Now riding a 10-game point streak, Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Mitch Marner is one of the hottest players in the league right now. He just helped push the Leafs to franchise records in wins (46) and home wins (27) in a season. Not bad for a kid who was 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds when he was drafted by the OHL’s London Knights back in 2013.
But betting on Marner has proven to be a great gambit, with Mark Hunter being the beneficiary twice already. Hunter was the Knights’ GM at the time and once Marner grew a little, he became a firecracker for London, helping the team win the OHL championship and Memorial Cup in 2016. The summer before that, Marner had been taken fourth overall by the Maple Leafs in the NHL draft. Working for Toronto’s front office at the time? Mark Hunter.
Hunter is still part of the Leafs’ brass of course, and his draft acumen has been a big asset. What is interesting to me is that at the time, Marner didn’t appear to be exactly what the Leafs needed. Let me explain.
Back in 2015, Toronto was at the lowest of low points, with a barren prospect pipeline and not much hope in the NHL. The Leafs didn’t have a true No. 1 center and while Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner showed promise on the blueline, the defense needed help, too.
Now let’s look at the 2015 draft class: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were definitely going first and second overall, respectively. Both were franchise centers in the making. After that, Dylan Strome had a ton of upside as a top-line center, prompting Arizona to take him third. So here’s where it gets interesting: Marner, the slight but skilled right winger, is on the board (he was listed as a center, but many prospects are). But so are a trio of high-end defensemen: Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov and Zach Werenski. If you’re Toronto, why take a winger when you could have a potential No. 1 blueliner to help your rebuild?
In retrospect, the answer is “because he’s Mitch Marner.” Yes, the three blueliners taken after him all worked out well, but Marner is flirting with 70 points as a sophomore and there’s another factor to add into the equation.
One year after Marner, Toronto won the draft lottery and the right to employ franchise center Auston Matthews. With another excellent young winger in William Nylander and maturing games from Rielly and Gardiner, the Leafs all of a sudden had a lot more pieces in place. Frederik Andersen cemented the goaltending position and now we’re looking at a very dangerous Toronto team that will only get better next season.
Marner, for his part, has been incredible. Though he plays on the wing, he’s a puck-distributing general out there, as veteran linemate Patrick Marleau can attest to. Marner’s vision, quickness and dazzling hands make him a load to handle and despite his build, he’s not afraid to go into the tough areas.
With Matthews commanding the top line and Nylander riding shotgun, the Maple Leafs have a fearsome attack that comes in waves. Marner does damage on another line, while James van Riemsdyk gives Toronto serious scoring threats on yet another combo. Heck, even Kasperi Kapanen makes the fourth line kinda scary.
At the time, I thought Toronto had taken a bit of risk in drafting Marner. But he has proven himself to be a vital part of the rebuild already and he has only just begun. Mark Hunter knew all along; the rest of us are just catching up.