TORONTO – Perhaps it was an omen that long-range swisher Steph Curry could be seeing walking the bowels of the Air Canada Centre prior to puck drop.
Good things were about to rain down like threes.
Van Riemsdyk scored thrice on three shots, including the game-winner, all off feeds from his linemates, and hats messed up the ice like Preds goalie Marek Mazanec’s .809 save percentage. The trinity left the rink as the night’s three stars of the game and the Leafs’ three highest scorers on the season.
“The more we play together, the more plays become second nature,” van Riemsdyk said. “The puck was following us around.”
Anyone who’s laced up a pair knows the puck just doesn’t come to you. You have to work to get it, and no one hounds the puck like the 19-year-old Marner, who led the Leafs with three takeaways, scored the fastest opening goal of the team’s campaign (64 seconds), fired six shot attempts, and was the best player in the building not named Steph Curry.
“I’ve never coached a kid that young that good,” Mike Babcock said of the 19-year-old. “When you’ve got elite skill, you can float around a little bit and still play in the league. You’re not going to be good but you’re still going to be in the league. He’s that competitive, he’s on the puck, he’s smart, easy to talk to, loves the game, wants to get better.”
Selecting small forward Marner — generously listed as 5-foot-11 — over 6-foot-3, 206-pound defenceman Noah Hanifin in the No. 4 hole at the 2015 draft was seen by some as a mistake. As promising as Hanifin has looked in Carolina, it’s getting more difficult every day to argue that Mark Hunter made the wrong choice.
“Size means absolutely nothing,” Bozak says. “Maybe for someone who turns on the TV and sees him beside [6-foot-9 Zdeno] Chara might think it’s a big difference but he knows how to use his size to his advantage.”
Marner’s forecheck is relentless. The lines he skates to intercept or disrupt the opposition’s breakout are efficient. Instinctively, he knows where to put his stick to block lanes. He’ll slam on the brakes or spin to create space for himself.
And his knack for distributing the puck to his teammates or firing a sudden, well-placed shot — albeit not the hardest — is absurd. He’s simply a marvel.
Babcock had to dig deep to find a comparable. Fourteen seasons ago, when he guided the Anaheim Ducks to the Stanley Cup final, a diminutive Russian rookie named Stanislav Chistov was dynamite alongside Samuel Pahlsson and Steve Thomas. Chistov, now 33, would get demoted to the AHL and has spent the last nine years in the KHL. He’s not Marner.
Like a smart Lou Lamoriello employee, Marner always deflects the back-pats team-ward. Van Riemsdyk notes his young linemate’s tenacity, and Marner played Tuesday night with two stitches in his lip. One fell out mid-game.
“Why has [size] not been a problem for [Patrick] Kane or [Artemi] Panarin?” Babcock wonders.
“When they get the puck, the rink gets bigger. When the rest of us get the puck, the rink gets smaller. They must have something — whether it be their speed, their vision, their hockey sense, or edges. He has room every time he has it. I don’t know why. As long as he focuses on working hard and doesn’t get comfortable, he’s pretty good.”
So much has changed in this building since the Predators flew in and humiliated the home side 9-2 on Nov. 18, 2014, nearly two years to the day. Bozak and van Riemsdyk were part of that debacle, which led to “Salutegate,” which led to a scorched earth. They’re now the talented remnants of a flawed core invigorated by a teenage phenom.
The two veterans haven’t looked this dangerous since the high-flying Phil Kessel days.
“[Marner] and Phil are different style of players, and obviously we’re playing a different system now,” van Riemsdyk, 27, says. “We’re trying to play as more of a five-man unit now. That’s how you win games.”
That’s how you ditch old habits and create better ones.
“James’s game, in my opinion, is still young. He could be a way better player than he is,” Babcock observes, minutes after the dude scored a hat trick.
“He can add a cycle game, a heavier game. He’s always been a rush player, but he can be more than that because of his hands and his skill set. We work with him every day trying to evolve that part of his game.
“James wants to be great. He lives that way. Thinks about hockey all the time. He wants to be a hockey player first. Doesn’t matter how old you are, if you think that way, you can get a lot better.”