The top spot on this countdown was never in doubt. The second spot on this countdown was barely any less certain. Mitch Marner is this year’s #2 Leaf under 25.
In past years, Marner and William Nylander have been neck and neck in these rankings—last year they finished in a perfect tie, with five voters having Nylander in second and five voters having Mitch ahead. After a late-starting, low-scoring struggle of a year for William and a supernova one for Mitch, that tie was broken into shards on this ballot. Even if you think the gap between the two players is smaller than those point totals make it seem (and I do), the fact is that Mitch Marner has shown himself to be an outstanding talent.
No Leaf in the past twenty years has had more points than he did last season. If you rolled your eyes at Marner’s contract demands, the fact remains that he got himself in a position to open with them, and he did that by being very, very good.
How good, exactly?
What Makes Marner So Good?
Okay, fine. I am going to preach to the choir a little here. We’ve had three years of Marner on the Leafs, we’ve all seen him. But a too-long offseason and a too-long contract dispute might have clouded the popular memory a little bit, so let’s refresh.
Mitch Marner’s God-given and aggressively developed gift is playmaking. He regularly finds the best pass possible and can wait the extra second needed for the lane to open before him. He can do this partly because of his vision, and partly because of his agility.
The secret to Marner’s skating is that his lateral movement is ridiculous. He’s not an absolute top-end blazing skater, like Kasperi Kapanen, but he’s as elusive as hell, spinning away from contact at every turn. I remember some Boston fans demanding to know why someone wouldn’t just go and hit Marner when he had the puck; the answer is that that’s really hard to do. The second highlight in this package, 17 seconds in, is a really good example.
It’s clips like this one that make it seem ridiculous that people ever said Mitch Marner was too small for the NHL (the video is hilariously subtitled “The Little Man.”) With that level of skill I’m pretty sure Marner could play in the NHL if he were 5’3”.
That passing is his trademark, but it’s not the only thing. Marner has long been a gifted takeaway artist; last year he was ninth in the NHL in takeaways. He’s turned into a useful penalty kill forward who can chip in occasional short-handed points. Obviously, he’s a great power play quarterback; while it got a little stale as the year went on, the Leafs’ top unit continued to generate chances and many of those started with Marner surveying the offensive zone and making the right pass. And while Marner isn’t the best shooter I’ve ever seen, he’s capable enough to put up goals when the opportunities come to him, as they so often do.
The results speak for themselves. Marner was 11th in the NHL in points last year. In primary point rate at 5v5, he was first (!) among players with 600 minutes played. The Leafs had nearly 60% of the goals when he was on the ice at 5v5, and while that wasn’t the best on the team (that number belonged to his centre, John Tavares), outscoring the other guys 60-40 is a good way to win a lot of hockey games.
I think we’d all agree that Mitch is really good, considering we’re Leaf fans. The question is, does he belong at the very top of the league? Does he deserve to get paid like it?
Some Things Besides Those 94 Points
Micah McCurdy, the reigning king of hockey stat graphics, has a measure called Isolated Threat that tries to specify the individual impact a player has on his team. Marner’s chart looks like this. (Because Marner didn’t play PK until this past season, he doesn’t have enough of a sample for the three-year chart.)
That’s...a bit ordinary? That’s a player who is excellent on the powerplay and who is a very good defensive forward, and who is...narrowly above average offensively? For reference, Auston Matthews is a +13% on the offensive end, and a +4% defensively.
Now, Marner’s strongest year by far was this past one. But the numbers that aren’t “a whole shit ton of points” don’t quite seem to adore even-strength Mitch as much as you might think. The magical twins of Evolving Hockey have their own bar graph on the topic:
Isn’t that powerplay graph hilarious? But the one on the left is a little less dazzling. The towering blue bar on the left means the Leafs were putting up immense offense while Mitch was on the ice, as we know, but the other stats suggest he’s kind of middling and the puck was going in for his team a lot more than we’d expect based on the chances he was getting.
As a matter of fact, Mitch Marner was seventh in the NHL in on-ice shooting percentage at 5v5 last year (11.37%). That means that all of the Leafs, collectively, were having their shots go in at a very high rate when he was on the ice with them. Was that number so high that we’d expect it involved a considerable amount of luck, and that it would be hard for a player to repeat? Well, here’s a complete list of players who have had an OIS% that high more than once in the last five years:
To be clear, that is nobody. Not Crosby or McDavid. Not Kucherov, as good as he is. Nobody. The puck just went in like crazy for Marner last year. That is above and beyond his own playmaking excellence; it was at a level we just can’t expect anyone to sustain. That doesn’t mean he’s not great, but it does mean that 94 points was a bit fortunate. While he helped them do it, he was on the ice while Tavares and Morgan Rielly had career years for goal-scoring, and their own hot shooting helped give Mitch a few extra assists over what we’d expect.
