If you’re a Leafs fan what you want to read today is how great the team looked in Game 2, how a very captain-like performance by John Tavares in a crucial game speaks to the strength of the team’s core, and how it will almost certainly translate to future games. You probably want to hear that Jake Muzzin will be OK, first, but also that the team will be OK in his absence.
But fawning positivity and hopefulness isn’t really how coaching or playing works, so when considering where the Leafs are at in their series versus Columbus — and where they’ll go — it’s important to consider the things the team would be concerned with after doing video work today.
Over 120 minutes the Leafs’ defence and Frederik Andersen have allowed a single goal against (and an empty netter). Their penalty kill has been aggressive and smothering. They’ve controlled every conceivable 5-on-5 play metric, from offensive zone time to shots to chances. But they haven’t actually scored much — just twice over two games (and an empty netter) — and the power play has been atrocious. Those are undoubtedly concerns 1A and 1B, and they’re tied together.
While the team is probably going to spend some time working on that power play in practice today, they’re also likely to have a chat with an individual catalyst for their usual goal-scoring and power play success: Mitch Marner.
When you look at the Leafs’ big four through two games, Auston Matthews has been a flat-out star, while Tavares was the best player in the arena on Tuesday. Here are the locations of seven of his eight shots in Game 2, which…is this good?
(Image courtesy SportLogiq)
That seems good.
And while Nylander hasn’t made so much as a peep, expectations on him are inarguably the lowest of the four we’re considering. So when Marner — who finished just inside the top-20 in NHL scoring this season, just outside the top 10 the year before, and signed a deal worth nearly $11 million per in between — isn’t up to snuff, he’s naturally the guy who’ll draw scrutiny first.
Teams that go deep in the playoffs do so because their strengths shine, which means the Leafs need Marner ‘Marnering.’
His performance in Game 1 was at least a mild concern. He had no shots on three attempts over 20 minutes of ice time at all strengths. He wasn’t necessarily awful, but he was undeniably uninvolved, which is exactly what Columbus would want. Marner only went shot-less in a game twice during the regular season.
Game 2 was better, at least by the numbers. He actually led the team with 12 shot attempts, getting five pucks on net in 24 minutes of ice. The Leafs’ increase in power play time certainly helped, but yeah, regardless of circumstances, those numbers look better. And I’ve seen them floated about Leafs Twitter as a sign that Marner had a good second game.
The truth is, though, he had a better second game. But good? Not yet.
The good news was that Marner was at least more involved. In Game 1 he had bizarrely few touches for his standards and he touched the puck 27 more times in Game 2, getting back up to normal levels. I once talked with an NHL skills coach about the work they had done with an NHL star. Their stat-work revealed that, on average, the player picked up a point at an insane frequency over his career, tallying one on roughly every 4.5 touches. After learning that, the team found a way to get the player more touches and his point-scoring rate held steady, meaning the raw totals went up.
This could apply just the same to Marner. He’s so special that if he’s just involved in enough plays, good things are generally going to happen. Generally. Game 2 was mostly an exception.
Below is a look at a handful of Marner’s Game 2 touches. He doesn’t do anything egregious in these highlights, but he just isn’t able to do the things that make him one of the league’s top point-getters and highest earners. You can see he has ideas, you can see he’s often on to something good, but he can’t quite put together that final piece of the puzzle. He left far too many plays incomplete.
One thing I say all the time about video work is that it has similarities to stats — if you have a narrative, you can bend the medium to say roughly what you want it to. If you only crib a player’s bad moments, you can make just about anyone look bad. I think, though, the video above legitimately speaks for itself. These are five moments of solid possession with the chance to create, but Marner’s play results in the action immediately going the other way.
Single game shot and shot attempt numbers are often misleading and after watching back Marner’s Game 2, the conclusion can only be that was the case here. While Tavares trailed Marner in shot attempts, he was credited with seven high danger attempts, as shown on the graph above. Marner had one, which was heavily contested and shot along the ice.
He did make two notably good plays in my eyes — the third clip in the video below shows his spin pass to Matthews, and the last clip shows an attempted net drive — but these are his registered shots in Game 2, which weren’t overly threatening.
Even if you’re a diehard Marner fan, I think you’d agree that a few good moments from 24 minutes of ice time is his floor, not his ceiling.
Marner is the oil in the Leafs’ offensive machine. Their power play — and specifically their power play breakout — require him to function smoothly and effectively. He’s one of the sole sources of misdirection the Leafs PP offers, which is meant to free up Matthews and pull traffic away from the dangerous areas. In general, Marner’s a facilitator who makes everyone better. His name is associated with the word “magic” because he does things before most of us can even think it.
Needless to say, “better than not very good” isn’t what the Leafs need from Marner in a series where goals are at a premium, and creating them is a chore. The Blue Jackets are a tough puzzle to solve, but Marner seems uniquely equipped to taking on that challenge. Now it’s just a matter of finding that final piece of the jigsaw to complete his plays.