Maple Leafs Should Change Power Play Units to Solve Marner’s Drought

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner has not scored on the powerplay in 100 games. The last time he scored a powerplay goal, you could still go to the store without a facemask. Yes, it was pre-COVID, all the way back to Feb. 1, 2020. This drought is surprising considering the Maple Leafs have the second-best powerplay in the NHL in 2021-22, clipping along at an impressive 29.7 percent. But the paradox may point to a solution that could result in an even more dangerous powerplay – move Marner to the second unit.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This problem is the definition of nitpicking, and many will say if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. But hear me out, Sheldon Keefe tinkers with his lines constantly. Still, he rarely moves around the first unit powerplay players unless forced to do so because of injury or COVID protocols. The first unit is stacked; Marner has Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. This lineup is effective, not to mention these five players make up 55 percent of the Leafs’ salary cap. But with that much talent on the ice simultaneously, not all of them will get on the scoresheet.

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Suppose there are no stoppages in play during the man advantage. In that case, the second unit comes on with about 45 seconds to go in the penalty. You can see the opposition take a deep sigh of relief as the first unit leaves the ice. While the second unit often includes some pretty good players like Jason Spezza, Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev and Michael Bunting, it pails compared to the first unit.

Marner’s Playmaking Abilities Overshadow his Scoring

Everyone knows that Marner is a pass-first type of player, but the guy can score. He has said he wants to score more goals, and on the rare occasion that he takes a shot, the opposing goalie has a sudden reminder that Marner has the skills to find the twine. For example, during a recent game in St. Louis, he stole the puck and went top shelf on Jordan Binnington. “I want to be a threat out there. I know I can be. I’ve been a goal scorer. I know I have it in me,” said Marner after the game.

But you have to wonder if the crafty winger had a teammate with him in that situation if he would’ve looked to pass instead of taking the opportunity to score. Keefe said his winger is a playmaker, “He is always going to be a guy who facilitates and gets the puck in other players’ hands. It is who he is as a player. A number of players he plays with benefit from that.”

Related: Maple Leafs’ Marner Hasn’t Forgotten How to Score

That may be the reason Marner passes. He has one of the most elite scorers in the game beside him. Matthews, the reigning Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy winner, has undoubtedly benefitted from Marner’s setup abilities. On the powerplay, Marner has goal scorers all around. What if he was the most dangerous scorer on the ice? Would he be so inclined to pass when he knew he was the best shooter?

“I definitely want to try to get more pucks on the net,” said Marner after the game where he set up Matthews for a powerplay goal. The 24-year-old has 28 powerplay assists during the 100-game powerplay goal drought.
Beefing up the second unit would have its advantages for Marner and the team. There is no doubt the competition plan to defend against the Leafs’ first unit; it’s all hands on deck. But suppose Marner was coming on the ice next with Spezza and Sandin setting him up. In that case, that could be a dangerous look and add another wrinkle opponents would have to prepare to defend.

Maple Leafs Not Changing Power Play

“We’re aware of it,” said Keefe, “and we’re trying to do different things to help get something to fall for him.” But it doesn’t sound like a lineup change is in the plans, “I am not overly concerned with who is scoring the goals and what it looks like on the power play. I am just concerned about whether or not it goes in the net, and it has gone in the net for us quite a bit this season. We look for that to continue.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Chicago Blackhawks Corey Crawford
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

During Keefe’s three seasons behind the Toronto bench, he has not been afraid to try new things. He experimented with a 13th forward, tried Joe Thornton on the top line, and benched star players when not performing. There is a lot of hockey and time to experiment before the playoffs. A Marner-led second unit may get the winger a couple of powerplay goals and improve an already lethal powerplay.