Inside the Highlight Reel: How to master Mitch Marner’s backhand toe drag

Stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber demonstrates how to master the backhand toe drag, as recently pulled off by Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner.

Each week, stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber and Sonny Sachdeva will go Inside the Highlight Reel to break down one of the silkiest moves from the NHL’s best, dissecting it to explain why it’s so dangerous and demonstrating how to master it yourself.

With the NHL’s season paused, the hockey world has been given an opportunity to look back, old memories of the league’s all-time classics replacing what would have been the start of the 2020 post-season. But for those who play the game, it’s granted something else, too — a window of downtime to fine-tune skills, and maybe even add a few new ones to the toolbox before things eventually kick back into high gear.

So, with hockey life shifting from game nights at NHL rinks to shooting sessions in the driveway, we’ve enlisted stickhandling specialist Pavel Barber and his expertise in the art of the deke to break down the game’s silkiest moves for aspiring danglers hoping to bolster their skill-sets during this period of isolation.

Few are able to take the offensive magic that plays out on NHL ice and effectively break it down into accessible, digestible information quite like Barber. Originally carving out his niche in the sport on YouTube, his video tutorials and trick-shot clips have attracted the masses to the tune of more than 66 million views on the site, with half a million fans following his latest on Instagram, too.

That foundation has since helped the Toronto native transition to the coaching world. His Pavel Barber Hockey School has taken him around the country and abroad training players of all ages and levels — most notably, his understanding of the game’s most skilful aspects has allowed him to train NHLers like Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews and Canucks young gun Jake Virtanen.

So, here’s how it’s going to work: Each week, we’ll focus on one highlight-reel move from one of the NHL’s premier talents, calling on Barber to explain why each move is so effective and to demonstrate (via the video embedded at the bottom of this post) how to master the move in question.

First up? The backhand toe drag.

We saw one of these executed perfectly in one of the final games before the pandemic shut down the NHL season, when Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner pulled one off against the San Jose Sharks to net his 16th goal of the 2019-20 campaign, and his last before the hiatus hit:

No. 16’s no stranger to burning defenders with the toe drag, having notched a couple memorable plays against the Senators using different variations (See: Exhibits A and B). This one in particular was a more complicated version, with Marner using the backhand toe of his blade to pull the puck between his legs before sliding it five-hole on the out-of-position Martin Jones.

The key deceptive element that drives the backhand toe drag is the shot fake that begins it, Barber explains, and pulling that off hinges on where the puck is positioned at the beginning of the move sequence.

“Marner is one of the few players who uses the backhand toe frequently,” Barber says. “Here, he receives the puck from Matthews loaded up on the forehand, which is a great position to be in when you’re a shooting threat. The backhand toe drag has a built-in fake shot, as the first movement is forward, as if you’re shooting.”

The photo below illustrates that split-second fake, which causes Jones to hesitate for just a moment.

“Then the backhand toe redirects it unpredictably to the backhand side. As you can see, with one move he gets the defender and the goalie thinking he’s shooting, allowing him to get the puck to his backhand side a step before they can react,” Barber adds.

Stalled by that brief hesitation, Jones finds himself still shifting to his right a moment later, when Marner’s already there directing the puck towards the cage.

Two factors important to consider in Marner’s decision to bust out the backhand toe drag in this particular situation, according to Barber: first, that he was facing a defender in a position that limited his ability to defend Marner’s attack, and second, that the distance between the winger and defender was slight.

“When you use a move you have to consider the situation to see how to apply it. Here, Burns is late coming in to defend and he ends up with his back turned to Marner, which compromises his vision as he looks over the right shoulder,” Barber says. “Marner goes between his legs because it allows him to keep the puck tighter to him to protect it more.

“We’ll see players go between the legs instead of in front of their body when they don’t have a lot of space afforded to them. Marner notices that and protects the puck throughout the move.”

For those honing their skills at home and looking to add the backhand toe drag to their arsenal, we asked Barber to demonstrate the mechanics of the move, how to ensure you can pull it off with maximum effectiveness, and one drill that’ll help build the skills to do it.

Watch Pavel Barber’s tutorial on how to master the backhand toe drag via the video atop this post.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.