The Best Maple Leafs Forward Might Not Be Who You Think He Is
TORONTO — The Maple Leafs superstars John Tavares and Auston Matthews have been as good as advertised this season, and often even better.
But Mitch Marner, who came to this championship-starved city with high expectations after he was chosen with the No. 4 overall pick in 2015, has had a breakout year and made a case that he’s the most valuable Maple Leafs forward.
Marner, a 21-year-old winger, led Toronto in points this season and became the youngest player in Maple Leafs history to record 90 points, the first to hit that benchmark in 22 years.
Marner finished 11th in the N.H.L. with 94 points (26 goals and 68 assists), six points ahead of Tavares and 21 ahead of Matthews, who missed 14 games because of injury. Marner and Tavares play on the same line, and Marner was a key reason Tavares, in his first season in Toronto, had a career-high 47 goals this season.
Tavares, Matthews and Marner, along with goaltender Frederik Andersen, will need to be at their best as the Maple Leafs seek postseason redemption against the Boston Bruins, their first-round opponent for the second straight season. Their best-of-seven series starts Thursday in Boston.
The wounds remain fresh from last spring’s opening round, when Toronto coughed up a 4-3 second-period lead and lost, 7-4, in a shocking conclusion to Game 7.
But last season the Leafs didn’t have Tavares, the longtime Islanders star. His signing to a seven-year, $77 million contract as a free agent last summer created hope in a city long accustomed to hockey failure. The Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and haven’t won a playoff series since 2004.
Although Marner can’t match Tavares or Matthews in goal-scoring ability, he has wowed everyone with his vision.
“The one thing about Marner,” Tampa Bay Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said, “is he is as smart a player as this league has not only seen this year, but has ever seen.”
Marner attributes his creativity to playing multiple sports as a youth. Soccer helped develop his footwork, and lacrosse was important in developing his hands and mobility around the goal area.
“Both soccer and lacrosse are creative in their own ways,” Marner said. “In soccer, I was a midfielder so I did a lot of the running up and down the field, and lacrosse-wise I think it helped with the hands a lot. It’s a different kind of motion in lacrosse for trying to get around guys, so I think that helped as well.”
Born in Markham, Ontario, north of Toronto, Marner evokes comparisons to Patrick Kane and Johnny Gaudreau, other elusive, flashy stickhandlers. But in these parts, the 6-foot, 175 pound Marner is more reminiscent of Doug Gilmour, another smallish Maple Leafs forward who brought a heart and joy to the game.
“He’s skilled, explosive and wants the puck and sees the ice so well,” said Gilmour, who believes Marner will someday break his franchise record for assists in a season, 95.
Tavares said Marner has talked to him on the bench about the patterns he saw opponents employing.
“He just reads the game so well, not just with the puck, but without it, that he’s able anticipate plays,” Tavares, 28, said.
Whether it’s because of his peach-fuzz cheeks or lack of size, Marner was often overlooked as he developed. But one person has championed those skills from the start: his father, Paul.
When Mitch was 4, his father phoned the hockey skills coach Rob Desveaux to see if he could give the boy private lessons as he had with Tyler Seguin, now with the Dallas Stars.
Desveaux, who runs 3 Zones Hockey School northeast of Toronto, turned Marner down, saying he started training players at age 6.
Paul Marner called a week later, and Desveaux stood firm. A couple of weeks later, Paul called again.
“Oh, my God, this guy,” Desveaux remembered thinking to himself.
When Mitch and his father arrived, Desveaux was in for another shock.
“Oh, my God, he’s tiny,” Desveaux said.
“Yeah, but watch him,” Paul pleaded.
Mitch flew around the ice once, and the skills coach turned to Paul and said: “O.K., he’s in.”
Desveaux has been Marner’s on-ice skills coach ever since.
Marner exudes a boyish charm and sense of warmth that has made him a fan favorite across the league. He has been seen singing along to Bon Jovi on the bench.
On Feb. 14, during the pregame warm-up in Las Vegas, a young girl in a Leafs jersey held up a sign at ice level. “Hey Mitch. Be My Valentine,” the sign read.
Marner skated over to shrieks of delight from the young girl, and he posed for pictures.
In early March, Marner celebrated the seventh birthday of Hayden Foulon, who has been battling leukemia, by giving tickets to her and her family.
Marner, who met Hayden in 2015 when he was a forward with the O.H.L.’s London Knights, also gave her a necklace with a heart-shaped locket with room for a photo of both of them.
“She is my hero,” Marner said. “She means a lot to me and my family.”
Marner’s rise to hockey’s highest level has not been without bumps, despite early signs of great potential.
In 2013, Marner entered the O.H.L. draft listed at 5-7 and only 130 pounds. He slid all the way to No. 19, amid concerns about his size and durability, a theme throughout his hockey career.
And in the 2015 N.H.L. draft, the Leafs considered taking defenseman Noah Hanifin with their No. 4 overall pick until they settled on Marner. He was sent back to juniors in the 2015-16 season and didn’t crack the Maple Leafs roster until 2016-17. Then, early in his second season, Babcock demoted Marner to the fourth line for a time because the coach was unhappy with Marner’s defensive play.
Marner used the experience to get stronger in the off-season with his longtime off-ice performance coach Dan Noble.
To boost power in his legs so he could bounce off opponents with acceleration, Noble fitted Marner with a water vest. During squats, the water moves around, creating an imbalance that mimics hockey players’ dynamic movements.
“We call it bulletproofing his hips,” Noble said.
Marner is eligible to become a restricted free agent this summer, and many, including former Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke, believe he can command the kind of money Tavares and Matthews make at around $11 million a season, although such a rich deal would add to the club’s salary-cap challenges.
“He’s their most exciting player,” said Burke, now a television analyst. “I love Auston Matthews, but he ain’t selling tickets. He ain’t exciting. Mitch Marner is exciting.”