And it’s worth noting: Marner did not show that well in shots or expected goals last season, as those bars on the graph might indicate. He was fine. He was middle of the pack on the Leafs. But if the conversation is “very best in the world”, we have to acknowledge some of his metrics were closer to “very okayest on the team.”
Is that fair? I have to tell you, I don’t think so. Playmakers often don’t show up as well as it seems like they should in some of these metrics—Nicklas Backstrom is another example. These models also sometimes suffer from a “lack of data” problem—Mitch’s numbers away from John Tavares were not great last year, but those were a fairly limited sample in specific situations, including some shifts after the ends of penalties. I suspect Marner has also been dinged a bit because before this year the sheltered scoring duo of Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk was effective in their minutes whether Marner was with them or not, which has the effect of making Mitch look a bit like a passenger to some of these models. Say what you will about him, Marner has participated in successful lines every year he’s been in the league, and I am confident he is a lot better than narrowly above average on offence. These numbers are just something to keep in mind.
The final caveat about Mitch is a partial one. Marner played the whole year with John Tavares. John Tavares is a superstar centre and he has given numerous wingers playing with him massive scoring boosts (Michael Grabner, Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, and Anders Lee all come to mind.) In Mitch’s case, he was more of a passer than a shooter, so Tavares happily adjusted to being an elite goal scorer instead. But you have to acknowledge Mitch is getting a bump there.
That said, though: no one is going to argue Marner isn’t playing with Tavares on merit. He’s a really good player playing with another really good player, he will continue to do so in the coming seasons, and we should count ourselves fortunate to be able to see it. If they make each other better, well, that’s the point, isn’t it?
So What’s It All Worth?
Here’s my sum-up on Mitch Marner: he’s an outstanding playmaker and power play forward who got a little lucky last year, but who is genuinely very good. His metrics are a little ordinary but I think there is enough evidence of his value to say it isn’t fully being captured there. He has a great centre who elevated his play and his counting stats, and he deserved it, because he elevated his centre in turn.
This summer, I asked people on Twitter where they’d put Marner league wide among forwards, as of right this instant. I got responses mostly putting him in the 20th to 40th range; I had him 28th. Mitch, though, just turned 22, whereas several of the guys ahead of him are already at their peak or passing it. I think Marner’s point totals will likely dip a little bit as his OIS% regresses to the mean, but there’s a counteracting force, too: we could reasonably expect him to get even better. That’s pretty incredible.
In a world with a cap that usually rises, with what we know about aging curves, with an RFA class that is increasingly moving to get paid more on their second contracts, you can make a credible argument that Marner is worth a ton of money—not as much as Auston Matthews, but not all that much less, either. It’s frustrating to Leaf fans, because we see RFA after RFA around the league get paid lower numbers, and many of us hoped that Marner the hometown hero might take a little less than the most he could get. It doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen. That’s tough for us, and the cap room we won’t have as a consequence isn’t nothing.
But in the end: Mitch Marner is one of those special players we had almost none of during our years in the wilderness. If we have to overpay him, I won’t be happy about it, but I’ll live with it because to some extent he really is that good. I think when this all gets resolved, Mitch is going to be a Leaf for a long time. And salary cap be damned, that’s a great thing for this team.
I still love Marner and want him to re-sign with the Leafs very badly. He’s a really fun player to watch. I want him on Tavares’ wing for years to come. Do the thing, Mitch, I take back calling you Rich Marner I only did it to piss off people on Twitter!
I don’t want to talk about contracts, but I do think something funny is going on with the collective opinion on Marner’s ability. Here’s my advice: if you find someone who will bet you that Marner will score that many points again, take the bet. But even if a lot of hot air has been puffed into his reputation, let us not forget how hot he was to start with. This is not P.A. Parenteau riding along with JT like some baby strapped to his back. This is not just the Tavares effect here; this guy is real, and he’s got talent he hasn’t fully utilized yet. Even better, most of that talent is in his brain. If scoring skill is the most rare, and the most worth paying for, thinking the game like a blitz chess master has to be the next most important. He will be a Maple Leaf for life. He will stand someday, an old man going to seed, watching that number 16 go up in the rafters. That I would also bet on.
I don’t expect Marner to hit 94 points again, but there’s a massive amount of room between elite NHL player and 94+ point superstar, and my bet is that Marner will comfortably reside in that space for the next eight to ten years. We’re likely going to sign him for more money and fewer years than I would like, but at the end of the day, having Mitch Marner on your team is a very very good thing.
Credit where it’s due, Marner had a big season right before his contract came due. He earned the right to pump his value and get more than we were all expecting following his first two seasons. That said, holy crap just sign the damn contract, this has gone on long enough. I won’t lie, this whole summer has really taxed my feelings on Mitch. It’s been death by a thousand cuts. Hopefully he gets on the ice in a Leafs jersey and band-aids that all back up.