Why Mitch Marner plays the best hockey of his life: ‘You start to trust yourself’

DALLAS – Fair or not, a story with eye-rolling eyes at Toronto Maple Leafs training camps had been established every time Mitchell Marner would announce his personal goal for the upcoming season.

Without fail, the assistant magician would explain how he had spent the summer working on his shot.

Born with the pass-first gene and blessed to skate with one of the greatest snipers the sport has ever seen, Marner would routinely promise that he would make himself a “double threat.” That, hey, guys, he too could score goals at the NHL level.

And of course he could. Those silky-soft mittens, cold-blanket. His elite hockey mind could seek holes and throw himself over rebounds. But eye-to-eye, from a distance, opposing goalkeepers would smartly secure their efforts on a court elsewhere.

Throughout his first five seasons, Marner had reached 20 goals three times. Respectable.

But Marner’s assist total had always been more than double, and once tripled his goal. He was an elite setup man. One of the best in the world.

So the notion that Marner’s shot – affectionately referred to as “a muffin”, at times by his loving teammates – would ever create fear, triggered an “I-want-to-believe-it-when-I-see-it” reaction from his skeptics.

Marner was typecast as Adam Oates; you-know-who Brett Hull was.

Before Tuesday night in Florida – when Marner for the first time exceeded the 30-goal mark and increased his shot percentage to career-best 16.7 – he also admitted doubts that his theory of double threat would come to light.

“I think I always knew I had it in me. I just never really trusted it, believed in it,” Marner says when the cameras don’t roll. “And when it starts to go in, then it starts. one to believe much more.You begin to trust much more in yourself and get yourself into opportunities (to shoot).

“From that point on, it makes the goalkeeper play more honestly with you. It gives you other options and other guys to give the puck to and get a chance to score.”

As his shot helps his pass and vice versa, Marner’s conspicuous assist total (57) no longer rounds his goal (31). For the first campaign of his career, he averages more than three shots per game. night.

Such a script flip would be hard to predict after the disastrous endgame of 2021, when No. 16 was painted as the No. 1 scapegoat in the Montreal collapse. Or after a nightmarish October where Marner collected a goal and two helpers.

Crossing fingers, Marner seems to have overcome his doubts and demons.

He lives at least in the present.

And in this moment?

“He’s on fire. He’s a wizard with the puck,” teammate Wayne Simmonds says, spicing up. “He has eyes on the side of his head, on the back of his head. I do not even know how he does it. He has been fantastic for us. ”

Marner runs on a seven-game multipoint streak within an 11-game point streak, where he has piled up 26 points.

Since returning from a match with COVID (i.e. 10 days of video games) on January 15, Marner has crammed 67 points into 35 games. These are Xbox numbers that no Maple Leaf has matched over a similar sample size.

“Since Mitchy came back,” says captain John Tavares, “he’s just been on fire in all areas of the game. You can just see his confidence grow. He’s shooting the puck and has touch around the net. We know about his playing skills and how it can affect the game in so many different areas.With and without the puck he keeps getting better and better.

“He really embraces it and wants to push his game and find another gear and continue to be more and more effective.”

Marner judges the fourth league in points per. match (1.44), number two in shorthanded goal (four), seventh in assists and seventh in straight strength points (60). He’s a key component to the NHL’s seventh-best penalty kick and best power-play unit, plus revolutions in the NHL’s hottest line.

We will say it: Mitch Marner plays the best hockey of his life.

Do you agree, Mitch Marner?

“Definitely close, yes,” Marner replies. “I mean, I’m just fine with the overall 200-foot (game). And penalty-kill, power-play, special team-like, it just feels great out there. Moving. I just have to try to keep that mojo on it.”

Too late, Marner’s mojo is being overshadowed by his eternal roommate. Auston Matthews rewrites Leaf’s goal scoring history and chases Rocket Richard, Hart and Ted Lindsay hardware in the process.

Just because Marner gets used to answering questions about his center man does not mean he should be seen as Robin for Matthews’ Batman, Vinnie for his Treach, Lance Mountain for his Tony Hawk.

The hierarchy is not that serious. Each of them enhances the other.

“His shot has come a long way,” Matthews said. “It’s something he’s worked on a lot. … It definitely makes it a little harder to defend. “

Hard enough that the other Leafs do not take it for granted.

“We were at dinner (Friday) night, a couple of us, and were just talking about that line,” goalkeeper Jack Campbell says, shaking his head. “Just practicing against them and where is it hard.

“I can not say enough about the guys and their production, but more importantly their attitudes every day and what they bring to the team.”

Marner comes up with one thing Matthews does not do: penalty kills.

On Tuesday, he became the fastest player in league history to score a shorthanded goal and a power-play goal in a row; his 37-second brilliance broke the record away from Mario Lemieux.

“The shorthanded goal was incredible,” wondered Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Just a big leg.”

Keefe says Marner has established such a high level of play that it is difficult to determine whether he tops.

“But offensively, especially the goal scoring and the connection he’s developed here with both Auston and Bunts (Michael Bunting), one feels like it’s definitely gone to another level,” Keefe said. “He has so much more confidence offensively and the line gets so much more dangerous because of the threat to him to score.”

TJ Brodie claims that Marner deserves more credit for his defensive play. And the Marners plus-20 this season (and plus-69 over the last four seasons) would testify to that. He steals on average per. fight and has put a career high in hits (54).

Keefe takes it a step further and says that his most trusted winger should be part of the Selke debate. (Marner finished in 10th place in the 2020-21 poll.)

“A top penalty killer on one of the top penalty kill units. Plays tough minutes. He’s at the top of the list of guys who go out when defending leads, all that sort of thing, and we’ve had to to count on him a lot in those situations this season, ”said Keefe.

“He’s one of the best defensive or definitely top two-way strikers. And the defensive responsibilities he has are right at the top of the list for us. When we’re in those situations, he’s the guy over the boards.”

Easy choice.

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