TORONTO – “He’s 20 years old, isn’t he?” Mike Babcock was saying of Mitch Marner, whose sophomore season has morphed from sluggish to sensational.
That he is. A 20-year-old who has propelled the Toronto Maple Leafs through an ascendant second half, including Wednesday’s 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers which left them on the verge of officially clinching a playoff spot.
Marner has produced at the level of a top-10 scorer ever since Babcock overhauled his lineup for a Jan. 24 visit to Chicago. That’s when he found a home on the right side of Patrick Marleau and Nazem Kadri – a move that paid immediate dividends then and continues to yield impressive results now, with Marner sitting at 15 goals and 35 points in the 28 games since.
“The way he can move out there and hangs on the puck and sees the ice is something special,” said Marleau. “I think the work he’s doing to get the pucks back on the forecheck and even on the backcheck is leading to those points that he’s getting offensively.”
Marner leads the team with 67 points and could become the first Leafs player in history to hit 70 during an age 20-and-under season. Talk about growth. Only nine men have accomplished that feat league-wide since 2005-06 and each is a bonafide star: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, David Pastrnak, Connor McDavid and Mathew Barzal.
Having seen Marner stumble through the first couple months of the season, it’s even more impressive he’s scaling these heights today. Remember that he had just two goals to show for the first 29 games. Amid heightened expectations, his trademark panache was nowhere to be found.
“Obviously it was hard,” he says now. “Jumping lines constantly, playing with different people, it’s hard to kind of get a rhythm going. It also hurts your confidence a little bit as well.”
This is a kid whose game typically screams confidence. Take Wednesday, when he absolutely ripped a shot over Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo after tracking his own rebound off the end boards. Minutes later, Marleau was gift-wrapped his 25th goal of the season when Marner swooped across the top of the zone and put a tap-in on his tape.
He was everywhere. Breaking up rushes on the backcheck, calling for passes in traffic, playing with the assuredness of someone who racked up a gaudy 242 points during his last two seasons of junior hockey.
“I thought Marner was a star tonight,” said Babcock.
“I just feel like when he’s skating he’s always involved in the play,” added teammate Auston Matthews. “Obviously he’s a special player, he sees the ice well and makes guys around him better. So when he has the puck on his stick and creates space, I think he really compliments the two guys he’s playing with really well.”
Looking back, Marner’s path out of the early-season fog was charted through incremental gains, game by game. He had to make peace with the slow start and a diminished role in the lineup.
“I started to realize that it didn’t matter who I’m playing with. That everyone on this team’s got a lot of skill and that I’ve just got to step my game up,” said Marner. “I think I kind of just relaxed, talked to family – they calmed me down. … [My game is] just going out there and having fun, kind of enjoying the moment.
“I think that’s what I got back to. I kind of got myself motivated again and going again.”
The Leafs have been going ever since – racking up the NHL’s second-highest point total since Jan. 24 despite missing Matthews for 10 games of that stretch with a separated shoulder.
They now have three 30-goal scorers spread across the top three lines after Matthews bagged No. 30 on Luongo. For good measure, van Riemsdyk potted his team-leading 35th. The goal and an assist from Marner pushed his points streak to a career-best 10 games.
“I think everybody’s gotten better from last year,” said Matthews. “I’d hope so.”
With Game 1 of the playoffs just two weeks away, Toronto will soon get to put that theory to the test. They are unquestionably a more dynamic group when Marner is performing at this level – giving them another tidal wave to throw over the boards and overwhelm opponents.
“He worked, he worked,” Babcock said of what brought success against Florida. “That’s why he had the puck all the time. He was solid defensively. That’s what the young guys got to figure out – if they play good defensively they’re going to get more chances than you can ever imagine versus trying to be cute, and you don’t get near as many chances and you give up too much.
“That’s just part of growing up in the game and understanding how the game works.”
It’s the sort of thing that clicks over time.
Marner’s time may be now.