“During the second half of last season, Mitchell Marner was the best player in
the world not yet in the NHL — including Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.”
— Western Conference amateur scout
Anyone that paid even casual attention to hockey last year knows that Marner enjoyed the best season of Junior since Sidney Crosby in 2004–05. The Maple Leafs’ first pick (fourth overall) in the 2015 NHL draft cleaned up, winning every major award with London of the Ontario Hockey League, including MVP of the regular season; MVP of the playoffs; MVP and leading scorer of the Memorial Cup tournament (which the Knights won). There was no one close to him among NHL prospects in North America. Still, his diminutive frame — he is listed generously at 6–feet, 170 pounds — incited caution within the scouting fraternity.
Could Marner, his gifts notwithstanding, endure a full NHL schedule against mostly larger opposition?
Would he be the second–coming of Patrick Kane? Or another version of Nazem Kadri?
MITCH MARNER SPENT ALL OF LAST SPRING RECEIVING AWARDS IN MAJOR JUNIOR HOCKEY.
Neither question can be answered, conclusively, after only 17 games. Marner has to stay healthy for the balance of the season and then prove he can hold up when playoff races develop; fatigue sets in during the long NHL schedule, and games become tougher down the stretch in March and April. He could have done so, blindfolded, a year ago in Junior. But, the NHL is a different animal. At least, it’s supposed to be different.
Not that anyone can tell through the infant portion of Marner’s rookie campaign.
He started off tentatively; became a bit more adventurous after scoring his first NHL goal in the Leafs second match (Oct. 14, at Air Canada Centre, against Boston) and then realized that — yes — he could dazzle with his skill in the world’s best professional league. Of particular acclaim is that Mitch has no swagger. There’s isn’t need for him to strut; everything he accomplishes while bounding about the ice like a pinball comes naturally. If you watch his expression after a nifty play, he seems almost perplexed. “Did I really do that? Yeah, I did,” says the look. And, did he ever against Florida on Thursday night here in town — scoring a partial–breakaway goal against former Maple Leaf James Reimer with a move than cannot be scripted.
Here’s a video of the play that put the Leafs up on the Panthers, 4–1: http://bit.ly/2g4d05y
This was not the work of an average NHL talent.
Marner is trending spectacularly toward Kane in the first 1½ months of his big–league career. There’s the small matter of three Stanley Cups; a Calder, Art Ross and Hart Trophy still to be accomplished before any legitimate comparison can be made to the Chicago Blackhawks’ phenom. But, indications abound. Clearly.
MITCH MARNER IS ABOUT TO PULL TO HIS FOREHAND AND BEAT FLORIDA NETMINDER JAMES REIMER WITH A HIGHLIGHT–REEL GOAL ON THURSDAY NIGHT AT AIR CANADA CENTRE. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
IT’S BEEN AWHILE
For those wondering, the last member of the Leafs to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year was Kingston, Ont. native Brit Selby, way back in 1965–66. He did so with numbers that wouldn’t be considered for the award today: 14 goals and 27 points in 61 games. Marner is on pace for 27 points in 30 games. The Calder runner–up in ’65–66 was Detroit Red Wings defenseman Bert Mashall. Prior Leaf winners of the trophy included: Dave Keon (1960–61 / runner–up Bob Nevin, Toronto), Frank Mahovlich (1957–58 / runner–up Bobby Hull, Chicago), Howie Meeker (1946–47 / runner–up Jim Conacher, Detroit), Frank McCool (1944–45 / runner–up Ken Smith, Boston), Gus Bodnar (1943–44 / runner–up Bill Durnan, Montreal), Gaye Stewart (1942–43 / runner–up Glen Harmon, Montreal) and Syl Apps (1936–37 / runner–up Gordie Drillon, Toronto).
BRIT SELBY (ABOVE) IN THE 1966–67 EXPORT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS CALENDAR, A YEAR AFTER WINNING THE CALDER TROPHY AS NHL ROOKIE–OF–THE–YEAR. SELBY WAS LEFT UNPROTECTED FOR THE 1967 EXPANSION DRAFT AND CLAIMED BY THE PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (BELOW). HE RETURNED TO THE LEAFS IN 1968–69 AND PLAYED 99 GAMES OVER PARTS OF THREE SEASONS. GENERAL MANAGER JIM GREGORY TRADED HIM TO ST. LOUIS FOR BOB BAUN ON NOV. 13, 1970.
