At the start of the 2016/17 NHL season there was a lot of talk about rookies coming into this season.
And why wouldn’t there be? Auston Matthews is one of the most exciting players to arrive in Toronto in recent years, Patrik Laine has a lethal shot and is too young to drink in the US and each team has a whole host of rookies looking to break into the big league.
One of those players looking to break into the NHL was former London Knight Mitch Marner.
This is the part where I’d usually point and laugh and say “you were all wrong” but to be honest, I was just as wrong as most about this 5’11″/ 160 lbs forward.
I thought Marner was too small and not strong enough to survive in the NHL. I never for one second doubted his competitiveness and determination to allow him to crack the NHL this year, but I just thought his body would hold him back.
Before the season, I genuinely was worried for the kids future. I didn’t think he was good enough for the NHL (or physically ready) but I also thought he was far too good for another season in the OHL.
In three years in the OHL with the Knights, Marner posted 301 points in 184 games, adding a further 69 points in 34 playoff games including a staggering 44 points in last seasons playoff run to the OHL Playoff Championships.
Clearly, Marner had done all he could in juniors, he’d won numerous awards in the OHL, the only thing he had left was to a win a World Junior medal, and honestly I thought this tournament coming would be his best chance.
I thought Marner would either be in junior or be playing in the NHL in a limited role and loaned out to the tournament.
The big debate around Marner this season was where he’d call home. Due to an agreement between the NHL and CHL which prevents players under 20 from playing in the American Hockey League) Marner is ineligible to play in the AHL, so it was the show or juniors.
Now, one thing that may have helped Marner would be the emergence of Auston Matthews. There was no doubt that the kid from the desert, the Leafs first number one pick since Wendel Clark in 1985, was going to make the NHL this year. Also, William Nylander was huge in the AHL last year and solid in his short stint in the NHL in the later parts of last season. These two youngsters were generating all of the hype (well, Marner was generating a buzz too) but it was always Matthews, then Nylander and then Marner.
Marner has essentially been allowed to fly under the radar a little.
He didn’t score in his NHL debut in the Leafs 5 – 4 OT loss in the season opener. Obviously we all know what Auston Matthews did (hard to forget four goals) but despite the glory going to him, I’m my opinion, Mitch Marner was the best player in a Leafs jersey that night.
It didn’t take long for the 19-year old from Markham, Ontario to register his first points though, even if his own mother was in the bathroom when he did it. Marner scored his first goal his second game, scoring on one of his four shots on goal as the Leafs defeated the Boston Bruins 4 – 1 in the Toronto’s home opener.
Through Marners first two games in the NHL he played over 15 minutes, registering 10 shots on goal.
Since that beginning, he’s scored seven times and assisted 9 times for 16 points in 17 games. Only Winnipeg Jets rookie sensation Patrik Laine has more points as a rookie than Marner, he’s also trailing Laine and tied with New York Rangers forward Jimmy Vesey for goals and 9 assists are the best by any rookie forward this year, trailing only Rangers blueliner Brady Skjei who leads all rookies with 10.
Playing on what is dubbed as the Leafs second line, Marner has only iced less than 15 minutes on two occasions this season, and even in those games he managed to put up points.
So with Marners rise that has proven me wrong (which isn’t hard to do), he’s really earned his way into the early leading candidates to win the Calder Memorial Trophy.
While Patrik Laine is getting all the plaudits (and rightly so) for his frightening goal scoring touch, Marner has every right to challenge the man/child who climbed the draft rankings last year and even was in consideration by some to be the first overall pick in last years draft.
Now obviously I have to mention a little about the other young guns in the Leafs, only the Jets have a younger average age on their team. Toronto are relying on their young guys a lot. Maybe not to push them to the playoffs (although early on in the season they are just outside the playoff race) but to improve their team for this season and push the blue and white forward in the coming years.
While it’ll be a heck of a stretch to say that the Cup drought since 1967 will be broken soon, it’s going to take Marner, Matthews and Nylander to push the team in that direction.
Not to mention Morgan Rielly who you may not even realise is just 22-years old, Connor Brown (22) has surprised people with his 7 points this year, Frank Corrado (23) will be decent if he’s given more ice time and also Nikita Soshnikov (23) is getting a bigger look in the NHL after he moved to North America last season.
Toronto have done a great job drafting recently and there are more pieces the puzzle scattered in the AHL, Europe and Juniors and overall, the team looks scary.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are not a joke anymore, and Mitch Marner is the toughest 160 lb 19-year old in the world.