Mitch Marner’s skillset is too big to worry about him being small

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:29 am by Jeff Veillette

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SPORTS

Sometimes, when somebody describes a hockey player, you get a mental image of them in your head. The summer of inane arguments about Kris Russell, both involving the Leafs and other teams, gave me a mental image of a hulking, physical, shot blocking machine. Has to be, with the way people talk about him; my eyes must’ve just been deceiving me when he looked pretty pedestrian-sized on my TV.

Sure enough, he’s 5’10, 170. A real-world average height and weight who’s description is larger than life. This post isn’t about Kris Russell in the slightest, but it was baffling to me that this guy, who gets talked about as the player who is more likely to take a player out of the league than to get taken out, is an inch shorter and about the same weight as Mitch Marner.

Mitch Marner, the Leafs’ little kid who will never survive the NHL. Too small at 5’11 or 6’0 and, 170. The opposition will eat the young man alive; it’ll be a miracle if he even manages to stay healthy for more than a few minutes. The first hit will shatter him into a million pieces, obviously.

So far, he’s withstood the physicality just fine. Not that he’s had to face much of it; teams struggle just to keep up with him. Just ask the Florida Panthers last night.

Last night was a breakout night for the 19-year-old, who was filling the between-whistle reels with some fantastic plays to move the Leafs into scoring position but wasn’t having those chances convert into actual goals to start the year. With three assists tonight, the youngster has six points in seven games.

It’s been an impressive start for the kid. He’s first on the team in even-strength scoring rates (fifth if you subtract secondary assists), is throwing pucks towards the net at an extremely high rate (8 on goal and 16 attempts per hour). He’s tied for third on the team in takeaways, and leads all forwards in blocked shots. He’s a bit behind in team-relative shot/possession metrics, but the Leafs are a top-third team in that department where only three players are below 50%.

Qualitatively, he’s fearless, he’s shifty, and has the speed to blow past his opponents. His vision has led to some unreal passes, some that look like sure things until his linemates aren’t quite there to finish them off. His left winger and his centre both at times look like they’re not good enough to keep up with a player of his skill set. Considering that the players in question are James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, and Marner is seven games into his NHL career, a statement like that feels insane to utter.

But it shouldn’t, really. Like we talked about a few days ago with William Nylander, and like we’ve spent so much time talking about with Auston Matthews since lottery day, there’s something to the idea that becoming a dominant forward isn’t a process that has to happen within the confines of the NHL. If you’re a special player, you might be able to make your evolution to stardom before you make that step. Right now, it’s starting to look like this trio of rookies aren’t very far away from being considered by consensus to be, at worst, Top-50 players in the game.

In fairness to skeptics on this side of the debate, it’s easier to justify a raised eyebrow in Marner’s case. It’s one thing to say that a youngster ripping up a less-talented pro league can translate quickly, like Nylander in the AHL and Matthews in the NLA. They’ve faced more mature players from a physical standpoint and the pro games tend to be a bit more structured. Marner, on the other hand, was graduating from the OHL, which as a major-junior league is obviously younger and a bit more high-octane.

But the OHL isn’t exactly devoid of big kids. In fact, those big kids are likely more likely to be reckless with their bodies, a combination of teenage instinct and a felt need to prove their toughness to teams watching from above. If Marner was going to get smoked by someone looking to humble him, it was going to happen there. It didn’t. The bigger question was adjusting to talent, rather than violence.

2012-13 15 Don Mills Flyers Minor Mdgt AAA GTMMHL 55 41 45 86 N/A 34 N/A
15 St. Michael’s Buzzers OJHL 6 1 3 4 7.1 0 N/A
2013-14 16 London Knights OHL 64 13 46 59 24.19 24 38
16 Canada Ontario U17 WHC-17 5 6 3 9 N/A 2 N/A
2014-15 17 London Knights OHL 63 44 82 126 52.48 53 36
2015-16 18 London Knights OHL 57 39 77 116 53.4 68 45
18 Canada U20 WJC-20 5 4 2 6 54.12 4 0

Sometimes a skill set transcends a level, though, and Marner was that. Even in his draft year, Marner scored at a rate that, historically, aligned with being an NHL ready forward at 17. He was sent back to hone his all-around skill set, further develop some leadership qualities, and, if we’re being honest, not get too tarnished by the rough year the Leafs had ahead of them.

We all know what happened from there. OHL MVP, OHL Playoff MVP, CHL MVP, Memorial Cup MVP. The third player in history to get the sweep behind Dale Hawerchuk and Brad Richards. An OHL Championship, and a Memorial Cup. The most points in the playoffs and the Memorial Cup. 174 points in 79 games. Simply put, Marner broke junior hockey. There was no reason to think he couldn’t translate some of that to the NHL right away.

And he has, just like a lot of little guys do. People can say all the way that this game is exclusively for big, strong, tough men, but the reality is that 21 players under 6’0 scored at least 50 points last year, including Art Ross winner Patrick Kane. Three of them have a single digit next to their 5′, including 61 point scorer and 5’7 statured Mats Zuccarello. There’s lots of room for the little guy, so long as they have the skill and agility to get by their opponents.

The funny thing is, these guys are usually good immediately, too. Kane, Crosby, Gaudreau, and Panarin were all instant stars that carried over the pedigree they showed in “weaker” prior leagues. Players like Joe Pavelski, Claude Giroux, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zach Parise had short adjustment periods encouraged by being stuck behind lineup depth, but caught their stride relatively quickly once they got their foot in the door.

Does a small player have a lower chance of “making it” than a bigger one? Statistically, yes; that may or may not be deserved, and could be a matter of a perceived bias rather than a deserved outcome. But once you show that you can dominate despite your physical “setback’, that goes out the window.

Marner’s career to date has involved him throwing that out the window at every level he’s gotten to. He flies by defenders as if they didn’t notice him creeping up, and when it’s time to defend, he plays like he’s six inches taller. That’s why he went 4th overall, that’s why he made the team out of camp, that’s why he had a Draft+1 for the history books last year, and that’s why his transition has been so smooth.

Will he get three assists every night? Probably not. But size, age, and experience aren’t likely to stop this train from blowing by the station any time soon.