Mitch Marner is a Toronto Maple Leaf

The picture above has Mitch Marner in a London Knights jersey, celebrating with teammates a Memorial Cup win this past spring that capped one of the best junior hockey seasons by any individual in history. I figured I’d use it as a header image to give his time with the Knights a final send-off, because those days are over. 

Marner is a Leaf, he plays in the NHL now.

Leading up to this training camp the big story for the Leafs, and the league, was always going to be Auston Matthews, the number one pick. But before Toronto made that pick in June, we were just off the heels of Marner’s absurdly successful season last year with the Knights, and a debate raged over whether he had anything left to learn in junior; if he was now a shoo-in for a spot on the Leafs. While Matthews has shown to be more NHL-ready than I ever could have imagined, I’m going to go with Marner as the player who’s surprised me the most during camp, and I was one of those who went into this thinking he was done with junior anyway.

The difference in the amount of impact Marner’s had in camp and these preseason games compared to last September has been jaw-dropping. I mean, obviously we expected him to be better this go-around, as last year’s camp seen him sort of have to go through the motions while there was absolutely no chance the Leafs would rush him. He seemed light, not ready, and clearly he (and we) always knew he was going back to the ‘O’ for his draft-plus-one year. 

But this time he stepped in and not only got in the conversation for a roster spot, Marner just took over camp. He’s been making plays every shift and has that electric element to his game that we’ve seen in junior, elements like his flashy edge-work now elevated to a pro level. In fact, he’s even given Babcock something to think about with how he’s pushed to nab that spot on Matthews’ wing over Nylander, though it looks like he’ll start the season with JVR and Bozak instead. Top six, regardless.

It almost seems foolish that there was a debate over the summer about whether he was truly ready for the NHL or if he’d be kind of stuck in CHL agreement purgatory, but either way, that’s been put to rest quickly. Marner’s now a lock for opening night tomorrow and it’s very, very unlikely that’ll only be part of a nine game stint. He’s a pro now, full-time. Lamoriello and Babcock agreed, and said as much today when the final roster was essentially carved out.

“He’s not on a tryout… At this point, he’s made the team. What we’ve seen of him, not only offensively but defensively, he’s done very well. We’re not thinking of anything other than how he can help us right now. He’s extremely mature and I’ve been extremely impressed with him from seeing him in training camp last year and this year.”

Marner will start things off this season alongside two offensively-minded players – Bozak and van Riemsdyk – in what looks to be a sheltered scoring line. Thankfully, the organization seems like they’ll give him a bit of freedom to play his game, as they will with all the kids. Of course he’s going to continue on a steep learning curve, but Lamoriello is fine with it.

It isn’t smart to put much stock into preseason games, but Marner did manage to put up four points in his six appearances over these last couple weeks, and in the four games where possession numbers were tracked he clipped along at 62% CorsiFor at even-strength (42 CF, 26 CA). So it wasn’t an illusion, he was making those plays. Whether he can translate some of that to the regular season is the big question, but I think if he can stick on one of the Leafs’ three skill lines and manage to get his fair chunk of ice-time with guys like Van Riemsdyk or Kadri particularly, there’s no reason to think the numbers won’t come. 

Marner has been an offense-generating machine to this point in his career, and if he gets comfy at the pro level, it’s probably not unreasonable to predict a 0.5 point-per-game pace or more right off the hop. In fact, if you want to throw some money on it, the over/under for his rookie points total has been set at 39.5, He’s also currently listed at +800 to win the Calder, ahead of the likes of Dylan Strome and Jimmy Vesey, but a major underdog to Matthews (-140). You know the voters love boxcar numbers, so maybe there’s value there. A hot streak here or there, some powerplay luck, who knows.

Like Lamoriello said yesterday, the challenge here is patience and letting these rookies make a mistake without constant threat of being demoted. Now will also be the biggest test of the organization’s idea of having a “safe environment” for its players, as there’ll definitely be vultures circling all year looking to make up that next hotdog story, and that’s going to be new for these young guys. But Marner, by all accounts, seems media trained and ready for that, which goes back to the GM’s talk about his maturity level. He’ll likely need to tap in to that on a daily basis, because he’s here to stay now.

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