When John Tavares broke his finger we looked at who within the organization could replace Tavares’ unique contributions to his line in the most similar fashion. Unfortunately for the Leafs, just as Tavares comes back to the lineup, his line is being shaken up once again by an injury to Mitch Marner that will keep him out at least four weeks.
For a team struggling to get its skates under their centre mass, their bad luck with injuries early is going to be a serious challenge to overcome.
Marner started the season pretty slow at even strength, but was his usual powerhouse self on the power play. As of late, though, he had begun to start playing the kind of hockey that is expected of him when the game was 5-on-5. Since Marner occupies a unique spot of influence on the Maple Leafs’ power play, when we look at how to replace him on a line we have to go beyond even strength and look at who fits best in his spot on the top power play unit as well.
We have to consider it all.
So let’s start where we usually would and look at Marner’s even strength work and what he brings compared to the wingers who could jump into his spot over the next month.
The most important thing Marner does is move the puck. He does so dynamically and often, and after a slow start to his playmaking at even strength, he’s now leading the team in slot passes and East-West passes, and is third in passes off the rush.
To put it succinctly, there’s simply no way the Maple Leafs can internally replace the incredible level of playmaking Marner provides. Looking at the field of candidates behind him, each player has their strengths in other areas of the game, but none of them move the puck at a level that can soften the blow of Marner’s loss.
The combination of Tavares’ early-season struggles and the Leafs’ depth at centre made his loss look a bit more palatable despite the fact that in my opinion Tavares is the better player between him and Marner. But Marner’s talents are a bit tougher to replace at the moment.
That this has happened just as Marner was turning a corner is a doubly difficult blow for the Leafs. Trevor Moore is actually a strong candidate to replace Marner’s ability to gain the offensive zone and he is the best of the three candidates across the board when it comes to moving the puck in all three zones. But I wonder if the fact Marner is out for a while (a minimum of four weeks) might force a different sort of solution.
In an ideal world one of the many decent-to-good wingers the Maple Leafs have could slide into that line and be fine enough to float things until Marner returns from injury. But the creativity he brings is what’s going to be missed most and none of these players will replace that. So if no one on the roster can step up, is this an opportunity for Jeremy Bracco?
Bracco hasn’t blown the doors off offensively in the AHL so far this season, sitting fourth on the Marlies in scoring, but of the Leafs’ potential replacements for Marner, Bracco might be the most creative and skilled playmaker available. Something to think about for sure.
On the power play, there’s a higher quality list of players to pull from, so let’s look at what Marner brings there compared to those who could slide into his spot.
There’s no need to beat around the bush here with the power play stuff. The only reasonable replacement for Marner on the power play is William Nylander. While Nylander is more versatile at 5-on-5 than Marner, he doesn’t hit the heights of creativity and offence-driving plays. Still, Nylander is significantly better than anyone else available, and not as far behind Marner as many believe.
Interestingly, after years of the Leafs’ power play running through Marner, Auston Matthews has had the puck on his stick as often as Marner has this year. With that in mind, it may be that losing Marner from the power play isn’t as deeply felt as it will be at even strength, which is a change from past seasons.
Nylander’s chemistry with Matthews might go a long way towards making up for the drop in playmaking he provides compared to Marner. And considering that the Leafs’ power play is only ranked 18th in the league, forcing the players and coaching staff to get creative and rely less on Marner might be a good thing in the long run.