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.