Mitch Marner’s skillset is too big to worry about him being small

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SPORTS

Sometimes, when somebody describes a hockey player, you get a mental image of them in your head. The summer of inane arguments about Kris Russell, both involving the Leafs and other teams, gave me a mental image of a hulking, physical, shot blocking machine. Has to be, with the way people talk about him; my eyes must’ve just been deceiving me when he looked pretty pedestrian-sized on my TV.

Sure enough, he’s 5’10, 170. A real-world average height and weight who’s description is larger than life. This post isn’t about Kris Russell in the slightest, but it was baffling to me that this guy, who gets talked about as the player who is more likely to take a player out of the league than to get taken out, is an inch shorter and about the same weight as Mitch Marner.

Mitch Marner, the Leafs’ little kid who will never survive the NHL. Too small at 5’11 or 6’0 and, 170. The opposition will eat the young man alive; it’ll be a miracle if he even manages to stay healthy for more than a few minutes. The first hit will shatter him into a million pieces, obviously.

So far, he’s withstood the physicality just fine. Not that he’s had to face much of it; teams struggle just to keep up with him. Just ask the Florida Panthers last night.

Last night was a breakout night for the 19-year-old, who was filling the between-whistle reels with some fantastic plays to move the Leafs into scoring position but wasn’t having those chances convert into actual goals to start the year. With three assists tonight, the youngster has six points in seven games.

It’s been an impressive start for the kid. He’s first on the team in even-strength scoring rates (fifth if you subtract secondary assists), is throwing pucks towards the net at an extremely high rate (8 on goal and 16 attempts per hour). He’s tied for third on the team in takeaways, and leads all forwards in blocked shots. He’s a bit behind in team-relative shot/possession metrics, but the Leafs are a top-third team in that department where only three players are below 50%.

Qualitatively, he’s fearless, he’s shifty, and has the speed to blow past his opponents. His vision has led to some unreal passes, some that look like sure things until his linemates aren’t quite there to finish them off. His left winger and his centre both at times look like they’re not good enough to keep up with a player of his skill set. Considering that the players in question are James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, and Marner is seven games into his NHL career, a statement like that feels insane to utter.

But it shouldn’t, really. Like we talked about a few days ago with William Nylander, and like we’ve spent so much time talking about with Auston Matthews since lottery day, there’s something to the idea that becoming a dominant forward isn’t a process that has to happen within the confines of the NHL. If you’re a special player, you might be able to make your evolution to stardom before you make that step. Right now, it’s starting to look like this trio of rookies aren’t very far away from being considered by consensus to be, at worst, Top-50 players in the game.

In fairness to skeptics on this side of the debate, it’s easier to justify a raised eyebrow in Marner’s case. It’s one thing to say that a youngster ripping up a less-talented pro league can translate quickly, like Nylander in the AHL and Matthews in the NLA. They’ve faced more mature players from a physical standpoint and the pro games tend to be a bit more structured. Marner, on the other hand, was graduating from the OHL, which as a major-junior league is obviously younger and a bit more high-octane.

But the OHL isn’t exactly devoid of big kids. In fact, those big kids are likely more likely to be reckless with their bodies, a combination of teenage instinct and a felt need to prove their toughness to teams watching from above. If Marner was going to get smoked by someone looking to humble him, it was going to happen there. It didn’t. The bigger question was adjusting to talent, rather than violence.

2012-13 15 Don Mills Flyers Minor Mdgt AAA GTMMHL 55 41 45 86 N/A 34 N/A
15 St. Michael’s Buzzers OJHL 6 1 3 4 7.1 0 N/A
2013-14 16 London Knights OHL 64 13 46 59 24.19 24 38
16 Canada Ontario U17 WHC-17 5 6 3 9 N/A 2 N/A
2014-15 17 London Knights OHL 63 44 82 126 52.48 53 36
2015-16 18 London Knights OHL 57 39 77 116 53.4 68 45
18 Canada U20 WJC-20 5 4 2 6 54.12 4 0

Sometimes a skill set transcends a level, though, and Marner was that. Even in his draft year, Marner scored at a rate that, historically, aligned with being an NHL ready forward at 17. He was sent back to hone his all-around skill set, further develop some leadership qualities, and, if we’re being honest, not get too tarnished by the rough year the Leafs had ahead of them.

