Mitch Marner is so dangerous on the ice even the boundaries of a standard cliché can’t contain him.
About a month ago, Marner was in Windsor representing Team OHL as part of the annual cross-country showdown between Russia and Canadian CHLers. Marner has long been described as a player who makes those around him better, but that old hockeyism wasn’t enough for Rocky Thompson after watching his centre-for-a-night earn player-of-the-game honours in a 2-1 OHL victory.
“I think I was better, on the bench,” said the Team OHL coach with a laugh after the contest.
On Friday night, Thompson was back in the more taxing position of trying to figure out how to stop Marner when the London Knights hosted Thompson’s Windsor Spitfires. [Editor’s update: Marner had a hat trick.] Anyone who saw Marner play against the Russians knows that’s no small order. The Thornhill, Ont., native drew an assist on Spencer Watson’s game-winning power-play goal in the middle frame of a contest that provided a number of examples—depending on how hard you looked—to illustrate why this right-shooting pivot is billed as such a keeper.
Any teenager drafted near the top of the board by the Toronto Maple Leafs is going to have his every move analyzed by a tantalized harem of hockey fans. But when you’re selected fourth overall—as Marner was last June—during the year when the Leafs kick off their first genuine, scorched-earth rebuild in team history, the attention goes to another level. Add to that the fact Marner is all but assured to represent Canada at the World Junior Championship after Christmas and, for once in his hockey life, the London Knights star might actually find it tough to carve out a little “me” space.
And that, hockey fans, is saying something.
At five-foot-11 and 164 lb., creating room for himself is something of a necessity for Marner. But the ability to carve out his own tiny islands all around the ice is just one of the less-obvious things Marner does us that bode well for his future.
Take, for instance, a play in the first period of the OHL-Russia contest in which Marner didn’t have the puck, but was desperately trying to get it back in the offensive zone. To do so, he played a beautiful little mind game on Kirill Pilipenko as the Russian right winger chased down a loose puck along the halfwall. Trailing behind his opponent, Marner made an exaggerated move to his right, then darted quickly back to his left, snatching the puck away and keeping a play alive in enemy territory.
Subtle, slippery and smart: words we associate so much with the 18-year-old whiz kid it wouldn’t come as a surprise if they appeared on his first report card in Kindergarten.
And even when he’s not directly chasing the puck, Marner has an instinct for making sure it gets to him.
“He puts himself in a position to get the puck,” said Team OHL captain and 2015 world junior champion Lawson Crouse, “and, as a hockey player, that’s one of the toughest things to do.”
Of course, if obvious skill is more your thing, Marner has that in spades, too.
While Watson did the heavy lifting on his power-play goal—Russia was down a man because Marner had forced a hook from Alexander Protapovich—the right winger said the feed from his pivot played a huge role in the tally.
“I had a lot more time than I usually would all because of that pass,” said Watson.
Had Watson been locked in like that in the first period, both he and Marner could have had more points. On his second shift of the game, the latter made a nice play coming out of the corner and feathered a pass the former just couldn’t pull the trigger on.
Marner also put a nice feed on the stick of left winger Michael Dal Colle in the opening frame, but again, his linemate couldn’t quite convert. Whether it’s prime scoring chances or just working the puck around to maintain possession, Marner’s deft passing has to stand as his calling card. Seriously, there are teacups out there that don’t have as much saucer experience as this kid.
“It’s like he has glue on his stick,” said Team OHL defenceman Jakob Chychrun. “You think he doesn’t have a play to make (but) he always seems to find one. His skill level is through the roof.”
As for the fact hockey’s most notoriously tortured fan base is monitoring his every move, like the pressure from a backchecker or bad intentions of a hard-rock defenceman, Marner doesn’t let it faze him. In fact, it might be making him better.
“It comes with being with the Leafs, everyone loves them, everyone watches them and everyone watches their prospects,” he says. “It’s nice to have someone watching you (as opposed to) being by yourself and kind of just playing for no one. It’s nice to have someone making you feel like you have to go out every night and play hard. It shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s fun knowing there’s guys watching you and guys (within the organization) trying to help you make it to the next level.”
That from a youngster who is already on another level when it comes to so many things on the ice.