July 1, 2018, may very well go down as a franchise-altering date in the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ history books. The day the blue and white upended the league’s status quo by convincing two-time Hart Trophy nominee John Tavares to sign on the dotted line, ushering the club into one of the most promising eras of its NHL tenure.
The Leafs faithful are cheering, newly minted GM Kyle Dubas has a convincing first win, and the rest of the club’s front-office braintrust are heading into 2018-19 with sky-high optimism — but if there’s one Torontonian who stands to benefit most from the marquee signing, it might be Mitch Marner.
Fresh off a team-leading 69-point effort, Marner heads into 2018-19 looking to establish his value before hitting restricted free agency next summer. And he’ll have as good a chance as any to push that ceiling high as it can go given the previously floated notion that No. 91 will line up alongside Marner when the season kicks off.
The duo’s potential dominance isn’t lost on the young Leafs winger.
“He can really put the puck in the net and that’s very important for my game, since it’s no secret that I like to pass,” Marner said of how the two might work together in an interview with NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger Wednesday. “He also creates a lot of open space and creates a lot of opportunities by doing that, so he’s really good at feeding his linemates too. Because of that, I have to be ready to shoot the puck more as well.”
Marner’s affinity for playmaking has been well-established during his pair of seasons in the big leagues. He’s led the Leafs in the assists department for two years straight, his 89 helpers in that span ranking as the 25th-most among all NHLers. But the prospect of Tavares attracting defenders and creating more space for Marner to put pucks on net should have the Scotiabank Arena crowd intrigued, as the quick-footed winger is no slouch in the scoring department either.
He scored at a 20-goal clip last season and the one prior while playing a pass-first game, after amassing 96 goals through his three junior seasons in London.
But while Marner’s game is likely to benefit from Tavares’ presence, the club’s potential success with matchups figures to become one of its most dangerous weapons overall.
“Now we’re stacked up the middle,” Marner said. “We’re going to be a hard team to beat in the (faceoff) circle. Obviously, we want to beat our record last year and improve on it every single year and [Tavares] is a guy that can help us do that.
“…The bottom line is, we’re deep down the middle, so whoever you’re playing with, there’s a good chance to be successful.”
Prior to Tavares’ homecoming, much was made about the potential downfalls of playing in Toronto, with many wondering if the reserved Mississauga, Ont., native would be up for the fishbowl that is his home province. His eventual decision cleared up that debate, and Marner — a Markham, Ont., native himself — said he doesn’t believe the pressure is as insurmountable as it’s been made out to be.
“Speaking on their behalf, [fellow Ontario products] Brown, Hyman and I aren’t really shy guys. We like to joke around a lot and get around the neighborhood,” Marner told Zeisberger. “Obviously, we know a lot of people around here. It’s a lot of fun for us to be here. We want to make the environment of this team where people can come and don’t feel the stress of the market around us. We keep stuff in-house between us and trust each other on the ice and in the media. It’s been a fun two years.
“I’m sure no other place is like Toronto. We don’t really look at the media or being in the public eye as an issue. Sure, when things happen, they become big. But there’s no better place to play, especially when things are going good.”