Mitch Marner is quickly out-growing the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Not in stature, he's listed at 5-11 and 164 pounds by his London Knights, but simply as a hockey player. In a 5-1 win over the Ottawa 67's on Saturday afternoon, where he put together a three-point game for the 22nd time this season (in 48 games), that much was clear.
On his first shift of the game, Marner, the Leafs fourth overall selection in 2015, made three clean passes to the slot. On his very next shift, he picked up two shots on goal.
Playing on a line with projected top-10 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft Matthew Tkachuk, and OHL standout and Coyotes prospect Christian Dvorak, Marner looked at ease.
After drawing a slashing penalty in the high slot on his third shift of the game when Canadiens prospect Jeremiah Addison broke his stick into two pieces to prevent a scoring chance, Marner didn't slow down.
After drawing the penalty at the tail end of a shift, Marner proceeded to play the entirety of the 2-minute powerplay, hitting the post once before picking up the 'third assist' on a play that saw Tkachuk and fellow Leafs prospect JJ Piccinich find Dvorak for the opening goal.
Not the only time he played an extended shift in the game, Marner -- who is playing at a more than two points per game pace for the second consecutive season -- then passed up a wide open net and easy goal to find Tkachuk for the 2-0 lead on an unsuspecting pass.
Playing in all situations, including primary usage as a penalty killer (even down 5-on-3), Marner held onto the puck every chance he could. Twice on the penalty kill, he stepped around a forechecker with a deke in the neutral zone to turn back towards his goal.
After picking up his second assist of the game on a pass from below the goal line to teammate Aaron Berisha in the slot, Marner broke the 100-point mark for the second consecutive season.
Late in the second period, his line created four consecutive zone entries (one of which Marner exited for only to re-enter because his teammates were well-covered), passing the puck between themselves to create chances off the rush and on the cycle.
Just once Marner's confidence cost him, as he tried to feather the puck to himself one too many times at the offensive zone blueline only to turn it over and take a tripping penalty.
After the Knights successfully killed off the penalty, he took over in the third period.
Shortly after his line cycled for nearly a minute in the offensive zone, Marner picked up his third point on a pass to Tkachuk down low, opening up the cross-crease lane for Dvorak's second goal of the game and the decisive 5-1 lead. Moments later, he drew his second penalty of the game after he was hit from behind by 67's forward Trent Mallette.
With the three-point night, Marner added to one of his best months of the year. Through 12 games in February, he now has 28 points. He has been held off the scoresheet just four times on the season.
At times, it appeared he and his linemates -- all destined for the NHL -- were toying with the 67's.
For head coach Dale Hunter, brother to Leafs director of player personnel Mark, the top line -- led by Marner -- is almost unstoppable.
"You can see how they move the puck, they pass the puck very well, there's no selfishness among them and whoever scores scores," Hunter said after the game. "That's why they're so hard to play against."
Marner credits a sixth sense for his line's success.
"We've always known where each other are going to be and it's nice to have that kind of relationship on the ice," Marner said. "It's pretty special."
But Marner has been unstoppable in his own right and the Leafs are happy with how he's developed, Hunter said.
"They (the Leafs) come to watch him a lot and they hope for big things for him and it's well-deserved," he said of his co-captain (Marner shares the duties with Dvorak but was wearing the 'C' in Ottawa). "As much as he gets points, he cares about winning and losing and that's how you win games."
The Leafs have encouraged Marner to continue to push himself. He talks to them after every few games and "they're always watching."
Hunter is teaching a defence-first mentality, which allows Marner to continue to work on his game. He knows there's not much more he can do offensively.
"It comes from defence first, that's what we're always told and that's what we've focused on right from the get-go," Marner said. "We all know we're talented up front we just have to make sure we keep our d-zone safe and then we can get the offence going."
And he's focused on pushing himself in London while trying not to pay too close attention to the Leafs. Early in his OHL career Marner was nervous before games, but now he said he can just focus on hockey.
You just want to go out and do the best you can do, that's kind of my major thing," he said.
While he doesn't have goals for himself personally, he's trying to focus on being a leader. He wants to help the draft-eligible Knights -- teammates Max Jones, Olli Juolevi, Tkachuk, and Victor Mete are all potential first round picks -- through the process.
"You don't want to get them under pressure, that's the most stressful thing during your draft year is feeling like your stressed," he said. "I always just tell them to just play another year of hockey, there's just a little more eyes on you but focus on your game."
Soon, there will be a lot more eyes on the budding star, and he'll have to heed his own advice.
There's more attention that comes with Marner than with other top prospects that have come through London because he's a Leafs prospect, Hunter said with a laugh.
And Marner might just be ready.