We all know what happened from there. OHL MVP, OHL Playoff MVP, CHL MVP, Memorial Cup MVP. The third player in history to get the sweep behind Dale Hawerchuk and Brad Richards. An OHL Championship, and a Memorial Cup. The most points in the playoffs and the Memorial Cup. 174 points in 79 games. Simply put, Marner broke junior hockey. There was no reason to think he couldn’t translate some of that to the NHL right away.

And he has, just like a lot of little guys do. People can say all the way that this game is exclusively for big, strong, tough men, but the reality is that 21 players under 6’0 scored at least 50 points last year, including Art Ross winner Patrick Kane. Three of them have a single digit next to their 5′, including 61 point scorer and 5’7 statured Mats Zuccarello. There’s lots of room for the little guy, so long as they have the skill and agility to get by their opponents.

The funny thing is, these guys are usually good immediately, too. Kane, Crosby, Gaudreau, and Panarin were all instant stars that carried over the pedigree they showed in “weaker” prior leagues. Players like Joe Pavelski, Claude Giroux, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zach Parise had short adjustment periods encouraged by being stuck behind lineup depth, but caught their stride relatively quickly once they got their foot in the door.

Does a small player have a lower chance of “making it” than a bigger one? Statistically, yes; that may or may not be deserved, and could be a matter of a perceived bias rather than a deserved outcome. But once you show that you can dominate despite your physical “setback’, that goes out the window.

Marner’s career to date has involved him throwing that out the window at every level he’s gotten to. He flies by defenders as if they didn’t notice him creeping up, and when it’s time to defend, he plays like he’s six inches taller. That’s why he went 4th overall, that’s why he made the team out of camp, that’s why he had a Draft+1 for the history books last year, and that’s why his transition has been so smooth.

Will he get three assists every night? Probably not. But size, age, and experience aren’t likely to stop this train from blowing by the station any time soon.

  • Stan Smith

    I agree that the first few games JVR appeared to be having a hard time keeping up, but Bozak and Marner have appeared to have great chemistry right off the bat. The last few games JVR has picked his game up a bit. It give the Leafs two good scoring lines. If they can get Kadri’s line producing look out.

  • Ronnie Brennan

    I laughed when everyone said Bozak was o ly good because of Kessel. Slowly and to my delight he’s winning over people and showing that maybe, just maybe he helped make Kessel look slightly better than he was. As long as JVR and Bozak keep scoring on passing plays from Marnier he’ll keep getting afforded clear ice. I actually like the way the team looks. Not every team can defend more than 2 scoring lines. Now that the Bozak line is scoring teams will feel the need to shut them down over maybe the Kadri or Mathews line. Providing the leafs can keep a lot of these young guys long term I am seeing great and happy days ahead.

  • LukeWarmWater

    Jeff great article about the talented Marner. You can watch a guy for the first time in any sport and see he has that extra ability. The great Steve Nash in basketball exhibited from day one as a great passer. Marner has that unique ability to see the whole ice. There is some number 99 in him with that peripheral vision of knowing where to put the pass on a teammates stick. No wonder why this guy set records as a junior.

    What impresses me most about him is complete game as he leads the forwards in block shots. Nice to see Bozak have a teammate who thinks 200 feet rather than sea gulling as his former winger played the game.

  • Ron K

    Hockey has changed the past few years and size is not the inhibitor to a successful NHL career like it used to be last century. We are finally getting to see some very talented and elite, height-challenged players at a tender age. The backlash is the shortened careers of older veterans who can no longer keep up to the fast pace which is enhancing the entertainment value. Anyone who doesn’t embrace a fast-paced game with lots of scoring chances with very few shots finding the mark, isn’t a true fan of the game in my mind. There’s very few things that happen on the ice that brings fans out of there seats like a great scoring chance and an even greater save in a tight game. When someone does finally light the lamp it’s bedlam. Now that’s hockey at it’s finest. Great hits are a close second. Watching a penalty shot has fallen way down the list because of the far too often shoot-out scenarios.
    But, just watching the Toronto Trio play, night in and night out, provides entertainment value that few other NHL cities can provide which has been long overdue. There will be lots of lights glowing before this rainbow disappears. It’s finally good to be a die-hard Leafs fan. I watched them hoist the last cup in 67 and we’ll get to see another in the not too distant future but it’s going to take a while.
    In the mean time I’ll enjoy watching the triplets………