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Toronto Maple Leafs

Mitch Marner Needs One More Year With the Knights

OHL: OCT 15 Erie Otters at London Knights
(Mark Spowart/Icon Sportswire)

London Knights forward Mitch Marner tore up the OHL last season.

With 126 points (44G, 82A) in 63 games, the Knights alternate captain finished second in OHL scoring, behind only Erie Otters center Dylan Strome who scored 129. Had it not been for the unusual, once-in-a-generation top-two consisting of wunderkinds Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, Marner likely would have been a top-two pick himself alongside Strome at the 2015 NHL Draft.

His talent is tremendous, and it’s no wonder the Toronto Maple Leafs were so eager to draft him. Yet Marner is one of those incredible prospects who seems too good to go back to junior, yet not ready for the NHL quite yet. Despite that, Leafs’ brass should be cautious when dealing with the moderately-sized, speedy forward. Going with the option to send Marner back to the OHL seems most appropriate for this situation.

Before he was sidelined due to injury this past postseason, Marner was on an absolute tear. With 16 points (9G, 7A) in just seven games for London, he actually led all skaters in scoring before he went down and before his team was eliminated in their second-round series against the Otters. He proved that once on a roll, he cannot be slowed down–but his injury suggested something that may stand in the way of that.

The NHL is much quicker and there is a lot less space to work with. Take a player of Marner’s size (5’11″/160-ish pounds) and put him at center (the position Toronto tentatively wants him to play in the NHL) on a Maple Leafs team that is not expected to go anywhere this season, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The Shanahan/Dubas/Lamoriello era in Toronto has been–and will continue to be–all about patience in developing prospects and rebuilding the team carefully, so there is no reason for them to change that philosophy now for their promising but not-quite-physically-mature prospect.

Had their been an AHL clause for players of Marner’s caliber (though it would be tough figuring out how to judge that), it would not be a surprise to see him suiting up with William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic and the rest of the Toronto Marlies this fall.

However, being that he is one of the youngest prospects in his draft class (he turned 18 just shy of two months before the 2015 draft), Marner will not be AHL-eligible until the 2017-2018 season–something that both he and Leafs’ brass hope will not even be a necessary route for him to take, given that all parties involved are hoping for a swift transition to the NHL as early as next fall.

But for now, it’s best to play it safe. The only thing Toronto will be contending for this year is a lottery spot. And even that is no longer a given regardless of placement, as each of the top three picks in the draft will be assigned based on its own lottery drawing, so the Leafs could finish dead-last and end up with the fourth-overall pick, at worst.

Still, there’s no rush for Marner to make it to the NHL like, say, there is for Connor McDavid in Edmonton, where he is entering a situation in which the Oilers are beyond desperate for a postseason berth.

Perhaps the biggest need for Marner going back to the OHL this season is that he needs to become more physically mature, but another element to his game that needs work is acclimating to the center position – Toronto’s desired role for him when he finally cracks the roster.

We wait and see… see how the season goes, what your matchups are and who you’re playing against and how they’re doing down low [in the defensive zone] because it takes a lot of responsibility for the centreman. Mitch is not an overly big guy. He’s just got to get physically stronger to play a 200-foot game.

– Mark Hunter, Leafs director of player personnel

It sounds like even Hunter–who drafted Marner and oversaw his rookie season as Knights GM–thinks Marner needs to bulk up a bit and learn the center position better before he makes it to the NHL. But the Knights forward has actually played center before, so don’t let it fool you that he was last season’s can’t-miss major-junior right-winger.

Marner played center until recently, when London became crowded with pivots and had Marner fill a need on the wing. But with a history of playing the position, it shouldn’t take much for him to re-acquaint himself with the role of being a centerman.

Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello compared the situation to that of his former player in New Jersey/current superior in Toronto, team president Brendan Shanahan:

He was too good to go back to junior but not quite ready for the NHL. So he had a slower process the first year. You had to work with that. And look at the player he became.

Shanahan–who also played his junior hockey with the London Knights–did not return to the OHL in the fall of 1987 after he was drafted second overall by the Devils that summer. However, as Lamoriello pointed out, he was in a similar situation and had to be brought along slowly.

Marner should definitely be sent back to the OHL though, where he will take Max Domi‘s role as top-line center and possibly even captain, and he will also get a chance to prove himself on the biggest junior international stage – the U20 World Junior tournament.

Toronto can wait one more year, and it’s sure to pay off.

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