Yesterday afternoon, Mike Babcock called Mitch Marner “an elite defensive player.” Last night, against the Calgary Flames, Marner proved it.
Babcock’s exact quote prior to the game was, “He’s like Datsyuk was. He’s faster with the puck than without it but he’s an elite defensive player. He can check it back as good as anybody in hockey.”
Often overshadowed by his jaw-dropping offensive skills, Marner’s play away from the puck commands respect. He’s gone from good to great in this area, with signs of an uptick in defensive impact evident early in the season, which I wrote about in November. In the time since, Marner has continued to impact the game defensively at a high level and in a media market as intense as Toronto, where every angle is covered, often repeatedly, it’s surprising this isn’t a bigger story.
In last night’s 6-2 win, Marner finished with a goal, two assists and a plus three rating. He also blocked a team-high nine passes. Zach Hyman’s game-winning goal wouldn’t have happened without the Marner breakaway that preceded it and the breakaway was a result of a couple of phenomenal defensive plays made by Marner.
Like Babcock said, Marner can “check it back as good as anybody,” and he showed that by tracking the puck carrier on the Flames zone entry, making up ground to put himself in a passing lane at the face-off dot. He then blocks a centering pass, forcing the puck around the back of the net.
As play continues, Marner gets knocked off the puck by Matthew Tkachuk (or slew-footed depending on how you look at it), gets up, anticipates a pass back to the point, intercepts it and is off to the races. Second later, the eventual game-winner is in the back of the Flames net.
A blocked pass to deny a potential scoring chance in his own end followed by a blocked pass that led to a goal at the other end. A perfect example of the elite 200-foot player Marner has evolved into. The nine blocked passes Marner had in last night’s game give him 359 for the season, good for 9th among all forwards. He’s most active in the offensive zone, turning defense into offense, ranking 3rd in blocked passes.
Add up individual defensive measures like blocked passes, blocked shots, stick checks and hits that cause a loss of possession and Marner ranks 10th among forwards in individual defensive impact. If ‘while on-ice’ results are your thing, Marner ranks 60th among forwards (minimum 500 even-strength minutes) with a very respectable high-danger shot differential of 55.9%. Marner is also being used regularly on the penalty kill for the first time, this season, ranking 5th among Leafs forwards with 76:04 shorthanded time on ice.
So, is Mitch Marner a Selke Trophy candidate?
I wouldn’t go that far – yet. Ryan O’Reilly would get my vote today and there are others I would comfortably put in my top-5 ahead of Marner. However, I’m not going to be shocked to see Marner legitimately start entering the conversation in the near future – maybe, as early as next season. Not bad, considering we’re talking about a 21-year old winger who was skating on the 4th line at times last season. Whether it’s the Selke trophy or awards earned for offensive production, major individual accolades are coming for Marner.
For now, he’ll just have to settle for being one of the top, 200-foot wingers in the game who’s about to earn a massive payday.
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)