Mitch Marner

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Marner wants more clutch, defensive role with Maple Leafs

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were propelled by the excellent play of rookies in 2016-17, and Auston Matthews wasn’t the only first-year-difference-maker.

There were times when people wondered if Mitch Marner was enjoying an even better freshman foray into the NHL, and while the ultimate argument – and Calder trophy – went to Matthews, that’s still quite the start.

Marner, 20, isn’t stopping there.

As The Toronto Sun’s Lance Hornby reports, Marner wants more.

Marner hopes to be on the ice in more “clutch” situations. He expects more teams to target the Leafs as a legitimate threat, much like Mike Babcock does. Marner also seeks more defensive responsibilities in 2017-18.

“You want to be out there to get a game tied so you can win it in overtime,” Marner said. “You want a bigger role, go out on every shift like it’s your last.

“Defense has always been important to me, it was always taught first. You’re always trying to see the guy coming in so they can’t back-door us.”

In his rookie season, Marner began 55.9 of his shifts in the offensive zone vs. 44.1 of them in his own zone. His possession numbers were solid but unspectacular, at least from the standpoint of limiting other players’ chances.

Also, much like Matthews and other young players, Marner barely registered any ice time on the penalty kill.

That honestly might be the smart way to play those guys, regardless of their ages. There’s a school of thought that you’re better off saving your best players for even-strength and man-advantage situations, so Marner could conceivably be better off with similar deployment even if his all-around game improves.

There’s also some argument about whether his diminutive size will keep him from heavier defensive assignments.

If nothing else, the clutch argument might be one area where Marner indeed gains some ground.

When the Leafs need a goal, they may very well be better off loading up with both Marner and Matthews on the same line. It would be even more interesting to see if Marner would be used often when Toronto is the one protecting a slim lead, instead.

Babcock is one-part progressive thinker, one-part old-school type, so perhaps it will take time for Marner to earn trust in those crucial situations. Excelling in those areas could force Babcock’s hand, though.

Oh, and in other news, Marner got a really clutch tattoo of Neptune this summer. Maybe this will slow down some of the heckling about him looking like a child?

Eh, baby steps, kid.

Connor Brown looking to add more offense for Maple Leafs

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The 2016-17 Toronto Maple Leafs had an embarrassment of riches when it came to rookie talent, with Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Connor Brown all having breakthrough years. Together that quartet combined to score 101 of the team’s 250 goals.

Most of the headlines went to Matthews, Nylander and Marner, and for good reason. They are the foundation of the franchise and the players that are going to be All-Star level producers for the next decade.

But don’t overlook the fact that Brown also potted 20 goals during the season and has the look of an outstanding complementary piece to go with the trio of superstars.

This past week he signed a three-year contract extension with the team that looks like it will be a pretty solid bargain if he can come close to repeating that production.

But Brown doesn’t seem content with just repeating it. He wants to build on it.

Here is he talking about his expectations for this season, via TSN’s Kristen Shilton.

“I want to continue to be relied upon defensively and play structurally like I have throughout my pro career, try to be conscious of that, but I think I have more to give on the offensive side, especially out of the gate. Out of the gate I was a little slow last year, so hopefully I’ll have a good start.”

Brown did have a slow start out of the gate this past season, scoring just four goals — with only five assists — in his first 31 games before coming on strong in the second half with 16 goals and 11 assists in his final 49 games. Brown is an intriguing player because he has produced big numbers at every level he has played at prior to reaching the NHL, so it seems reasonable to assume he might have even more to give at this level.

The Maple Leafs took a huge step forward in their rebuild this past season by qualifying for the playoffs for just the second time in 12 years and gave the Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals a pretty good run. With another year of experience and development under the belts, plus the addition of Patrick Marleau in free agency, they might be ready to take an even bigger jump this season.

Looking to make the leap: Dylan Strome

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This post is a part of Coyotes day at PHT…

The top of the 2015 NHL draft has turned out to be a pretty successful one for the NHL with seven of the top-eight picks already establishing themselves as regulars, including several (Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Zach Werenski, and Mitch Marner) that are either already All-Star level players or are on their way to being them.

The one exception out of that group to this point has been No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome.

In the two seasons since he was drafted Strome has appeared in just seven games, recording just a single point, for the Arizona Coyotes.

Even though he hasn’t yet established himself the way several of his peers have he remains one of the key centerpieces of the Coyotes’ rebuild and has spent the past two years absolutely destroying the Ontario Hockey League as a member of the Erie Otters.

He is certainly going to get another opportunity to crack the Coyotes’ lineup this fall but general manager John Chayka already said earlier this month that the team is going to remain patient in bringing him along because they want him to be a 200-foot player that excels in all areas and isn’t simply playing “a depth role.”

