When we last saw Mitch Marner in game action, he was injured against the Philadelphia Flyers in what turned out to be the first of six losses in a row. Although the season is relatively young, Toronto hit a low in Marner’s absence, at one point falling out of a playoff spot with a points percentage below .500 and dismissing Mike Babcock as head coach.
Marner’s last game was a little more than three weeks ago, but the team he’s returning to is, in some ways, an unrecognizable unit.
The Leafs have played six Marner-less games under new coach Sheldon Keefe and won four of them. Part of this recovery is due to the sheer fact that, by the numbers, Toronto was due for one. But there’s also a sense that Keefe, handpicked by GM Kyle Dubas as his head coach at three different levels now, has a style that just fits better with the type of roster Dubas has assembled. It may take time for that to flesh out fully, but the early returns are certainly positive.
Getting Marner back should give the Leafs their best opportunity to kick into high gear this season. Marner was activated off injured reserve on Wednesday afternoon and his return to the lineup marks the healthiest Toronto has been since the start of the season. With their new coach in place, this may be where the Maple Leafs launch back towards where most pre-season projections had them.
Here is where Marner will help the Leafs the most.
THE PENALTY KILL
Toronto’s shorthanded units have not been great this season. Overall, the team ranks 26th on the season with a kill rate of just 75.8 per cent. But when Marner was out of the lineup, it was even worse.
From the start of the season through Nov. 9 (Marner’s last game), Toronto’s kill rate was 76.9 per cent, but in the 12 games without him the Leafs killed only 73.1 per cent of the penalties they took. That ranked 26th over the past three weeks, and is only a marginally better rate than the worst penalty-killing team has accomplished on the season overall (Detroit, 72.6 per cent).
It is worth noting that this kill rate has actually improved greatly in the small sample under Keefe. In the six games with the new head coach, Toronto has successfully killed off 92.3 per cent of its penalties. And that’s without their best shorthanded player in the lineup.
There’s no doubting Marner is the team’s most important penalty killer up front, averaging 2:53 of shorthanded ice time per game that is nearly a minute more than Ilya Mikheyev. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, Marner’s six takeaways on the penalty kill not only leads the Leafs, but ranks third among forwards league-wide and is just two behind the leader, Mark Stone.
Stone’s also played 11 more games than Marner.
SECURING TORONTO’S PRIMARY STRENGTH ON OFFENCE
Marner was Toronto’s leading scorer last season with 94 points and he left the lineup with 18 points in 18 games in early November. This is where Marner’s impact will most obviously be felt.
But it’s worth pointing out the chemistry he’s had with John Tavares since the captain signed in Toronto as an unrestricted free agent two summers ago.
Many look at Marner’s career-best season in 2018-19, where he improved by 25 points, as a direct correlation to Tavares’s arrival as his centre. And, sure, having someone with Tavares’s talent next to you is going to give any NHL player a boost. But what’s become obvious in Marner’s absence is that as much as the winger was given a boost next to Tavares, the centre was just as big a beneficiary of playing next to Marner. Remember, Tavares also had a career-best season in 2018-19, scoring nine more goals than his previous career high.
We’ve seen the two away from each other this year. First, Tavares went down to injury and missed seven games from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2. In that time, Marner posted eight points, three of which were primary assists at 5-on-5. Even in the absence of the sniper on the line, Marner’s 1.97 primary assists per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action led the Leafs. He and his linemates sans Tavares were also still able to carry the play, with a 52.76 Corsi For percentage with Marner on the ice.
And you could say the best is yet to come from Marner this season. The two players are better together and Marner has not converted a single 5-on-5 goal yet. Despite the positive shot metrics under Mike Babcock, the former coach’s system did not prioritize generating high quality opportunities as much as Keefe’s does. So as dangerous as the Tavares-Marner combo was before, teaming them up with Keefe could bring out the best in everyone.
DUBAS’S ROSTER VISION IS NEAR-COMPLETE
Getting Keefe behind the bench was a big step towards Dubas having everything he envisioned in place. It always felt like there was some disconnect between what Dubas wanted the Leafs to be and what Babcock wanted the Leafs to be. With Keefe in charge, there is no doubt.
The early returns have certainly been great, outside of Tuesday night’s “unacceptable” meltdown. With four wins in six games under the new head coach – granted three of the past four games were against inferior competition (Detroit, Buffalo twice) – the Leafs have mostly looked like a new, refreshed lineup.
Mikheyev has been a tremendous story for the Leafs this season, and he was a nice fill-in next to Tavares in Marner’s absence, with six points in his past seven games. But prior to that, Mikheyev had a seven-game pointless streak – that’s more than twice as long as Marner’s coldest streak in 2017-18 (three games). Mikheyev is a great fit as a third-liner and penalty killer for the Leafs.
Marner is a game-changer. We know all about the Leafs’ weaknesses in the backup goalie spot and in their lack of depth on the blue line, but the idea was all of that could be offset with waves and waves of talent up front. Without Marner, that advantage takes a substantial hit, but with him back Toronto has its full complement of weaponry that Dubas believed could carry this team.
Leafs fans will be excited to see Marner and Tavares back together, and have Marner contributing in his regular big ways on the power play and penalty kill, as well. His involvement in all situations is what led to Marner leading all Leafs forwards in average ice time last season, and that was the crux of any argument in favour of him being worth a comparative cap hit to centres Tavares and Auston Matthews.
But having Marner do all this under Keefe, who stands for letting his horses run and allowing his best players to be creative, could unlock even more in No. 16’s game.