TORONTO — And now for something completely different.
Albeit situationally, of course.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe — that preacher of puck-possession who loves his forwards backchecking and his blue-liners pinching — and Marner had been discussing the experiment prior to the opening of training camp.
We’re seeing Marner take reps at RD more frequently as camp progresses and the look should be unveiled in a pre-season game soon.
Taking the odd shift on the back end would mark the next stage in the evolution of Marner’s 200-foot game and signal another baby step toward position-free hockey.
Marner is already a top-line penalty-killer and a defensively conscious forward who registered 72 takeaways and a career-best plus-23 rating last season. He’s appeared on Selke ballots four years running.
“I’ve got a pretty good library of clips where he’s actually playing defence,” Keefe said Thursday.
“Even though he’s a forward on the shift, he’s in the defence spot and quarterbacking things, and at times even defending. So, that’s sort of why we came to that conclusion.”
Don’t fret, Leafs Nation: Marner won’t regularly be stolen from Auston Matthews’ right flank.
If Keefe deploys the 97-point man on D, it will be in specific situations where the Maple Leafs are trailing and need a goal or have a prime offensive-zone draw to break a tie or tack on an insurance goal.
In these instances, Marner could slide back, and a fourth forward — William Nylander, most likely — could hop the boards and give the opposition fits.
Such an experiment is only worth trying if you have the proper personnel, however.
“The players themselves have to have a certain skill set and intelligence, speed and instinct,” Keefe explained. “Players move around now and forwards end up having to cover and play on defence far more frequently, probably, than in the history of our game.
“Naturally, players younger and younger are gonna start to come up with those type of skill sets. … You look at the way (offensive D-man and Norris champ) Cale Makar plays the game, there’s a lot of young kids growing up that are gonna want to look like that.”
Interest in nudging Marner away from the net is heightened because Toronto only has one natural right-shot defender (Justin Holl) on its roster. Keefe’s staff is searching for ways to improve the lineup’s transition game and its O-zone presence on the right point.
“(Lefties T.J.) Brodie and (Jake) Muzzin and (Mark) Giordano can contribute in their own way, but it’s a little different feel there with someone like Mitch,” Keefe said.
“Mitch spends a lot of time up at the blue line as it is. Obviously, the power play he plays up there quite a bit. So, it was just more natural for me to consider that because he’s done it at the NHL level. He’s run the power play from the top in a five-forward type of look in junior. So, he’s got lots of experience doing that.”
For now, the “Marner as D-man” brainstorm is still in the testing stage.
The Maple Leafs will evaluate the effectiveness of the formation in the pre-season before determining how and when to roll out the ol’ 4F-1D in games that matter.
For now, the aggression and innovation have added a compelling side plot to a camp — and a fresh challenge for Marner.
“I think he would do well. I think he’d be considered an offensive defenceman and be able to contribute in that way. I think that we’re open to trying anything,” said full-fledged defenceman Morgan Rielly. “Just proves that we’ve got a dynamic group of forwards that can do a multitude of different things.”
Heck, while they’re swapping positions, Rielly wouldn’t mind a shot at wing.
“Let’s not rule out a line of defence from going out there up front,” he smiled. “I mean, if they can play D, we can play forward.”