TORONTO — It’s not supposed to be this way.
The centreman in his prime, the $77-million man, the greatest free agent of the salary-cap era to not only test the market but ace it, the Hart Trophy finalist and five-time all-star, the gold medallist and golden standard for hockey work ethic — he’s the one who should be driving the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best line, right?
Well, that’s debatable. In the kind of debate giddy fanboys wage after ordering another round and celebrating another victory — four in a row, kids — and summoning the NHL standings on their smartphone one more time because they show the Toronto Maple Leafs (15-6, with a silly-good plus-21 goal differential) kicking their Babsocks up on the balcony of the Eastern Conference penthouse despite playing 50 per cent of their games sans Auston Matthews and 100 per cent minus William Nylander.
John Tavares is a Maple Leaf, and a pretty excellent one.
Except one could make the case that it’s Mitchell Marner, a winger (the lowliest hockey position), who’s getting the best out of his decorated centreman.
At the quarter mark of 2018-19, no player in the Eastern Conference has accumulated more points than Marner, who has 28 and is tied for third in the Art Ross race with some guy named Connor McDavid. Tavares has 25 points and he’s top-10, too. They’ve clicked quicker than my parents say they did.
Now that the dust has settled on Toronto’s 4-2 comeback victory over the Metropolitan Division–leading Columbus Blue Jackets, let’s look at what the Tavares-Marner duo have accomplished since Matthews’ left shoulder got injured.
In those 10 and a half games, Tavares is 6-7-13 with two game-winning goals and a plus-6 rating. Marner is 2-11-13 with one game-winner and a plus-5 rating. Over that span, each superstar has skated five games with at least 20 minutes of ice time compared to just one game of 20 minutes-plus in the 10 games shared with Matthews.
The most impressive aspect of Marner’s East-leading 22 assists is that 20 of them are primary, and the majority of those are highlight worthy.
Case in point, Tavares’ tying goal Monday, which he set up with a deke, a shot, a rebound, and an extra-effort touch pass.
“When you can find Mitch in some open space, it’s pretty hard to defend him,” Tavares said. “When I see him with it there, I’m just following up and trying to time it right, whether he puts it in or a rebound or he makes a play going against the grain like he did.”
Even in exile, former Maple Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter is happy to talk about why he pushed the franchise to draft the undersized, under-muscled Marner fourth overall in 2015, ahead of highly touted defencemen like Noah Hanifin, Pavel Zacha, Zach Werenski and Thomas Chabot.
“The mom [Bonnie] was six-foot, so I knew he was going to get some more size,” Hunter said last week. “He was a guy that never stopped getting better.”
Hunter, who also drafted Marner in the first round to OHL London in 2013, chuckles when he credits “inside information” for his pushing Toronto to take the small kid with the bubbly personality and the relentless puck-hounding.
“I knew his makeup and knew his desire,” Hunter said. “You have to improve. You have to keep getting better. You have to win. Mitch has some attributes that’s important to any hockey club. We ended up winning a Memorial Cup in London. He’ll just keep pushing here to win a Stanley Cup because that’s what he’s all about.
“That’s what you need when you’re scouts: You have to find that inner desire. Through my instincts and watching him, I knew he’d just blossom.”
The impending RFA’s confidence and versatility — oh, and hands — on display though 21 games is astounding, to the point where pundits’ estimations of Marner’s next contract ($9 million a year?! $10 million?! Can I hear $11 million?!) swell with each radio hit.
Prior to Monday’s stellar showing versus Columbus, our own Doug MacLean wondered on-air if Marner is the league MVP right now.
Fans might be wise to stop dissecting individual trophy races (we know Leafs Nation has designs on the Vezina and Norris, too) or running math on the Leafs’ projected cap picture in 2021 and just enjoy this wild ride, with Marner sprinting to the first roller-coaster car, face in the wind.
“He’s always been on the radar,” Penguins defenceman Kris Letang said recently. “Trust me.”
The takeaways, the setups, the dekes. The way the 21-year-old loves killing penalties because he knows how power-play quarterbacks think, because he is one. Marner’s certainty with and without the puck is rampant right now.
“I love Mitch. He’s a great person. He’s not a kid anymore — he’s a grown man,” Morgan Rielly said at a relaxed moment this summer. “He’s a brilliant hockey player. He’s a grown man. He’s mature. He knows what he wants to accomplish. He’s got a bright future, and he’s going to be part of this community for a long time.
“We love him. He’s a big part of this team.”
So big that it was Marner, and not Matthews or Nylander, who filmed the in-house hockey recruitment video that helped lure Tavares to the city on July 1.
All due respect to Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson and Josh Bailey, but in Marner and Zach “Gets the Puck” Hyman, who scored twice Monday, Tavares, after nine years in the league, has the kind of complementary linemates that elevate him the way he’s done for so many.
On pace for a 98-point season, which would crush his previous best, Tavares says he’s still finding his way but feeling increasingly more comfortable as 16 and 91 flip the Atlantic upside down.
Tavares is fighting the urge to feel satisfied with his place; he believes there’s another level to this. But the ability of this young group to brush off adversity and maintain its professionalism under both a spotlight and a microscope has wowed him.
“It’s something I anticipated the group had,” Tavares says, “but once you’re in and around it every day, it definitely impresses you even more.”