Leafs @4th: Must Make Mitch Marner Their Man

Mitch Marner
Mitch Marner: The Magician of the 2015 NHL Draft (OHL Images)

When the Leafs select fourth overall in the upcoming NHL entry draft, I contend that the player they should select is Mitch Marner.

Now, I don’t own a Crystal Ball and I don’t predict the future, but I still think that Mitch Marner is going to be the best pro out of the three reasonable choices (Noah Hanifn and Dylan Strome are the other two) the Leafs will have with the fourth pick.

My Reasoning:

1. Skill vs. Size 

Although Dylan Strome won the scoring title, and although he did produce while Connor McDavid was out for 19 games, scoring 29 points, for the most part of the season he was facing secondary defenses as the centre playing behind McDavid.

I don’t want to make it seem like this means he isn’t talented or couldn’t score in the NHL or to detract from the impressiveness of his scoring title, but Mitch Marner had three less points in five less games, facing first line defenses.

Then again, if you’re going to detract Strome for playing behind McDavid, you have to consider that Marner had much, much better linemates in Max Domi and Christian Dvorak.

Though Marner is only 5’11” 160, and Strome is 6’3″ 185, it is interesting to note that Marner seems like the scrappier player – scouting reports suggest he is always involved while Strome can occasionally be a perimeter player.  (Note that when going through the various scouting reports, some things are contradictory and it isn’t always clear on where the information is coming from or how qualified the scout is. So, just saying, I’ll pass along what I’ve heard, but don’t take it as gospel).

I think many people and scouts in particular maintain a bias towards size over skill. I think that this leads to a lot of mistakes in drafting and team building. I believe from all I have been able to read and observe that Marner is the more skilled player.

Like Kyle Dubas said earlier this month: it’s a lot easier to trade for size than talent down the road.

2. Last Season

In his rookie season in the OHL, Strome 39 points in 60 games, while Marner scored 59 in 64. I don’t want to read too much into this because players develop at different times and in different ways, and they also play in different circumstances that make cross-team comparisons difficult.

At the same time, I like how Marner was able to step into the league and put up close to a point-per- game, and it at least suggests that he might adjust to the NHL a little faster as well.

Dylan Strome
Dylan Strome of the Erie Otters [photo: OHL Images]
3. Position

A lot of the people suggesting the Leafs take Strome say it is because he’s the “big centre” the Leafs need. Well, no argument from me that big centres are nice, but Mitch Marner is also a centre.

Some people seem to assume because of his diminutive size that he’ll convert to playing wing in the NHL, but he’s going to put on weight and he’s already the same height as Claude Giroux.

Even if he does project to be a winger in the NHL, drafting for position is always a bad idea. You should draft the best player available every time no matter what.

The Leafs have Kadri and they could trade Kessel for an established centre (like Jordan Staal), so if their two top prospects end up to be wingers William Nylander and Mitch Marner, it’s not exactly a bad thing.

4. Skating

For me, this is the definitive reason to take Mitch Marner. There is no doubt that he is a better skater than Dylan Strome.  Marner’s skating ability and lateral movement have been favorably compared to Patrick Kane, possibly the best skating forward in the NHL.

I am of the opinion that the way to have success in the NHL is to ice a group of fast skating forwards who will be tenacious defensively and force other teams to make errors with their speed.

If the choice is between the big centre or the superb skater, I want the skater.

Now, this should not be taken as saying that Strome is slow or a bad skater – just that he’s not as good Marner. Also, it shouldn’t be taken to suggest that he can’t be effective as an NHL centre – he is noted for his ability to slow the game down and is said to have “elite vision” and whether it’s Tavares, Getzlaf or Thornton, tons of big-bodied, sub-par (compared to Patrick Kane) skaters with elite vision are either in the hall-of-fame or on their way.

To be clear: I don’t think either of these players has a chance at being a bust. I think both of them will likely be close to elite NHL forwards, if not full-out stars.

Mitch Marner, OHL, Hockey, London Knights
Mitch Marner is a magician with the puck and smart without it. (Photo: OHL Images)

5. Character 

I don’t think anyone has ever questioned the character of either of these players and it’s not something I usually even bother mentioning, but I will say this: Marner is loved by Dale Hunter and is often compared to Doug Gilmour: two of the greatest “character” guys in recent NHL history.

That is an endorsement I can get behind.

Final Conclusion:

Scouts seem to rank Strome slightly ahead of Marner, but from what I can gather, this seems to be at least partially because of Stome’s size and the fact that Marner might end up on the wing.

I can’t argue if someone wants to follow that path and that conclusion: it’s sensible and smart. Myself however, I’ll take the bigger risk with the higher reward. Marner has something special in his game – call it a wow factor or whatever – that I don’t think can be taught, and which I think is extremely rare. It is my opinion that overall he’s got more talent, and with the recent success of players like Johnny Gaudrau, Tyler Johnson and Claude Girioux, I wouldn’t hesitate to take a small player with a top pick.

Ultimately, if the Leafs have a choice between Marner and Strome, I recommend that they take Marner, but certainly I will be excited either way.  Who knows what the Coyotes, who pick before the Leafs, will do? They could take Hanifin and drool over pairing him with OEL. They might very well follow the big-centre philosophy and take Strome or they might want to keep Domi paired with Marner and take him.

When it comes down to it, I think this is indeed a special draft and I don’t think the Leafs can go wrong selecting any of these three kids. I know I haven’t talked a lot about Hanifin, but I think he’s the biggest risk of the three (being a defenseman) and I don’t believe the Leafs will take him – but I’ve been wrong before and I could be here.

Here’s hoping the Leafs pick Mitch Marner, and thanks for reading.