Quick Shifts: Mitch Marner is soaring through the scrutiny

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner (16) celebrates his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, November 8, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. I have no clue how the net popped off its moorings.

1. The Toronto Maple Leafs are scoring roughly one less goal per game this season, dropping from second overall in goals per game last season to 19th this year.

Yet for all the concern/curiosity over this offensive drop-off, you might be surprised to learn that the Core Four forwards — Mitchell Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Auston Matthews — have been more productive than they were at this point last season.

Through 22 games, that quartet has gathered 93 points this fall compared to 75 at the same mark in 2021.

It’s a group effort, to be certain.

But the most consistent driving engine here is Marner, whose so-so start and brief benching last month already feels 16 years in the past.

With his point-shot goal during Friday’s win in Minnesota, Marner extended his point streak to 15 games (4-16—20). That’s a personal best, the sixth-longest in franchise history, and the longest by a Leaf since Dave Andreychuk’s 16-gamer in 1994.

The fact that Marner is finding ways to produce while being coach Sheldon Keefe’s most reliable defensive forward, drawing tough matchups and killing penalties, is quite the accomplishment.

Regardless of his linemates or his zone starts, he delivers.

Marner logs the seventh-most ice time of any NHL forward (21:39), and 2:21 of that is on the PK. Of the 11 forwards ahead of Marner in the scoring race, none come close to seeing his 4-on-5 usage.

Both his centremen, Tavares and Matthews, have enjoyed the best campaigns of their careers when he’s riding shotgun.

Just took a DNA test. Turns out, he’s 100 per cent that Mitch.

“He’s an exceptional player. One of the best in the game. Few players in the league can control the pace of the game like he can. Kills penalties. Responsible defensively. Elite playmaker,” ex-Leaf Matt Martin told me when the Islanders rolled through Toronto this week.

Martin has a theory why, despite his pinball numbers, Marner can still be a lightning rod for haters in his hometown. Why the appreciation doesn’t always match the performance.

“He came into the league so young. And I think these guys feel the weight of the world. Big expectations. They make the playoffs right straightaway [in 2017]. They got big contracts. And with that comes all the scrutiny, especially here. But I think he does a pretty good job with family,” says Martin, who maintains a friendship with Marner post-trade.

“Maybe the criticism can be unwarranted. But at the same time, these fans are passionate. They want to win, too. Twitter’s a crazy world now. So, a lot of things get said that may not necessarily be true or right. A lot of people see that and run with it.

“But every team in the league would want him.”

2. Vancouver native Mathew Barzal skates with Vancouver native Connor Bedard in the off-season.

Here’s what Barzal thinks of the presumed No. 1 pick of 2023:

“He’s such a great kid. Always makes me laugh. I text him and stuff after big games to see how he’s doing. I love being on the ice in the summer with him. It’s fun. He’s the new age of player where he’s got all the tools, and it’s fun literally learning from him — new tricks and skills.

“He’s going to be a special player. He’s going to be an elite goal scorer in this league for a long time.

“Makes everything look really easy. Beats goalies like it’s nothing. I’ve seen him do a couple Michigans… there’s a lot of stuff he gets creative with.

“His shot’s incredible. It comes off his stick so hot. I’ve never seen anything like it. Obviously, Matty [Auston Matthews] rips the puck. That’s the only shot I could really compare it to. It’s got that drag and pull. Just looks so pure. He beats NHL goalies. He’s been beating them since he was 15, so I’m really excited to see him in this league.

“He couldn’t have been older than 12 [the first time I saw him]. He had a cage on. Skates that looked a little too big…. I was 20 maybe. It was kind of funny. We’re like, ‘Who’s this little kid?’ Two years later, he’s shooting the puck harder than all of us. He’s dangling on NHL D-men. He’s an incredible talent.”

3. Cal Clutterbuck is your new hit king.

The New York Islander’s 3,642 career hits trumped former leader Dustin Brown’s 3,632 on Monday in Toronto.

Ever humble, the man himself says he wasn’t paying attention to the stat. And to be fair to those with a checker history, the NHL has only been tracking such a thing since 2005-06.

