Mitch Marner on defence: An idea so crazy, it just might work

Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner discusses his initial reaction when head coach Sheldon Keefe approached him about possibly playing some defence on the team, saying I’m open to all opportunities, and it’s kind of cool thinking by Keefe.

There has been no shortage of news so far at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp. 

Mitch Marner generated headlines last week when he took reps on defence during practice. Coach Sheldon Keefe revealed that he is considering deploying his star right winger as a defenceman in certain situations. 

On the surface, the idea of playing Marner out of position might seem outlandish. Few forwards in the NHL, however, are better equipped to handle such a role than Marner, an elite playmaker with solid defensive instincts. 

“As soon as (Keefe) gave me the heads up about it, I was all in with it,” Marner said. 

Marner’s prowess in the offensive zone is well known. Last season, he averaged 9.47 offence-generating plays per 20 minutes at 5-on-5, which ranked 12th out of 388 forwards with a minimum of 500 minutes played. 

Offence-generating plays are those that lead to a scoring chance, such as passes to the slot. Marner attempted (6.66 per 20) and completed (2.92 per 20) more such passes than any other qualified forward. 

Keefe said he would like to see improvement in the Leafs’ play along the offensive blue line. Marner can help with that. His 20 blue-line holds at 5-on-5 last season were the most in the league at the forward position. A player is credited with a blue-line hold when he successfully prevents an opposing exit attempt.

When including the power play, where Marner often mans the point, he was second behind Alex Ovechkin with 33 blue-line holds. 

Marner’s ability to extend plays in the offensive zone by tracking down loose pucks will come in handy when the Leafs are trailing late in a game.

And if Marner has to defend an odd-man rush, his stick skills are strong enough to short-circuit those opportunities. 

“The more and more I watch how we move around in the offensive zone, Mitch spends a lot of time up at the blue line as it is,” Keefe said. “Obviously (on) the power play, he plays up there quite a bit, so it was just a little more natural for me to consider that. … I’ve got a pretty good library of clips where he’s actually playing defence. Even though he’s a forward on the shift, he’s in the defence spot and quarterbacking things and at times even defending, so I think that’s sort of why we came to that conclusion.”

By moving Marner to defence when in need of a goal, the Leafs can also have William Nylander on the ice with Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting. That is a scary proposition for opponents. 

“Players move around now, and forwards end up having to cover and play on defence far more frequently than (at any point) in (the) history of our game,” Keefe said. “I think there’s just so much opportunity there.”

Data via Sportlogiq.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.