That is a huge responsibility for a 20-year-old forward, and if that is what the Coyotes are expecting out of him it probably makes sense to be a little more patient with him. Looking at the Coyotes’ depth chart down the middle and they already have another young prospect in Christian Dvorak that started to make a bit of an impact last season by scoring 15 goals in his rookie season. They also picked up Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers in the big offseason trade for the No. 7 overall pick and defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

Strome’s talent level is obvious, and given what he has done the past three seasons while playing for Erie it is pretty clear that he has nothing left to prove at that level after recording 75 points in only 35 games this past season.

That would have been a 145-point pace over a 68-game season, a number that would have shattered his previous high in the OHL (he had 129 points in 68 games during the 2014-15 season).

The offensive skill is clearly there, now it is just a matter of if he can show the Coyotes’ front office and coaching staff the 200-foot play away from the puck that will get him a significant role in the NHL.

From ‘pain’ to playoffs, young Maple Leafs face heightened expectations next season

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

In the span of a year, the Maple Leafs went from the bottom of the NHL standings and front runners in the Auston Matthews Sweepstakes to a playoff spot.

Matthews was taken first overall and made an immediate impact on opening night for a Maple Leafs team — and a fan base — in dire need of hope for a better future.

There is an abundance of hope in Toronto these days.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner were excellent in their freshman campaigns and Nazem Kadri at age 26 had his best season with career highs in goals (32) and points (61). How quickly the fortunes of an organization can turn around, though, with a lottery win and a shot at a generational talent.

Two years after coach Mike Babcock predicted “pain” for the franchise as it underwent its rebuild, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Then they gave the Capitals everything they could handle in six games before Toronto was eliminated.

Maple Leafs fans haven’t had much to get excited about over the years. Never mind their Stanley Cup drought that dates back to 1967. They made the playoffs only once from 2005-06 to 2015-16 and that lone postseason appearance concluded with an epic third-period, Game 7 meltdown versus the Bruins.

This past season, however, had a different feel. The future looks bright, like success beyond 2016-17 can be sustainable. It’s not just with Matthews, Nylander and Marner. On defense, the Maple Leafs have Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, and goalie Frederik Andersen bounced back from a difficult start with his new team. He’s under contract for four more years.

Excitement brings higher expectations, for next season and beyond, as the club may be approaching a window to win a lot quicker than many would’ve predicted a year ago.

Take, for instance, today’s poll question: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season? That would be a lofty expectation. The results as of the publishing of this post were nearly 50-50.

They’ve even added notable veteran players like Dominic Moore, Ron Hainsey and, at three years and more than $18 million, Patrick Marleau to enhance their roster with more experience.

Their possible success, as is the case with every team, next season will depend on multiple factors. Will Matthews, Marner and Nylander be able to build off their impressive rookie seasons, or will there be a dreaded sophomore slump in there? It will also require their best players to stay as healthy as possible.

All three of their top young forwards were able to remain, for the most part, healthy during the regular season, with Marner playing the fewest games — at 77.

Andersen had the second most starts (66) of all NHL goalies last season, behind only Cam Talbot, and the Leafs will count on him again to provide the goaltending necessary to make the playoffs.

Pressure to win is inherent in playing hockey in Toronto.

Since the second lockout, however, the standard had been set very low. That was until last season, when Matthews and the Maple Leafs went from a painful rebuild to raising expectations.

The hockey world now waits to see if this young and talented team can handle the pressure and set the bar even higher next spring.

Poll: Will the Maple Leafs have the NHL’s best offense next season?

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This post is part of Maple Leafs Day on PHT…

It’s become pretty clear that the Toronto Maple Leafs have a bright future ahead of them.

Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner are all 21 or younger, and they’ve already shown that they’re capable of putting up points at the NHL level.

Last season, the Leafs shocked the hockey world by not only making the postseason (they pushed the Caps in the first round), but also finishing fifth in goals scored.

Sure, they may have given up more goals than any other team in the top five (Penguins, Wild, Capitals, Rangers), but they’re still sorting things out defensively.

Getting back to the offensive side of the puck, what the Maple Leafs were able to accomplish last season was remarkable. Two of their players scored more than 30 goals (Matthews had 40, Nazem Kadri had 32) and they had three guys score 20 or more (James van Riemsdyk had 29, Nylander had 22, Connor Brown had 20), while Marner and Tyler Bozak scored 19 and 18 respectively.

So given the fact that Toronto’s trio of youngsters have a year under their belts and that they brought in Patrick Marleau in free agency, it’s possible that they’ll be even better offensively in 2017-18.

There’s also a chance that Kadri doesn’t score 30 again, but adding Marleau’s 27 goals from last year can definitely compensate for that.

The other top 5 scoring teams in the league all lost key pieces. The Penguins won’t have Nick Bonino or Matt Cullen, the Wild made Martin Hanzal walk in free agency and they also lost Erik Haula and Jason Pominville, the Capitals no longer have Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, and the Rangers dealt Derek Stepan away to Arizona.

Unless the dreaded sophomore slump hits the Leafs in a big way, they could challenge for that number one spot in the “goals for” category, but will they be able to outscore the rest of the league?

Alright, it’s your turn to vote. As always, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments section below.