“It means that I played long enough to have a chance to do it more than anyone else, I guess. That’s about it. It’s part of my job, you know? So, I guess it’s a little validation in the field of I’ve been able to do what I do best consistently for a long period of time.”

Longtime linemate Matt Martin is happier to make a big deal of the record.

“He’s done some damage to his body over the years, so it’s quite the accomplishment, really, when you think about the amount of punishment he’s been taking,” says Martin, who is rubbing shoulders with record himself, owning the second-most hits among active skaters (3,477). “I know how hard it is to, one, stay in the league as long as he has. And, two, stay healthy. So, pretty cool title.”

“That’s what he does — and what we do as a line, in general.”

Isles coach Lane Lambert appreciates the milestone shining a spotlight on some valuable role players.

“The impact that his physical play — and, really, the physical play of the whole fourth line — has for us certainly gets us emotionally involved in it. And a lot of times drags us into the fight.”

On the day he became king, Clutterbuck allowed a beat of nostalgia.

He says he always loved the visceral thrill of body contact, and that joy stemmed from rewinding Don Cherry’s Rock ’Em Sock ’Em tapes.

“I used to get them every year for my birthday, back on the VHS. Throw them on. You watch the goals, the plays made — and the hits. I just had a talent for it, even when it first started. I remember being pretty good at it and really enjoying the thrill of laying a big one,” Clutterbuck says.

Can you recall a favourite of the 3,640?

“My memory isn’t very good these days. Too many hits, you know?”

4. Has the art of the body check changed?

Let’s hear what the two active leaders in the category have to say.

Martin: “For sure. There’s not a lot of open-ice hitting anymore. The rules have changed. And on top of that, you got a lot of defencemen that are better skaters. Even three years ago, you had a lot of defencemen that were 6-foot-5 200 pounds — and they wanted the contact, too. Now you’re seeing a lot more mobile defencemen. That means you have to be a little more disciplined at times [on the forecheck]. A guy like Mo [Rielly] has the ability to bait you in, then jump past you, get up in the rush and create offence. So, you gotta be smart about it. But when you get a chance? You lay the body. Make people pay. Wear ’em down that way.”

Clutterbuck: “My approach hasn’t changed. Maybe the difficulty and the frequency have gone down a bit. Defencemen are obviously a little quicker. The one thing I do find is, somewhere along the way — five, six years ago — guys got more prone to turning their backs on you. Going back for pucks, they’ll go back straight against the wall. So, it’s hard to really go in there on a forecheck and really lay somebody out, because the guys are facing the glass. I don’t know when that started, but that’s been the big change for me. And then the rules [got stricter], with checking the head and stuff. But, honestly, I don’t think that really affected me that much. I’ve always just been hitting for game effect and not for [injury].”

5. Of all the teams to surrender picks and take on extra salary, the Minnesota Wild would not shott to the top of the list.

Yet, there was GM Bill Guerin this week, taking on punchy fourth-liner and frequent Rangers healthy scratch Ryan Reaves ($1.75 million cap hit) for a future fifth-round draft pick.

In a candid interview on Real Kyper & Bourne, Guerin explained how much he believed Reaves’ personality and energy would inject life into a somewhat middling dressing room.

In short: This was a culture move, much like the costly twin buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s monster contracts.

Those stroked cheques will cost the Wild $12.74 million dead money this season. That figure jumps to $14.74 million in 2023-24 and again in 2024-25.

Ouch.

“I’d do it again,” Guerin said.

Wow.

6. Right before he returned to IR with an upper-body injury, I asked Jordie Benn what was up with his nickname, “Darth,” which is not your typical hockey handle.

Benn played his cards close to the vest.

“I can’t tell you that kind of story. A good buddy of mine gave it to me a long time ago, and it just kinda stuck through the years. It really stuck when I was in Dallas because, on all our gear, we couldn’t have ‘Benn’ and ‘Benn’ on all our gear because of my brother. So it was ‘Darth.’ Made sure my gear didn’t get messed up with Jamie’s. It’s followed me through the years,” Benn said, smiling.

But it’s a reference to Vader, right?

“No.”

OK…

“Well, it has to do with a bit of a dark side. I’m not a big Star Wars fan, even though people think that’s where it comes from. But we’ll keep that story between me and my buddy. Hockey buddies, guys I played with a long time ago. And then my agent, J.P. Barry, is a big part of that nickname as well. People that know me for a long time still call me that, but it’s kind of starting to die off.

