If the Red Tilson Trophy is to be trusted, Mitch Marner has nothing more to learn or prove in junior hockey.
The award, handed to the London Knights right winger, annually goes to the best player in the Ontario Hockey League. Many past winners in ye olde OHA days went on to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Gil Perreault and Rod Gilbert among them. (I remember Bobby Smith shattering league records to eclipse Wayne Gretzky back in ’78, but someone please explain to me how Bobby Orr didn’t win in his year.)
More recent winners have gone on to contemporary NHL superstardom, a number that includes John Tavares and last year’s winner Connor McDavid. (And again, someone please explain how Steven Stamkos didn’t win.)
In this week’s edition, Jeff, Sam Cosentino, Andy Eide and Jean-Paul Charlebois preview the three CHL finals.
Enough of history, both ancient and yesterday’s junior news. What of the future, Mitch Marner’s that is?
The immediate future is the OHL final, which pits Marner and the Knights against the Niagara IceDogs, champs of the Eastern Conference, for the right to advance to the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Because of one of the most dynamic first-line combinations in the past couple of decade—Marner, centre Christian Dvorak and left winger Matthew Tkachuk—the Knights figure to be a heavy favourite in the series starting Thursday in London.
With a win over Niagara, Marner would go to the second Memorial Cup of his three-year major-junior career and have a chance to make up for the disappointment of the Knights’ three straight losses when hosting in 2014. On that team, Marner was a talented but callow kid on a team led by Max Domi and Bo Horvat. Now he’s the straw that stirs the drink.
Looking a little farther in Marner’s future, though, the picture becomes a little less distinct. With the fourth pick of the 2015 draft, the Leafs selected the kid from their backyard (Bowmanville, Whitby and Don Mills before going to London). Toronto has been procuring young talent through draft, trade and free-agency signing and owns the No. 1-overall selection this June and the right to select projected franchise centre Auston Matthews.
As mentioned earlier, Marner has nothing left to learn or prove in the OHL and thus you’d project him to be in the Leafs’ lineup next fall, beside Matthews or Nazem Kadri or William Nylander or, in the wildest of Torontonians’ dreams, Steven Stamkos. But will Marner be well-served by such a promotion? That will be something that GM Lou Lamoriello and president Brendan Shanahan will be kicking around before training camp and when exhibitions play out.
In the past and under previous administrations, Maple Leafs management often rushed 18- and 19-year-old kids into the lineup. (Entering into evidence Exhibits A, B and C, Jeff Ware, Nik Antropov and Luke Schenn.) This proved to be disastrous. The current brass loaded up the Marlies, Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate, so the likes of 2014 draft picks William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen could dance and prepare to enter the league at age 20.
Alas, the latter option is not available for the Leafs’ with Marner. As players drafted from European leagues, Nylander and Kapanen had the option of playing in the AHL at 19. For Marner, though, being drafted out of the OHL means that he’ll either be up with the big club or back for a fourth year of junior—the best option for his development, the one that the Leafs opted with for Nylander and Kapanen, might be the only one not available to Marner. Such are the rules laid out in the agreement between the CHL and the NHL.
Not that Marner would be the first kid back for a fourth year of junior with nothing to learn. (Entering into evidence Exhibit D, Jason Spezza). The CHL prides itself on being a development league and yet with a player in a position like Marner’s or Spezza’s, the brightest talents are the ones most poorly served.
On the occasion of the award, Marner was asked about the position he’d play down the line. He said that he welcomed the move from centre to right wing with the Knights so that he could play with Dvorak and Tkachuk, and seemed to suggest that he could continue to play that role for the foreseeable future. He did, however, note that he “could transfer to centre in a couple of seasons.” That’s more than a strong hint that he considers his natural position to be in the middle of things, as the Romans would say, in media res.
Right now, presuming the selection of Matthews, the line forms at the left (or right) for those who would think of themselves as centres in Toronto’s top six forwards. When you look at Marner off the ice, you wonder how he might stand up to contact along the wall as a right winger. Putting a prized asset in the heat of battle before he’s physically mature has its risks. He wouldn’t the slightest teen to have made the jump. (Entering into evidence Exhibit E, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.) Still, there’s a possibility that it could go sideways. (Please refer to Exhibit E.)
There’s one other consideration that is getting lost in the irrational exuberance that followed Toronto’s lottery win last weekend—the Leafs figure to be something less than a powerhouse next season. Will they land in the playoffs? You can assemble a lot of young talent, but it can take longer than you might expect for it to translate into a playoff spot. (Entering into evidence Exhibit F, the Florida Panthers.) You would want a kid to have an opportunity to succeed when he breaks in.
Mitch Marner has the Red Tilson Trophy and might have more by the end of this junior season: a Memorial Cup and maybe even a brief look with the Marlies in the playoffs if they’re still alive. (The CHL does allow assignment to the AHL in that circumstance.) He gives you the impression that he’s ready for the next stage, whatever it takes, and would be frustrated by having to return to London.
Because winning the Red Tilson is great, but definitely not winning it twice.