If you think drafting teenagers into the NHL is a difficult task, imagine what GMs in major junior have to deal with. Those teams have to scout players who are only 15 (and 14 in the case of the WHL) and could still have growth spurts that will change their bodies completely.
Which brings us to London Knights right winger Mitch Marner. When he was taken 19th overall in the 2013 OHL draft, Marner came in at just 5-foot-7.5 and 130 pounds. Sure, he had a great resume with Toronto’s Don Mills Flyers, but what if he didn’t get much bigger?
“There’s always debate when a player is undersized,” said Knights assistant GM and assistant coach Rob Simpson. “But we looked at both his mom and dad and they were both taller.”
So London pulled the trigger and lo and behold, Marner got bigger. He grew an inch and a half that summer, then two more inches since. Now Marner is 5-foot-11, 164 pounds and more importantly, the leading scorer in the OHL with 32 goals and 82 points in 40 games.
“With his point production and how he runs the power play with Max Domi – not many skill guys have what he does inside of him,” Simpson said. “Not only does he want the points, but he wants the win. He’s a big piece to our puzzle.”
Despite his growth spurt, Marner maintains that the key to his success in London has been sticking to his original plan, back when he was a smaller player.
“The first year going in, I had the same mindset as I did this year,” he said. “Keep my feet moving in the corners and try to be defensively responsible. My game is about staying low to the ice and I try to keep doing that now that I’m taller.”
But Marner’s most important traits involve high skill. He’s a tremendously creative player who prides himself on creating chances for the Knights, something he has done consistently this season, even as London has gone through upheaval. Domi, the Arizona first-rounder, missed games due to NHL camp and the world juniors, while Vancouver first-rounder Bo Horvat never returned – he made the Canucks in the fall. The team also recently traded away Montreal first-rounder Michael McCarron and veteran defenseman Dakota Mermis. Still, getting Domi back was huge in Marner’s eyes.
“He’s such a great player and a great leader,” he said. “We feed off him.”
Domi will almost certainly be gone to the pros next season, meaning Marner will be front and center in all facets for the Knights. Fortunately, the right winger has already played in a Memorial Cup thanks to London hosting last season. Though the Knights were unceremoniously dumped in three straight games, knowledge was gained through the adversity.
“Playing against the talent in that tournament was special,” Marner said. “I learned just how important it is to compete every shift.”
Marner is shooting up the draft rankings and with the height thing behind him, it’s hard to see anything that would prevent him from being a top-10 pick or perhaps even top-five. And it’s very tempting to compare him to a former London Knights star who also had a slight frame, but put up a ton of points: Chicago Blackhawks ace Patrick Kane. Marner looks up to Kane and hopes he can live up to any comparisons, lofty as they may be.
Kane racked up an insane 145 points in 58 games the year he went first overall to the Hawks, but something tells me the Knights are quite happy with the production they’re getting from Marner, even if he ends up with a couple less than that.