My friend insists upon anonymity when discussing players on rival teams, though he would happily speak on the record about his own team. Given, however, that I write almost exclusively about the Toronto Maple Leafs, I tell him repeatedly I have no interest in talking about “his” club. Still, he never hangs up on me.
During a telephone–chat late last week, the subject of Auston Matthews arose, as it does frequently around here. My scouting pal is on–side with most in his fraternity — that the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft has the potential to be a front–line phenom. This particular scout, however, is enamored of the Maple Leafs’ initial choice in last summer’s amateur lottery: London Knights forward Mitch Marner. When he offered the bald–faced passage quoted in yellow at the top of this blog, I felt it required a second opinion.
Who better to ring — said I to myself — than Mark Seidel, a 22–year veteran of North American Central Scouting? Mark spends his winter watching and grading players from the three Major Junior leagues (Quebec, Ontario, Western) and the United States high–school and college hockey systems. He knows a good NHL prospect when he sees it. He can also sniff out the over–hyped.
I therefore read to him — without prejudice — the aforementioned quote.
“Hmmm, that’s an interesting observation,” Mark said. “I think I know where your friend is coming from. Here’s the difference, though: If I’m down by one late in the game and need a goal, I put Mitch Marner on the ice. He may have better vision and creative sense in the attacking zone than any player not currently in the NHL. But, if I’m looking for a guy to help me win over 60–plus minutes, I put Auston Matthews on the ice. He is bigger and stronger than Marner and he plays, at this point, a better 200–foot game. Another kid that isn’t far off the ‘best player not yet in the NHL’ category is Christian Dvorak — Marner’s line–mate in London [chosen by Arizona, 58th overall, in 2014]. I think he’s going to score a lot of goals in the desert.”
MARK SEIDEL: CHIEF BIRD–DOG FOR NORTH AMERICAN CENTRAL SCOUTING.
Marner cleaned up in Junior last season — winning four individual and two team awards.
In 57 regular–season games with London, he compiled 39 goals and 77 assists for 116 points — numbers that earned him the Red Tilson Trophy as most outstanding player in the Ontario Hockey League. He was even more productive on a point–per–game basis in the playoffs, as London defeated Owen Sound, Kitchener, Erie and Niagara (sweeping all but the first series) to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup for the third time in the past five years. In 18 matches, he had 16 goals and 28 assists for 44 points and added the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as playoff MVP. He continued to go berserk at the Memorial Cup in Red Deer, Alta. London defeated Red Deer (host), Rouyn–Noranda (Quebec) and Brandon (Western) by a combined score of 20–5 in round–robin play; and then knocked off the QMJHL–titlist Huskies, 3–2, in overtime to win the Canadian Hockey League championship. Marner had two goals and 12 assists in four games to win the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy (tournament MVP) and the Ed Chynoweth Trophy (tournament leading scorer).
“The only thing that stopped Marner is London ran out of games,” marveled my anonymous NHL friend. “He got better and better as the stakes increased. It was one of the most complete and domineering performances I’ve seen from September to May. And, I’ve been watching Junior hockey for a long time.”
MITCH MARNER WAS A BEAST ALL YEAR — LEADING LONDON TO THE 2016 MEMORIAL CUP.
So, is it possible that Marner — and not Matthews — is the Maple Leafs’ ultimate jewel?
Over to you, Mark Seidel.
“I wouldn’t go that far. Yes, I agree Mitchell had a phenomenal season and, yes, he did elevate his performance as the games got bigger. I take nothing away from what he accomplished. But, there’s a difference between playing against 18 and 19–year–old kids… and then moving up against 28 and 29–year–old professionals. As a result of his talent, Mitchell was able to ‘cheat’ [defensively] at the Junior level and get away with it. He won’t be able to do that nearly as often in the NHL; nor will Mike Babcock allow him to. And, that may be his biggest asset. Mike will implore him, and coach him, to become a better 200–foot player. He needs to get bigger and stronger, in my view, to become a dominant pro. But, he has a tremendous I-Q in the offensive zone. He will create scoring opportunities for himself and his line–mates.”
As a potential comparison, the name Patrick Kane arises more than occasionally. “Marner has Kane’s type of vision on the ice,” agreed Seidel. “But, Patrick has three Stanley Cups and a Hart Trophy, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Mitchell was certainly trending in his direction as a Junior. He isn’t as thick as Patrick in the hips and tush, but he’s also 8½ years younger. As I mentioned, he needs to get stronger. But, he has a great hockey mind. And that’s something you cannot teach. If he applies himself; works on his strength and listens to Babcock, he’ll be a very good set–up man in the NHL. And, a dynamic figure on the powerplay.”
As for Matthews, Seidel agrees with most of the hype.
“Expectation for a No. 1 draft pick can be a bit crazy in this era, but Auston is a big, polished kid — on and off the ice — and I think it will show early in his NHL career. Babcock won’t have to push him as hard to play well at both ends of the ice. There are some intangibles that place him ahead of [No. 2 pick] Patrik Laine [of Winnipeg] at this point. If they exercise a bit of patience, fans in Toronto will be very happy with Auston.”
AUSTON MATTHEWS AND MAPLE LEAFS GM LOU LAMORIELLO AT 2016 NHL DRAFT IN BUFFALO.
I ended our conversation by asking Seidel about William Nylander, who showed flashes of brilliance (six goals and 13 points in 22 games) with the Maple Leafs late last season.
“A talented kid with a quick, accurate shot — as we briefly witnessed in the NHL,” Mark replied. “But, a kid that didn’t seem overly interested in the ‘dirty’ areas on the ice. That was the case even in the American Hockey League playoffs [with the Toronto Marlies]. His brother, Alex [drafted eighth overall by Buffalo], is similar. Gifted, but without a corresponding compete level. But, remember, we’re talking about kids that are 20 and 18 years old. It’s too early to label either of them. Both will be coached exceptionally well in the NHL [by Babcock and the Sabres’ Dan Bylsma]. And, each will have to ramp it up in order to fulfill potential.”
BEFORE HOCKEY ON TV
On Saturday, Jan. 5, 1952 — 64 years, six months and 20 days ago — the Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks squared off at Maple Leaf Gardens. While looking through that night’s program in my collection, I came across an intriguing story that dealt with the imminence of National Hockey League games on TV in Canada. To that point in time, radio was the lone medium of broadcast. But, the future was on the horizon.
Here is the program; the line–ups, and the story, written by Bob Hesketh of the old Toronto Telegram:
MITCH AND MAX
Also, did you happen to notice the similar light–up–a–room smiles of Mitch Marner and Max Bentley?
The subject of one of the best trades ever made by the Leafs, Bentley came over from Chicago in a seven–player transaction on Nov. 2, 1947. In a 70–game schedule, he had seasons of 48, 41 and 62 points as the Leafs won Stanley Cup titles in 1948, 1949 and 1951. Toronto defeated Montreal for the ’51 Cup on Bill Barilko’s legendary overtime goal at Maple Leaf Gardens. Bentley led all playoff scorers with 11 assists and tied Maurice Richard of the Canadiens in points with 13.
The Delisle, Sask. native was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.
He lived from Mar. 1, 1920 to Jan. 19, 1984.