There’s some stuff Leafs fans already know that they don’t need to be reminded of, but we need it for context so bear with me a sec.
In last season’s disappointing playoff series versus Montreal, Mitch Marner was held goalless and had four assists in seven games, coming off a season where he smashed the point-per-game mark with 67 points in 55 games. That was the fourth-highest point total in the league in the regular season, and it all but dried up for the guy who led NHL forwards in ice time. The year before that Marner put up the same goalless stat line in five playoff games while the Leafs lost to Columbus. When the going got tough, the scoring dried up.
But! But, we were reminded, he got a lot of chances. Was all over it, did everything but score. Unlucky. Got a lot of good looks.
And yes, that was true.
This season Marner can make the same case. Through four games it’s a little insane that he only has one assist. Here are the NHL’s leaders in “scoring chances for,” which is a stat that measures exactly what you think it does, though it’s not an individual stat. If anyone is on the ice for a chance they get credited with one, just like plus-minus but with a larger sample. The top five in the league:
So, Marner’s third in the NHL in chances for, and has just one assist. Everyone else on that list has two or more points, with Hedman having six assists. Just like in playoffs last season, I think you can fairly say Marner is heavily involved in an effective offence. Tuesday he was interviewed after practice and asked what he needed to do to break through, and his answer can fairly be summarized as “Do nothing different.” Again, yes, that’s probably true. He could easily be sitting on four or five assists right now playing exactly the same way.
But teams view slumps differently than players -- they don’t have the luxury of just “waiting for the bounces,” which seems to be how people think these things are handled. When you see media say a slumping player’s shooting percentage “should regress to normal,” as in, “they should start getting more lucky,” there often has to be a tangible change that helps that player start to “get lucky.” In digging through their shortcomings, players work to create their own luck, and often a player whose shooting percentage is flagging is taking worse shots than usual. We’re not great at measuring that yet. Often they’re being less dangerous, maybe not skating enough to create separation on their attempts, or not being physical enough to create room for themselves.
So looking at Marner, I have no doubt he’s going to break out offensively even if he changes very little. But if I were with the team I’d have a hard time believing nothing needs to change at all. One thing Marner did note in that same post-practice press conference was that he’d like to see more “second chance opportunities,” and I think that’s moving the conversation in a more productive direction.
Knowing his scoring chance numbers and who he plays with, the assists will come. I’m fine with changing nothing there. Tavares has been pretty snakebit so far, and he’s been on the receiving end of a lot of those chances. But you don’t expect an $11-million forward to never score, right?
Marner had 20 goals in a shortened year last season, a pace good for ~30 over 82 games. He had 26 a couple years before that. Given his aging curve, 30 wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect if Marner’s healthy. So I narrowed the question down more, and looked at individual scoring chances. Marner is still near the top of the league there. (That’s individual scoring chances for, and high danger chances for.)
Fourteen chances in four games is great (you’ll notice the Leafs generally create a lot of chances, if you didn’t already know that).
Before we go any further, the reason I’m kicking all this around today is because it’s worth asking: “How OK are you (and how OK is any team) with the hand-waving away a lack of goals or points for an offensive player if they’re getting chances?”
“Chances” are the holy grail in hockey. That’s all coaches are ever after. Tuesday on Real Kyper and Bourne, Bruce Boudreau joined us, and in talking about Marner, he commented on how many chances he’s getting. He said something to the effect of “It’s like when you’re a kid and slumping, and your Dad asks ‘are you getting chances? Yes? Then don’t worry about it.’” That’s a staple of the hockey laws most of us grew up living by.
For coaches, chances are the most valued internal metric, at least in my experience. In working around Mike Babcock, I saw how the staff operated during intermissions. The first thing they would do is watch the chances against and look for any trends or reasons to address the team (or individual players). If there was time, they’d look at the chances for. It was only then if there were other observations they might go to the breakouts or special teams or something else.
Sheldon Keefe is no different. Nor is DJ Smith or any coach in the league. Everything starts and ends there. Shots and shot attempts are fine over large samples, just like goals and assists, but in the immediate coaches want to know why chances are happening where and when.
Armed with the data on chances from those who tally it, coaching staffs then take to the video, and this is where I find all these Mitch Marner “chances” a little wanting. The numbers are good but the video is only OK, barring a couple Grade As, which every top line forward in the league should have a few of four games in.
Public scoring chance data is a little dicey, because you have to form an objective definition of what one really is, which sometimes leads to some miscounting, but in general it’s helpful to guide us. These are the chances that show up on InStat.com when you search Marner’s season so far: They have 10 chances at even strength, where the data credits 14, but I still think these tell a bit of a story.
I see a player who’s worked on something in the off-season (his shot), and is maybe eager to put it to use, and is in turn not playing like his most effective self. It’s like the Philadelphia 76ers wanting to make Ben Simmons a guy who’ll take three pointers (which he isn’t good at) because it’ll change the defensive spacing in a way that’s advantageous for the offence. It’s a wonderful theory, until you realize they’re encouraging a guy who doesn’t shoot well to shoot more.
Mitch Marner isn’t a terrible shooter by any stretch, that’s not my point. It’s more that he’s so good when he’s trying to essentially skate the puck into the back of the net that shots from distance feel wasted on him. Every time Marner threatens, he’s so nasty in tight that it draws defenders to him, and that's where space opens up for others. When he’s threatening in -- when he’s skating downhill -- he gets into traffic rather than shooting from the outside of it.
Marner has been creating and so the assists will come. He’s been getting “good looks” and “unlucky” and the goals will come, too. But to get there sooner and more often the mindset needs resetting. He needs to find a scoring style that works when the going gets tough -- in the playoffs -- and right now feels like a great place to get started working on that. It all starts inside the traffic.
Players have forever been told that when they’re slumping they should just put everything on net, because you never know. All that does is prolong slumps and render players less dangerous. Marner can find his best self by hanging on longer and not settling for shots from distance.