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Mitch Marner and the learning curve

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We know Mitch Marner has learned all the OHL had to teach him, but is he ready for the NHL? How long will it take him to crest the learning curve?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Since I have watched 20 minutes of game play of Mitch Marner's London Knights—the third period of a blowout in the playoffs, no less—I thought I was uniquely qualified to talk about him.

Except this isn't about him; it's about prospects like him.

I compiled some information about the forwards drafted in the top 10 out of the Canadian Hockey League in the last five years to see if there's anything to be discovered about how they usually transition to the NHL.

I looked at games played, time on ice and points in the NHL. (I used P60 because points aren't really the main issue here, so it's good enough.) I added the same information for the CHL, minus the time on ice, of course, since it does not get reported. (I had to use points per game here, so watch yourself trying to compare across leagues.)

The main table of data is available, if you want to look at it, copy it, and play around with it. That table contains the draft +1, +2 and +3 years for all of the players. A summary of just the draft +2 year NHL activity is below to get us started on seeing what there is to see. I've marked who played less than 10 games in the NHL in their first year, so you can see the players most like Marner.

Draft +1 Year Draft +2 Year
Name NHL Games % of Full Season NHL P/60 NHL TOI/Gm
Taylor Hall 61 74.39% 2.1 14.4
Tyler Seguin 81 98.78% 2.7 13.9
Ryan Johansen yes 67 81.71% 1.4 10.7
Nino Niederreiter yes 55 67.07% 0.1 9.8
Brett Connolly yes 68 82.93% 1 10.1
Jeff Skinner 64 78.05% 2 13.9
Alexander Burmistrov 76 92.68% 1.3 12.9
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 40 83.33% 1.1 14.8
Gabriel Landeskog 36 75.00% 1.3 14.3
Jonathan Huberdeau yes 48 100.00% 1.6 13.7
Ryan Strome yes 0.00%
Mark Scheifele yes 4 8.33% 0 10.5
Sean Couturier 46 95.83% 1.2 11.1
Nail Yakupov 63 76.83% 1.4 11.9
Alex Galchenyuk 65 79.27% 1.4 12.1
Nathan MacKinnon 64 78.05% 2 13.6
Jonathan Drouin yes 70 85.37% 2 10.8
Sean Monahan 81 98.78% 1.6 14.7
Bo Horvat yes 68 82.93% 1.8 11.1
Sam Reinhart yes 79 96.34% 1.7 13.3
Leon Draisaitl 72 87.80% 2.2 14.5
Sam Bennett yes 77 93.90% 1.7 12.5
Michael Dal Colle yes 0.00%
Jake Virtanen yes 55 67.07% 1.1 10.9
Nikolaj Ehlers yes 72 87.80% 1.5 13.3
Nick Ritchie yes 33 40.24% 0.7 11
Average: 73.56% 1.45 12.49
Median: 82.32% 1.45 12.7

The obvious thing here is that almost everyone played in the NHL in their second year, and they played a substantial number of games. There's a block of players for whom this was the lockout year, so go by the percentage column. Jonathan Huberdeau is the only one to play them all, and it was in the lockout year so he also had 30 junior games and a trip to the WJC.

The two players who played zero games in the NHL, Ryan Strome and Michael Dal Colle, have one thing in common: the New York Islanders. The only other player who didn't play at least 10 games was Mark Scheifele. Everyone else was at at least 40% games played and the average is 74% of a full season.

The ice time shows an average of 12.5 minutes, and this is five-on-five minutes, so full-time, top-nine minutes are around 13 - 15 depending on usage.

There are a lot of players who are playing about 10 minutes per game. Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart and Nikolaj Ehlers are the only players that played in the top range without having also played in the NHL in their draft +1 year.

So, one thing we can see is that not playing in the NHL in your draft +2 year is rare, but so is walking in to a top line regular job when it's your first year in the NHL.

A look at the full chart shows some other things:

  • Only two players went to the WJC in their draft +2 year outside of the lockout year: Brett Connolly and Jake Virtanen, both of whom played low minutes and were not scoring much.
  • Only one player, Dal Colle, played in the CHL in his draft +2 year outside of the lockout year.
  • A small group of players walked into top minutes right out of the draft: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Sean Monahan and Connor McDavid. The common denominator there is obvious.
  • There are a few players who started out with very low minutes in their first year in the NHL and then progressed to more time in their second: Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen, Alexander Burmistrov, Leon Draisaitl.
  • There are also a few that played low minutes for two years running: Sean Couturier, Alex Galchenyuk, but only Nail Yakupov has spent three years in the NHL playing low minutes.
  • There's two "busts" at draft +3: Nino Niederreiter, who was subsequently cured by a trade away from the Islanders and Brett Connolly, who wasn't helped by a trade off the Lightning and was not qualified as an RFA by the Bruins at the deadline this year.
  • There are a lot fewer prospects going directly into the NHL after the lockout than there were before, but it's possible that just means Edmonton and Colorado are finally full.

Some individual players need a closer look.

Jonathan Huberdeau

His journey might be the best case scenario for Mitch Marner. He went back to junior out of the draft, put up points very close to Marner's rate, and then came out of the blocks on fire as a rookie in the lockout year. He played big minutes, and he put up good points, after showing a downturn in scoring in his extra half junior year before the NHL season started. He moved into his draft +3 year, kept up the same pace and has now blossomed into one of the best players on the Florida Panthers.

He wasn't a superstar out of the gate, but his subsequent two years to his draft +3 year have seen him play at an elite level.

Jonathan Drouin

He might be the worst case scenario. He wins the award for a point rate in his draft +1 year back in the Q that just screams out, "What am I even doing here?" He scored at 2.35 points per game to Marner's 2.04.

He played limited minutes, famously on the fourth line, in his first year in the NHL, but he played nearly all season. Then there was his draft +3 year. You may have heard about it? He spent it either in the AHL or on strike, and ended up a genuinely spectacular offensive machine for the Lightning in the playoffs after only 20 regular season games.

Was he rushed to the NHL? Was it his attitude? The coaching? He's being a well-behaved team player now and claiming all the blame for himself, but it's hard not to see how deeply odd his path was compared to all these other similar prospects.

Sam Reinhart

He played a few games in his draft +1 year before he went back to junior with a plan to become a more complete player, and his point rate dropped a fair amount from the year before. He then re-joined the Sabres this past year and at times outperformed Jack Eichel. He played a lot of minutes on the second or third line, and produced a lot of points in a full NHL year, often on a line with Eichel, it should be remembered.

Conclusion

What path will Marner end up walking? The most likely one is he'll play a lot of NHL games, just not all of them. He'll play on various lines, but he won't just walk into the top line wing job. And he'll be too useful to the team to play in the WJC. He likely won't blow anyone away with his point totals, Jeff Skinner is the anomaly there not the rule, but he will likely be very, very good. For a rookie.

Now, Auston Matthews on the other hand: we need to look at all the prospects drafted out of Switzerland who'd been in the US development program prior to their draft year...