as much as possible. Both models see William Nylander as the real offensive force on the Leafs’ wings, but Nylander’s overall effect defensively is mildly Leafy.
This is a tough one to figure out. This is where the points vs shot-based metrics collide in a big battle that rivals the epic ending of Iron Man and is just as tedious.
I’m on team points don’t matter (all that much) and I’m going to start there. Someone got pretty stroppy with me on this website when I said that Marner’s points in 2018-2019 were likely to regress. And I expected that. People hate this concept. You want to piss someone off? Tell them their good luck might turn bad.
Marner had a Points per 60 minutes of 2.87 at five-on-five in 2018-2019. In the olden days of about ten years ago, that was cutting-edge stats. But even then, we knew the bitter truth, that if your Shooting % was high, and your on-ice Shooting % was too, you could see a reckoning. And Marner did. His P60 this season was only 2.16. But a funny thing happened on the way to the playoffs: His power-play on-ice Shooting % was huge and that helped to disguise that regression. His points per game went from 1.15 to 1.14, and everyone else on the Leafs scored less too, so it didn’t seem so obvious that Marner wasn’t quite creating the offence he’d been credited with the prior year.
The other reason that talk of Shooting % and regression pisses people off is that the results of a player’s shots are an unholy mixture of a host of random factors outside the player’s control and a host of factors that make up his actual skill and drive. So if I say Marner will regress (which he did), that’s not the same as saying Marner is bad or only lucky, but if you want to hear it that way, if you want there to be only one way to view a hockey player: good because of skill, bad because they don’t try, then you will. It’s not exactly an uncommon world view.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter. Do you believe that Mitch Marner makes his centre (John Tavares or Auston Mattews) score more goals, or is he just idling around out there looking useless in some games and counting his millions while averaging 20.75 goals per season and mostly passing the puck to two stars?
Here’s my answer: I don’t know for sure.
Mitch Marner is that guy who divides the boxcar readers from the stats charts readers, and I keep changing my mind on him. This is the danger of being a centrist, you can get yelled at by everyone, and can sometimes long for the certainty of an extremist view. Because I’m also on team points are the point of hockey, and play that leads to goals is what you should pay for, I can’t pick a side.
When I get worried that Mitch Marner might be a con man who fooled everyone with his epic levels of self confidence, I think of Nick Backstrom. He has some pretty tepid charts too, and yet, did you watch him play with William Nylander at worlds that one time? Was that not glorious?
The theory goes like this: Some players, who are almost exclusively the setup men to fantastic shooters, don’t really show up on even the most sophisticated models of hockey because they are inherently deferential. They only pass to the man with the sweet hands. They manoeuvre until that man is in his office and they hand him the puck. When Connor McDavid does this, he’s setting up any old guy, and making him overpaid. And he’s playing the role of a centre the rest of the time. His worth is clear, and his position at the epicentre of his team is obvious. With Nick Backstrom on the Capitals, it’s hazy and unclear and you’ll find arguments about his value amongst Caps fans.
This is the irony of Mitch Marner. He doesn’t play like a man with a gigantic, um, ego. He plays like the most deferential centre to ever come out of Sweden. He dishes, he doesn’t serve. He stands back and plots, he doesn’t bull in and create havoc. He makes the snowball, he doesn’t throw it. His game is all in his head.
And to believe in Mitch Marner, you have to believe in that, its value, its uniqueness and that Marner is making Matthews or Tavares better than they’d be on their own with someone earning half as much. You have to turn your back on the more sophisticated models and believe that all those assists point to something real.
$11 million is a lot for a winger. I am very sure Marner is not worth that cap hit, and it didn’t take a pandemic-flattened salary cap to make me feel that way. Look, I’m not saying he’s Connor Brown. But somewhere on the continuum of Brown to Ovechkin lies Marner, and the dispute is really about how high up he truly is and how much a lot of assists are really worth — not just to argue about how good he is, but to answer this question: Can the Leafs afford him?
Obviously the answer is yes, they are able to. He’s there now, he fits under the salary cap along with everyone else who matters, and that can continue indefinitely largely through swapping out some three-million-dollar players for others coming off their ELCs. That process has a side benefit of keeping the team young and fresh and avoiding having some 30 year old taking a roster spot one line over his ability because he’s always been there.
But with the salary cap unlikely to rise much, possibly for the entire life of the new CBA, Kyle Dubas is going to be thwarted in making moves he wants to make that will improve the team, and it will be really obvious where an extra four or five million in cap space could come from. It’s going to annoy him.
No one wants to swap out Marner for Kapanen tomorrow. No one can claim the team wouldn’t materially suffer with that move, and adding a defenceman instead isn’t going to replace Marner’s power play offence. But if the day comes when Kyle Dubas can take Marner off both the power play and the top line and reconfigure the team so that it’s effectively close enough to what it is now by spreading that cap hit out into more than just one winger, the temptation to do that is going to be strong. No matter how much he believes in Marner’s value now.
Of all the wingers making over $9.5 million in the NHL, Marner gets the lowest proportion of his points off his own stick at 29%. Artemi Panarin is at 36%, Patrick Kane is at 38% and Nikita Kucherov is at 40%. Alex Ovechkin is 55%. Marner also has the least amount of games played, so this might rise in time, but if it doesn’t, if Marner becomes the highest paid and least personally productive winger in the elite category, the Leafs may feel more motivated to find a way to do without him.
Votes - Mitch Marner
|Spread in Rank||1|
I voted Marner and Nylander as tied in 2018. I only untied them when forced to by the format, and I gave Marner the nod on age. Last summer, the prevailing points-driven feeling was that a huge gap had opened between them, and that there was a real contest between Marner and Matthews, and not just in Marner’s own mind. I did not buy in on that. I struggled a lot last year to really see light between Nylander and Marner, and part of that was the way Nylander came back from his contract-delayed start and became a tougher, more physical player.
This year, I ranked Marner as second again, but I see the gap between him and Matthews as substantial, and I don’t think the Nylander ahead of Marner takes are invalid. I do think Marner is a legitimate top-line winger. But I also think he’s really overpaid.
How much is an assist worth is a question as hard to answer as how long is a piece of string. I don’t think I answered it. I already know how the community voted on Marner, and we got to hash some of this out yesterday, so a different question today: How sure of your opinion on Marner are you?
How confident are you that your ranking of Marner is correct?
|Mostly sure, but willing to listen to arguments||133|
|I change my mind several times a day on him||48|
|I don’t think it’s possible to know until he plays with a bad centre for a year||100|