Leafs’ Marner hopes to improve defensive game in sophomore season

If there’s one thing the Toronto Maple Leafs need to work on in 2017-18, getting strong performances from their young stars likely isn’t it.

With Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander each topping the 60-point plateau last season, the Leafs look just fine in the “burgeoning prospects” category. But that doesn’t mean Marner and Co. aren’t looking to take the next step and round out their games in their sophomore campaigns.

“Defence has always been important to me,” Marner told the Toronto Sun‘s Lance Hornby on Thursday. “It was always taught first. You’re always trying to see the guy coming in so they can’t back-door us.”

While adding to his two-way game is sure to help Marner grow into a more complete player, the 20-year-old is also well aware of the fact that gaining head coach Mike Babcock’s trust defensively means getting over the boards when it matters most.

“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.”

Progressing in 2017-18 isn’t going to be as easy as it sounds though, even with Toronto’s roster brimming with elite offensive talent.

Surprising the opposition with unexpected skill is one thing, but doing it all again, after the rest of the league watched them go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight Washington Capitals in the grind of the post-season, is an entirely different task.

“Now, we have to expect a hard game every night,” Marner said. “People will bring their A game against us. We have to be ready.”

Boasting a forward corps featuring Marner, Matthews and Nylander one year stronger and wiser, alongside the club’s established veterans and a new weapon in Patrick Marleau, it’s fair to assume Toronto has what it needs to build on its breakout 2016-17 campaign.

Getting to the dance last season certainly helped, and according to Marner, the young Leafs won’t soon forget what they accomplished, nor what potentially lies ahead.

“It will be fun coming in here, believing in each other, believing in the one beside us,” Marner said. “We do that and play the way we can, we’re going to be better than last year.”