I'll admit that coming into the season, I figured the best course of action for the Toronto Maple Leafs was to give Mitch Marner a nine-game tryout – perhaps with some press box watching in between – before sending him back to the OHL's London Knights to get stronger, while also helping Canada go for gold at the World Junior Championship.
Well, it looks like I was supremely wrong about the first part of that statement, judging from his coach's assessment of his play.
"He's outstanding," said Mike Babcock. "He has the puck all the time, he's great defensively, he's a great player."
Talk about a vote of confidence. And that was before Marner registered his first multi-point NHL game, a three-assist dinger that included this nasty piece of business:
As for the world juniors, Canada may just have to beg and plead for the right winger's services now, and even that seems pretty unlikely to work. Because all the welcome-to-the-NHL knocks you'd expect to hang on the kid don't fit. He may be slight, listed at six-foot, 170 pounds – but he doesn't shy away from traffic. And like Patrick Kane, a player he will undoubtedly get compared to if he continues on his current ascent, Marner's size doesn't matter if opponents can never hit him. Plus, as Babcock noted, Marner is playing well at both ends of the ice.
“He’s not just an offensive player, he comes back and plays defense," said left winger Zach Hyman. "He blocks shots and gets in the way – I think that’s really underrated.”
Indeed, Marner is one of Toronto's top shot-blockers right now with nine through seven games. His six points ranks third on the team, trailing only Auston Matthews and William Nylander, and most importantly, he already feels comfortable in Toronto.
“We’re battling every game and we’re going the full 60 minutes," Marner said. "It’s been a lot of fun coming into this room. There’s a lot of young guys and it’s really high-energy.”
One of those young guys who has helped a lot is Hyman, Marner's roommate on the road. At 24, Hyman not only has a few years on the 19-year-old Marner, but he also had 16 games of NHL experience from last season, not to mention a deep playoff run in the AHL with the Toronto Marlies.
“He’s like a dad," Marner said. "He sets the time to wake up, he likes to do all the rules. It’s fun to be on the road with him and get under his skin. Definitely fun to joke around with in the room. I’ve known him since I first got here, he was somebody I liked to talk to.”
Hyman has been similarly impressed with Marner, even if he laughed at the "dad" remark (as it turns out, one of the ways the two tease each other is with nicknames, though decorum dictated that said nicknames remained a secret).
“He’s awesome," Hyman said. "Really easy-going, fun guy. He’s a good kid – he does everything on time, he does everything right.”
So no worries about Marner sleeping through an alarm clock or missing a team meeting. And really, given the spotlight he has been under throughout his high-profile junior career in London – which included multiple OHL titles and a Memorial Cup championship – the kid has been warming up for this opportunity for awhile. There will be bumps along the way and the Maple Leafs are going to lose more than they are going to win in the short-term, but the lethality of Marner, Matthews and Nylander is becoming quite apparent early on.