Prototypes. Each hockey fan has a picture in his or her mind of what a particular type of player can do. Centers are the quarterbacks of hockey. They control the puck and often score goals, but, more importantly, the good ones make their teammates better. In modern lingo, they “dish” the puck to goal-scoring wingers or offensive defensemen who are “joining the play.” The good wingers are essentially goal-scorers who can finish the opportunities their centers create. Some, like Alex Ovechkin, are always visible. Others, like Patrik Laine, are often invisible until they are in a position to do immediate damage. Like Ovechkin and Laine, top NHL wingers are expected to have enough size and strength to win board battles for the puck.
When the prototypes are broken, fans become confused. Good players who don’t fit the mold are admired, but fans aren’t sure what to make of them. Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Toronto’s Mitch Marner have been two of the top wingers, indeed two of the top players, in the NHL this season. Both are considerably below average size. Neither player is going to win many physical battles. Although both can score goals, their prime value is to make plays to goal-scoring centers and offensive defensemen. Fans respect their accomplishments, but they look at them and…gulp. Can these players be cornerstones of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders? Can either Gaudreau or Marner be that good? Let’s look at how these players are attempting to beat the hockey odds, and how they compare to each other.
Both players have had great career starts. Both were standouts in amateur hockey and have continued to be elite in the NHL. Gaudreau was the top player in the NCAA in his last year at Boston College. Marner was the best player on a Memorial Cup team in his last season of major junior with OHL London. Both have averaged almost a point per game in the NHL. Gaudreau is almost four years older than Marner and is in his fifth NHL season while Marner is in his third.
‘Johnny Hockey’ can carry the puck skating backwards and laterally better than most players can carry it going forward. I don’t see blinding speed from Gaudreau, but his balance, quickness and change of pace are at the elite level. Marner’s skating is deceptive. It doesn’t appear to have much power, but his balance, pivoting and acceleration are top-notch. He also lacks blinding speed. Marner’s skating is above average, but it is not at Gaudreau’s level.
HOCKEY SENSE AND COMPETITIVENESS
For wingers the size of these two, their hockey sense must be at the elite level for them to be impact players. Whatever grade you want to give for the highest level of hockey sense, both achieve it on a nightly basis. I can’t question their judgment for decisions on the ice. Like all players, their execution is not always perfect, but their “thinking of the game” is as close to perfect as you’re going to find. Neither player ever takes a shift off. Their effort and alertness remain at a high level throughout a game, even when they are fatigued.
Marner’s edge in this category became evident to me while watching him and through some of the statistical material I studied. Neither player relies on brute strength in 1-on-1 confrontations or during board battles. Both resort to body and stick positioning and timing. The reality is that, although Marner is below average NHL size (six-foot, 175 pounds), Gaudreau is tiny (5-foot-9, 165 pounds). In some situations along the boards, Gaudreau can get bowled over by a bigger opponent. If he is in tight quarters when he’s pivoting with the puck, a good push can often put him off-balance. Marner has exceptional body positioning during any 1-on-1 situation and makes great use of his stick to steal pucks or keep pucks in his possession. He is much more effective than Gaudreau in tight quarters. Two statistical comparisons back up my point. These are takeaways and giveaways. Any giveaways from these two players do not arise from bad puck decisions. The only times they give the puck away are when they are stripped of it. At last count, since entering the NHL in 2016, Marner has 135 giveaways. In that same period of time in slightly fewer games, Gaudreau has 230 giveaways. Marner has 191 takeaways since 2016; Gaudreau has 113. The two players are equally smart. Marner just has more power to get pucks from the opposition.
Both players are expected to be first-line wingers, take extra shifts – especially when their teams are behind – and play on the first power-play unit, often on the point. Because of his superior strength, Marner is more valuable as a penalty killer and in defensive situations. In fact, he is becoming as versatile as any of the top players in the NHL. He can be used effectively in virtually any situation. Gaudreau is great in his role, but so is Marner, and the latter can do more things.
GOING FOR THE CUP
These players will be relied upon to be leaders of Stanley Cup contenders. Can they meet the challenge? Gaudreau is very consistent. His game does not vary much from night to night. He just dares you to beat him at it. Marner adjusts his game according to the circumstances. Like Gaudreau, he is an excellent playmaker. My only concern about Marner was whether he could score goals under pressure. The Dec. 15 game in Florida answered my concerns. The entire Maple Leafs team looked tired and ragged. The ice conditions were poor. Cute finesse passes weren’t working. Marner took matters into his own hands. Late in the third period, he faked passes and absolutely wired two shots past a red-hot Roberto Luongo to send the game into overtime. Marner can make plays, he can score and he can be used in defensive situations. He is stronger than Gaudreau and he is durable. I would value him more highly for a long playoff run.
Two small first-line wingers who are basically playmakers have become legitimate NHL stars. I am biased in that they are two of my favorite hockey players. Both are smaller than ideal. Gaudreau, as mentioned, is tiny. Marner is stronger and durable and that makes him more versatile. He is more valuable than Gaudreau in a run for the 2019 Stanley Cup. Nevertheless, the brain trust in Toronto has a problem. Pundits keep pointing out that Marner is a better player than William Nylander. I’ll take that a step further: he is a better player than John Tavares. How much money is there to go around? Oh well, let’s ignore the business aspects and enjoy the terrific entertainment that Marner, and Gaudreau, can offer to all hockey fans.