“Which is fine. I got kids now.”

7. Prior to his long-awaited NHL debut, Maple Leafs call-up Mac Hollowell accepted a FaceTime from Joe Thornton, with whom he spent time quarantining over Christmas in 2020.

Jumbo’s message?

“Keep it light,” Hollowell relayed to reporters. “He’s never nervous about everything.”

The shortest-tenured Maple Leaf, Hollowell is a perfect 2-0 since supplanting Morgan Rielly, the longest-tenured, in the lineup.

8. Hollowell was one of the newest Maple Leafs, Conor Timmins, closest friends on the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Another was Rasmus Sandin, with whom the 6-foot-2, 202-pound righty was partnered for an entire season.

Timmins also skated with Victor Mete for Canada at the 2018 world juniors, back when the sky was the limit.

“A lot of familiarity here,” the St. Catharines, Ont., native told reporters following his trade to Toronto. “It’s not too far from where I live in the summer.”

GM Kyle Dubas notes that Timmins, an RFA this summer, may be more than a rental. There is hope that with injuries and adversity in the rearview, the 2017 second-rounder can break out and establish himself as an everyday NHLer.

“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Timmins said. “I have a new lease on life and a positive mentality.”

Here’s betting he debuts Saturday in Pittsburgh. Worth a flyer, for both sides.

9. Every July, the goalie carousel is a high-stakes crapshoot.

Which is why I gotta give it up to Hurricanes GM Don Waddell for re-signing his third-string netminder Pyotr Kochetkov to a four-year extension worth an AAV of $2 million.

A gamble, to be sure, for a man whose career record is 5-1-3 with a .910 save percentage.

But the only way to win negotiations under a hard cap is to make smart bets, and Kochetkov comes with pedigree. At 23 years old, you expect his best NHL performances to lie ahead of him.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that the injury-prone Frederik Andersen, 33, and Antti Raanta, also 33, are both speeding toward unrestricted free agency.

This way, Waddell has at least half of his tandem settled, giving him clarity — and some spending dough — as he fills out the other half of his crease in the off-season.

10. What Marner did to the Buffalo Sabres last Saturday — drive hard on a breakaway, only to reveal a drop pass at the final moment — he also did to Mark Giordano and the Seattle Kraken last year. The similarity is uncanny.

“Buried me for a minus. So, I was expecting it,” smiled Giordano, grateful to be on the happy side of the creativity. “What a play by him to dish that to me.”

Giordano is up to 13 shorthanded goals all-time, which knots him with Chris Chelios, and three back of Bobby Orr. Icons, all.

He chuckles. But it’s no fluke.

“Those are pretty big names,” Giordano says. “It’s something always in my career, I think when there’s a chance, especially shorthand, especially now, a lot of teams are using four forwards on the powerplay, and you can catch guys either being out there too long or forwards not playing defence.

“Usually, they’re not used to being back there. So, you can sometimes get up in the play and make things happen. I try to do that when I can.

“I know when I’m on the powerplay, going the other way, it sucks when guys are pressing on the kill and trying to score. So, I’ve tried to do it the other way.”

11. May you attack the weekend the way Linus Ullmark attacks the shooter’s angles…

12. Video clips of Börje Salming’s final tributes in Toronto earlier this month were sent to my uncle, Dave Hudson, who lives in Texas. The images of Salming — at once so weak and so strong — getting showered with his flowers brought tears.

It would be equally difficult to not get emotional watching a crowd of Swedes break into thunderous “BÖR-JE! SAL-MING!” chants at a local game on the day the legend left us:

“I played against him for six years,” writes Uncle Dave, a centre for the Kansas City Scouts, Colorado Rockies, and New York Islanders in the mid-1970s.

He felt pride noticing his Rockies getting featured in the Maple Leafs’ tribute to Salming, and he remembers facing off at centre ice against Darryl Sittler right after Salming scored one of his 150 goals against them.

Sittler looked across the dot that night and told his opponent: “That guy is the best.”

My uncle, like so many others, never forgot it.

Rest in peace, King.

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