We’re all painfully aware of the current contract standoff between Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs — don’t worry, I’m not actually here to talk about that. What interests me about this whole situation is how Maple Leafs fans perceive Marner in relation to the team’s other young superstar, Auston Matthews. So, today I offer a philosophical perspective that is sure to get me slammed in some circles. Let’s have at it!
As much as Maple Leafs fans love Marner, and maybe even prefer him to Matthews in many ways (he certainly seems to have more personality), what I keep hearing from a significant number of fans is that Matthews is the far better player. Well, today I’ve got news for you — he’s not! At least not in terms of his overall value to the team.
For those of you whose heads have not yet exploded, please allow me to explain. Do I really think that Marner is more valuable to the Maple Leafs than Matthews? Well, yes and no.
What I actually mean is that the Marner player archetype is generally more valuable than the Matthews player archetype (as in, a highly creative playmaker is usually more valuable than a pure shooter/goal scorer).
Creative Playmakers vs. Natural Goal Scorers
To better understand the player archetypes in question, a few definitions are in order:
The highly creative playmaking forward (Marner type) is a player who elevates every other player on the ice and turns them into considerably better players than they actually are. This type of player turns average players into good players and stars into superstars.
Related: Maple Leafs vs. Mitch Marner
This type of player may also score their fair share of goals, but they mostly create goals, using everyone else on the ice to put the puck in the net. For this reason, they typically get far more assists (some assists are enormously underrated!) than goals and average well above a point per game.
This type of player is also exceedingly rare — at least at the highest levels. Past and present examples of the genius playmaker include Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux.
The Matthews type of player (the pure goal scorer), tends to have an excellent shot, is always able to find open ice (and in a good scoring position), and scores on a high percentage of his shots.
This type of player also tends to possess a shoot-first mentality and therefore typically averages more goals than assists over time. Examples of the ‘sharpshooter’ type of player include Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Brett Hull, and Mike Bossy.
Blues Case Study: Hull and Oates
Let’s briefly consider the career of Brett Hull. Hull’s peak seasons as a goal scorer came with the St. Louis Blues back in the early 1990s. Never was Hull more successful at burying the puck than during the three seasons (1989-90 through 1991-92) in which he played with Adam Oates — a pure playmaker if ever there was one.
Related: 7 Cool Things About Auston Matthews
Over that time, Hull scored 72, 86, and 70 goals respectively, leading the league each season that Oates was with him in St. Louis. Before teaming up with Oates, the most goals that Hull ever scored in an NHL season was 41, and after Oates left, Hull only managed to crack the 50 goal mark twice more in his entire career.
Oates, on the other hand, went on to have his best seasons outside of St. Louis. For instance, while playing for Boston in 1992-93, he racked up 45 goals and 97 assists for a whopping 142 points. He followed that season up with 80 assists and 112 points in the next.
For a playmaker like Oates, linemates are almost/somewhat interchangeable (just look at the seemingly thousands of linemates Sidney Crosby has played with and turned into successful goal scorers over the years). The pure goal scorer, however, needs (at the very least) a good passer to routinely set him up.
The relationship between Nicklas Bäckström and Alexander Ovechkin sums this situation up perfectly. While I wouldn’t necessarily place Bäckström in the genius playmaker category, he certainly does know how to dig the puck free along the boards and place it perfectly on a pedestal for Ovechkin’s rocket one-timer.
More creativity from either Ovechkin or Bäckström might lead to some far more beautiful goals than we’re used to seeing them combine for, but their rinse-and-repeat method certainly gets the job done.
Mitch Marner—Lowly Winger
As for Mitch Marner, many people complain that he’s just a lowly winger (you know, like those other unknowns called Guy Lafleur, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Gordie Howe, Patrick Kane, and Ovechkin), whereas Matthews is a big, goal-scoring centre with a decent 200-foot game. Fair enough, but Marner also kills penalties, is a timely shot blocker, and, despite being much smaller than Matthews, actually lands a lot more hits than him.
Marner also received enough Selke votes this past season to earn him 14th place in voting. Matthews didn’t place at all among the 29 players to garner at least one vote as the league’s top defensive forward.
Add to that Marner’s ability to elevate everyone else around him by a considerable margin, and I think that there’s a solid case to be made for Marner being every bit as important to the Leafs as Matthews is going forward.
Simply consider Marner’s impact on John Tavares’ first season with the Maple Leafs (if you still need more convincing). Through 10 seasons, the only time Tavares has ever cracked the 40 goal mark is while playing on a line with Marner. Heck, he nearly got 50!
Marner’s assists per game average through his first 3 seasons in the league is 0.651 (closer to Crosby’s 0.817 than to Matthews’ 0.443). Had Marner not been relegated to fourth line duties in his first NHL season, his numbers would likely be even better right across the board.
I also suspect that given a bit more time to develop, Marner is likely to become a 30+ goal scorer in the league before very long, if not even higher.
Of course, I’m not trying to take anything away from Matthews here. He’s a great player, who, if he can ever get through another full season unscathed by injury, may rack up a collection of 50+ goal seasons himself. Possibly even 60.
What I’m ultimately trying to say, though, is that Matthews and Marner are two completely different types of players, and that (historically speaking) highly creative playmakers, regardless of their position, have had more upside than pure goal scorers. After all, few among us would take Hull over Lemieux, Ovechkin over Crosby, or Bossy over Gretzky.