Why Mitch Marner is playing the best hockey of his life: ‘You start trusting yourself’

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner plays against the Detroit Red Wings in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Detroit. (AP/file)

DALLAS – Fair or not, a history of eye-rolling at Toronto Maple Leafs training camps had been established whenever Mitchell Marner would announce his personal objective for the upcoming season.

Without fail, the assist magician would explain how he had spent the summer working on his shot.

Born with the pass-first gene and blessed to skate alongside one of the greatest snipers the sport has ever seen, Marner would routinely vow that he would turn himself into “a dual threat.” That, hey, guys, he could score goals at the NHL level, too.

And he could, sure. Those silky mitts cold-deke. His elite hockey mind could seek holes and pounce on rebounds. But eye-to-eye, from distance, opposing goaltenders would smartly hedge their bet on a dish elsewhere.

Through his first five seasons, Marner had reached 20 goals thrice. Respectable.

But Marner’s assist total had always been more than double, and once triple, his goal tally. He was an elite setup man. One of the world’s best.

So, the notion that Marner’s shot — affectionately labelled “a muffin,” at times, by his loving teammates — would ever strike fear triggered a I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it reaction by his skeptics.

Marner was typecast as Adam Oates; you-know-who was Brett Hull.

Before Tuesday night in Florida — when Marner surpassed the 30-goal mark for the first time, increasing his shooting percentage to a career-best 16.7 — he too confessed doubt that his dual threat theory would come to light.

“I think I always knew I had it in me. I just didn't really ever trust it, believe in it,” says Marner, when the cameras aren’t rolling. “And when it starts going in, then you start believing a lot more. You start trusting yourself a lot more and get yourself in opportunities (to shoot).

“From that point on, it makes the goalie play more honest with you. It gives you other options and other guys to pass the puck to and get a chance to score.”

With his shot aiding his pass and vice versa, Marner’s eye-popping assist total (57) no longer laps his goals (31). For the first campaign of his career, he’s averaging more than three shots per night.

Such a script flip would be difficult to predict after 2021’s disastrous playoff, when No. 16 was painted scapegoat No. 1 in the Montreal collapse. Or following a nightmarish October, during which Marner amassed all of one goal and two helpers.

Fingers crossed, Marner appears to have vanquished his doubts and demons.

At the very least, he’s living in the moment.

And in this moment?

“He’s on fire. He’s a wizard with the puck,” teammate Wayne Simmonds says, perking up. “He’s got eyes on the side of his head, on the back of his head. I don’t even know how he does it. He’s been amazing for us.”

Marner is riding a seven-game multipoint streak within an 11-game point streak in which he’s piled up 26 points.

Since returning from a bout with COVID (i.e., 10 days of video games) on Jan. 15, Marner has crammed 67 points into 35 games. Those are Xbox numbers no Maple Leaf has matched over a similar sample size.

“Since Mitchy came back,” captain John Tavares says, “he’s just been on fire in all areas of the game. You can just see the confidence grow. He’s shooting the puck and has touch around the net. We know about his playmaking ability and how it can affect the game in so many different areas. With and without the puck, he continues to get better and better.

“He’s really embracing that and wanting to push his game and find another gear and continue to be more and more impactful.”

Marner rates fourth leaguewide in points per game (1.44), second in shorthanded goals (four), seventh in assists and seventh in even-strength points (60). He is a key component to the NHL’s seventh-best penalty kill and best power-play unit, plus revs the NHL’s hottest line.

We’ll say it: Mitch Marner is playing the best hockey of his life.

Do you agree, Mitch Marner?

“Definitely close, yeah,” Marner replies. “I mean, just feeling very good about the overall 200-foot (game). And penalty-kill, power-play, special-teams-wise, just feelin’ great out there. Movin’. Just gotta try keep that mojo going.”

Of late, Marner’s mojo is getting overshadowed by his forever running mate. Auston Matthews is rewriting Leafs goal-scoring history and hunting down the Rocket Richard, Hart and Ted Lindsay hardware in the process.

Just because Marner is getting used to answering questions about his centreman does not mean he should be viewed as Robin to Matthews’ Batman, Vinnie to his Treach, Lance Mountain to his Tony Hawk.

The hierarchy isn’t so severe. Each improves the other.

“His shot has come a long way,” Matthews says. “It's something he's been working on quite a bit. … It definitely makes it a little bit harder to defend.”

Hard enough that the other Leafs aren’t taking it for granted.

“We were at dinner (Friday) night, a couple of us, and just talking about that line,” says goalie Jack Campbell, shaking his head. “Just practising against them and how difficult it is.

“I can't say enough about those guys and their production, but more importantly their attitudes every day and what they bring to the team.”

Marner brings one thing Matthews does not: penalty killing.

On Tuesday, he became the fastest player in league history to score a shorthanded goal and a power-play goal in succession; his 37 seconds of brilliance snapped a record away from Mario Lemieux.

“That shorthanded goal was unbelievable,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe marvelled. “Just a big-time play.”

Keefe says Marner has established such a high level of play, it’s difficult to determine if he’s peaking.

“But offensively, especially the goal scoring and the connection he's developed here with both Auston and Bunts (Michael Bunting), you feel like that's gone to another level, for sure,” Keefe says. “He's got that much more confidence offensively, and the line becomes that much more dangerous because of the threat for him to score.”

T.J. Brodie argues that Marner deserves more credit for his defensive play. And Marner’s plus-20 this season (and plus-69 over the past four seasons) would attest to that. He’s averaging a steal per game and has set a career high in hits (54).

Keefe takes it a step further and says his most trusted winger should be in the thick of the Selke debate. (Marner finished 10th in the voting in 2020-21.)

“A top penalty killer on one of the top penalty-killing units. Plays tough minutes. He’s top of the list of guys that go out when you’re defending leads, all those kinds of things, and we've had to count on him a lot in those situations this season,” Keefe says.

“He's one of the top defensive or, certainly, top two-way forwards. And the defensive responsibilities that he has are right at the top of list for us. When we're in those situations, he’s the guy over the boards.”

Easy choice.

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