PLAYING WITH THE BIG BOYS
After six weeks of the NHL season, the Leafs are riding high in a couple of areas. Number one — and it cannot be minimized — the team is completely healthy, with all of its key players in the line–up. Enjoy it while it lasts, for injuries are as certain as death and taxes. At some point, the Leafs will feel the bite experienced, thus far, by such front–line NHLers as Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles), Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), Jack Eichel (Buffalo), Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary), Seth Jones (Columbus), Patrick Sharp (Dallas), Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida) and Taylor Hall (New Jersey). Secondly, the full–strength Leafs are a force at the Air Canada Centre, with a 7–2 record after nine games; outscoring the opposition, 37–28. It hasn’t been often over the years (decades, half–century) that we could say the Maple Leafs are dominant on home ice.
But, can Toronto play with the “big boys” so early in its development?
Defeats against Chicago (5–4 SO), Tampa Bay (7–3), Los Angeles (7–0) and Pittsburgh (4–1) indicate otherwise… and no one reasonably expected the club to contend with the NHL elite. Conversely, the best performance by the Blue and White may have been a 2–1 loss at Montreal (Oct. 29), in which Carey Price abducted both regulation points. Toronto skated all night with the high–flying Canadiens, out–shooting Montreal, 38–31. It was, easily, William Nylander’s finest hour in a Leafs jersey. The slick Swede showed what he is capable of when fully engaged and willing to compete for the puck. There’s been little evidence of that determination since the pre–Halloween match. But, Willie and the Buds get a second crack at the Habs on Saturday night in Montreal — oddly, their final appearance of the season at the Bell Centre.
And, another chance for the young, entertaining club to measure itself against the best.
WHY THE CHANGE?
This is not — and I stress, not — an indictment of Mike Ross, in his first season as public–address announcer at Maple Leaf home games. I’ve known the 43–year–old Ottawa native for a number of years. He is a first–rate broadcaster, having worked for the NHL Network on Sirius–XM Satellite Radio. And, he’s doing a fine job thus far with pre–game material; goals, assists and penalties from his gondola perch at the ACC. Mike’s only problem (and he cannot be blamed for it) is an indistinctive voice. He sounds like 20 other guys his age warbling into a microphone. And, that separates Ross, rather sharply, from his two predecessors — Paul Morris and Andy Frost — both of whom were singular and almost idiosyncratic in their delivery.
Morris and Foster Hewitt are undoubtedly the most imitated voices in Leaf annals.
Frost rattled the ACC foundation every time he leaned into a call.
MIKE ROSS: A GOOD GUY DOING A GOOD JOB IN HIS FIRST YEAR AT THE ACC.
Practically every move made by Leafs president Brendan Shanahan — hiring Mark Hunter, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock; the Centennial–season commemoration; changing the policy of refusing to retire jersey–numbers — has been spot–on. This decision is more puzzling. For the first time since 1964, the Leafs do not have a unique voice at the P.A. microphone. On the surface, there was no reason to replace Frost, who handled the job beginning in the 1999–2000 season. At least, nothing that’s been explained to this point.
That said — and I repeat — Ross is doing very well in his new role.
His delivery is sharp and friendly. You can tell, immediately, that he loves the gig.
And, why shouldn’t he?
60–YEAR TIME WARP
From my collection — the oldest of 15 EXPORT Maple Leaf Gardens calendars. This one dating 60 years, to the 1956–57 NHL season. It was hardly a memorable year, as the Leafs — between Stanley Cup dynasties — would miss the playoffs with a 21–34–15 record for 57 points in 70 games. Only Chicago finished beneath Toronto in the six–team league. Howie Meeker was coach. Teeder Kennedy (in his final season) and Jim Thomson split the captaincy. Dick Duff led the club with 26 goals; George Armstrong with 44 points. No Leafs scoring leader (even in a lockout–shortened season) has since accumulated such a paltry total.
It was the 25th anniversary of Maple Leaf Gardens.
SO, WHAT WERE YOU DOING 60 YEARS AGO TODAY? IF LIKE ME, NOT MUCH. I WOULDN’T BE BORN UNTIL FEBRUARY 1959. THE LEAFS WERE IN BOSTON, LOSING 4–3 TO THE BRUINS.
MONTREAL WON ITS FIRST OF AN NHL–RECORD FIVE CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUPS IN 1955–56. FUTURE LEAFS ON THE MEMORIAL CUP–WINNING TORONTO MARLBOROS (TOP–RIGHT AND BELOW) INCLUDED OWNERS STAFFORD SMYTHE AND HAROLD BALLARD; PLAYERS BOB BAUN, BOB PULFORD, BOB NEVIN, WALLY BOYER AND CARL BREWER. THE COACH WAS LEGENDARY LEAFS GOALIE TURK BRODA.