TORONTO – As Mitchell Marner strode on the ice ahead of schedule Monday, he punctuated his arrival back at Toronto Maple Leafs practice with a series of six hard, loud, two-handed slaps of his hockey stick on the ice.
Yes, the return of the club’s leading scorer over the past two seasons will not come quietly, its ripples being felt emotionally and strategically.
John Tavares calls Marner “the heartbeat.”
Tyson Barrie describes him as a “buzz saw.”
Travis Dermott gets a kick out of comparing of his Red Bull–chugging, playlist-operating, custom-handshake-creating teammate to a “puppy” after seeing the injured player tag along the road trip and immerse himself in the room despite a zero per cent chance of playing.
“With a massive smile on his face, taking guys sticks and putting them away? Who’d be happy doing that?” Dermott chuckles.
“I think it’s cool, the energy he’s brought since he’s been hurt. He’s never in here sad or out of the way. He’s always in everyone’s faces, getting everyone happy, laughing. It’s awesome to see him back out there.
“This is huge for us. He had a spring in his step, made a couple nice plays. He had a nice backhand goal on us in the 5-on-5 drill.”
Originally ruled out for a minimum of four weeks since suffering a high-ankle sprain on Nov. 9 — a freak accident Marner says he’s watched 10 times since — Marner’s rehabilitation is ahead of schedule and isn’t ruling out a return Wednesday vs. the Colorado Avalanche, the earliest possible date he’s eligible to come off injured reserve.
“Mitch is a special player, and we’ll be excited to get him back here hopefully in the coming days, for sure,” said GM Kyle Dubas.
Added coach Sheldon Keefe: “Based on his performance today, it doesn’t look like it’s too far away.”
While a string of injuries to the Zach Hyman–Tavares–Marner trio has prevented a reunion of the 2018-19 Maple Leafs’ best line, Keefe is leaning toward swapping out Hyman for rookie Ilya Mikheyev on that unit’s left side when Marner is cleared to play.
“(Mikheyev) has got a lot of speed in him, thinks the game really well and gets on the forecheck well,” says Marner, who credits the training staff for his accelerated rehab.
“With the help from them, I’m not really surprised that I’m early.”
Because Keefe already knows what he can expect from a Hyman-Tavares-Marner deployment, and because there are still 54 more games on the schedule, the coach is using this honeymoon phase to experiment.
So when Marner rejoins the top power-play unit, expect Barrie to run the point and offensive stud Morgan Rielly to quarterback the second group.
Keefe wants to try Hyman with Alexander Kerfoot and Kasperi Kapanen to discover if that threesome can act as a shutdown line against the opposition’s top six.
“With Zach’s skill set, it fits very well there theoretically, so we want to have a look at it and see how it goes,” Keefe explained.
What Marner has noticed most observing his mates go 4-1 under the new bench boss is patience.
“Everyone just has a little more relaxation with the puck, letting the play can open up in front of them rather than trying to force something through, and it’s worked out,” said Marner, noting a few instances of trying forced creativity when a safe play up the wall would be better.
“At the same time, we just got to make sure we’re careful with getting too reckless.”
On paper, the mind of Marner (18 points in 18 games) should meld wonderfully with the way Keefe envisions the group playing, the way he can open up space, think two passes ahead and hold onto the puck until opportunity blooms.
He’ll also add one more threat to both ends of the special teams, which have enjoyed a resurgence over the past two weeks, and unveil what he hopes is a more dangerous shot.
Unable to spend as much time on his quick feet, Marner devoted a significant portion of the past three weeks to his grip and wrist strength in effort to fire the puck harder.
“Trying to get all my energy out in the gym,” he said.
Yes, it took until December, and it may have had a role in cutting a coach, but it finally appears this will be the week the Maple Leafs’ high-powered, well-compensated top six is ready in full.
Knock on wood.
“Full health is a luxury not many teams have. It’s not just us,” Dubas said.
“Boston has missed a lot of their guys throughout the last two years, and they just won their seventh game in a row last night. They just continue to find a way.”