On April 30, 2016, we found out that one of Mitch Marner or William Nylander would be shoved down to third on our annual Top 25 Under 25 lists. The Maple Leafs won the draft lottery, and Toronto’s pool of young talent instantly became a sight to behold. Marner set the rookie assist record for a franchise in the midst of their centennial season, and despite setting this total as a 19 year old, he still comes in at #3 on this list for the second consecutive year.
The Nylander vs. Marner debate will surely continue to unfold in our rankings during the next three years. While Nylander carries the ability to play a premium position up the middle, I see Marner as the more offensively dynamic talent, and it is important to note that he is a year younger. Put simply, Marner is ahead of where Nylander was at the same age, and I believe he has more room to grow.
Four voters, including myself, advocated for Marner at #2. The eight remaining voters made Marner a unanimous top three talent, but he ultimately placed him in the same spot as last year at #3. You can find our 2016 Top 25 Under 25 article on Marner here, and after proving himself at the NHL level this year, no voter could justify ranking him at #4 this time around.
Marner is a 5’11 winger who keeps official scorekeepers working overtime. He posted 242 points in just 120 games over his final two seasons with the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), then capped off his junior career by winning the OHL Championship, OHL MVP, OHL Playoffs MVP, Memorial Cup, and Memorial Cup MVP. His team’s dominance limited him to just 22 playoff games in total, yet he scored 54 points in that short span.
Marner’s scoring ability was never questioned, but his size and strength were. They were likely the main reasons why, prior to training camp, Mike Babcock did not know if Mitch Marner could make the team. Well, not only did he make the Leafs, but notching 61 points in just 77 games earned him a spot on Team Canada at the World Championships. Marner is a magician with the puck, one of the game’s best playmakers, and a top-end puck thief. That’s a dangerous combination.
Marner does not possess a rocket for a shot, but he is one of the best young players in the game at picking a corner. This is not simply good shooting luck either, as he consistently finds a way to make perfectly placed shots at every level. His first NHL goal speaks to this ability:
His shot accuracy dates back to his junior days, as he constantly scored goals just like this. He scored a goal in the playoffs against Kitchener that was almost identical to the GIF above, and he picked the same corner in this goal against the Windsor Spitfires :
Marner continues to get just a little bit faster as he improves his lower body strength. He looked a step quicker in training camp last year than he did at the start of his last OHL season, and I would not be surprised if he takes yet another step forward in this regard next season.
His skill level with the puck is phenomenal, and his craftiness makes it difficult for opposing defenders to challenge him at the blue-line. His ability to “dance around” his opponents was on full display while playing for Team Canada at the 2015-2016 World Juniors:
Some wondered if Marner would be able to pull this off against stronger competition at the NHL level, but the story was roughly the same:
Marner’s assist totals continue to jump off the page at every level. Evidently, after posting 42 assists in just 77 NHL games, this is a major part of his game. The league has taken notice, as Nathan Mackinnon raved about his playmaking at the World Championships:
“He’s unbelievable. He’s going to be one of the best passers in the game for a long time. I didn’t know how good he was until playing with him here. He’s going to be a great, great playmaker for a long time.” - Nathan MacKinnon (James Mirtle tweeted out the full quote here).
Marner consistently threads the needle and creates can’t miss opportunities for his linemates. As you can see in the GIFs below, everyone he plays with seems to benefit from plenty of Grade-A scoring chances:
Goal Scoring & The Art of a Deke
Marner fell just shy of the 20-goal mark this season, and this is the area where I expect a bit of improvement going forward. His playmaking will always make him a major threat on the perimeter, but even just a little bit of added weight could improve his goal scoring at the NHL level. In the first GIF, he uses his body to shield off the puck from a racing defender, while in the second GIF, he drives into the slot during the Winter Classic:
19-year-old hockey players are not finished products. While he will never be mistaken for Leo Komarov or Carl Grundstrom, we can expect him to become a little bit stronger in the near future, and this is bound to help in terms of winning puck battles. Both Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen now offer a stronger frame than when they were teenagers, and Marner’s development path could prove to be similar. Fortunately, he does not have to be the strongest player in the game in order to score, as his ability to pull off a deke in tight makes for high-quality entertainment:
The Impact of the NHL’s Greatest Puck Thieves
Marner is one of the league’s best at generating takeaways, and I wrote about that here. If we focus on road stats to avoid scorer bias, Marner ranked third among qualified forwards in takeaways per minute last season:
Road Takeaway Leaders & Shot Attempt Differential (Rel CF%)
|Player||Road Takeaways/60||Rel CF%|
|Player||Road Takeaways/60||Rel CF%|
Many of the NHL’s greatest puck thieves boast strong numbers in terms of shot differential, and this is a positive sign for Marner going forward. Both of his linemates, Tyler Bozak and James Van Reimsdyk, are not known as strong possession players, and we did not get to see much of Marner with Auston Matthews or Nazem Kadri. Marner’s two-way game has room to grow as he gets older, but he remains an intelligent player with a knack for breaking up passing lanes.
Marner vs. Nylander
The Leafs boast a “2A” and “2B” on their depth chart of under-25 talent. While I was in the group that put Nylander at #3, it is tough to find a major criticism of his play, and he is a phenomenal talent in his own right. I put Marner ahead because I believe he is ahead of where Nylander was at the same age, possesses slightly more scoring potential, and carries a little bit more room to develop. Nylander is a little bit more of a finished product, but in the end, both players could put up huge seasons this year.
I will leave you with a few clips of Marner from his junior days: