Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner as a Defenseman? It’s Possible

Could the Toronto Maple Leafs be gearing for a huge change that involves Mitch Marner? To consider this possibility, let’s start by reviewing a unique event that occurred in the Maple Leafs’ game against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. 

Related: Mitch Marner Running Out of Leash with Maple Leaf Fans

When the team lost two defensemen – Jordie Benn and Carl Dahlstrom – to injuries early in the game, head coach Sheldon Keefe designated Calle Jarnkrok and Alex Kerfoot to step up (or in this case back) and play on the blue line. Both performed well. 

Recent Maple Leafs Experience Suggests that Forwards Can Also Play Defense

We knew that both Jarnkrok and Kerfoot were hybrid centers/wingers, but until Wednesday it wasn’t clear just how hybrid the two players were. It was an emergency, and Jarnkrok and Kerfoot answered the bell. 

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It was a small sample size. However, I was surprised the Canadiens didn’t go after the two forward converts on Wednesday. Or maybe they did, without success. Either way, the opponent didn’t take advantage of the situation. 

Flash Backward to the 2022 Stanley Cup

Looking back to this year’s Stanley Cup, one has to ask whether Cale Makar might be the new breed of  NHL defenseman. He has a solid skillset, but also in many ways has the offensive instincts of a forward.  

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During the Colorado Avalanche’s march to the Stanley Cup, although Nathan MacKinnon might have led the way, defenseman Makar held his coming out party. He unanimously won the Conn Smythe Trophy. It was deserved. Makar scored eight goals and added 21 assists in just 20 playoff games as his Avalanche team dethroned two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning. 

Related: Avalanche’s Cale Makar Already on Hall of Fame Path

Makar plays a different kind of defensive game, shades of Bobby Orr. At least Wayne Gretzky said so during the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup run. If youngsters who are playing hockey are watching, there will be a lot of attempts to emulate Makar’s approach to playing the back end. 

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The question is whether coach Keefe was also watching and thinking. Was his slotting of his two forwards onto the defense in Wednesday’s game just a one-off or a chance to test a new plan of action? And what does that have to do with Marner?

Now Marner Is Getting Into the Blue Line Act

Marner is one of the team’s best offensive players; but, during this training camp, he’s been spending some time practicing as a blue liner. Although Marner’s a 200-foot player who brings solid defense both in five-on-five and on the penalty kill, it’s a bit surprising he’s taking reps as a defenseman.

Related: Did the Bruins Lose the Kessel Deal?

Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe put it this way: “There could be opportunities in games where we might want to give him a look on defense. Whether we’re trying to score a goal or playing from behind or whatever the case might be. That’s something we’ll continue to look at through the preseason and make a determination from there on how we might use it.”

What’s interesting about all this talk of hybrid hockey players is that it opens a number of interesting possibilities about how the Maple Leafs’ lineup could be constructed. Marner’s unique skill-set puts him squarely in the middle of any conversation about moving a forward to the blue line. 

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

Marner has a high hockey IQ; he anticipates the opponent’s moves incredibly well; he’s quick enough to transition off a mistake; he’s a puck mover; and, he thinks disruption hockey because he’s already playing a key role on his team’s penalty kill. 

Does Coach Keefe See Marner as a Potential Blue Liner?

Coach Keefe noted that “The more and more I watch how we move around in the offensive zone, Mitch spends a lot of time up at the blue line as it is. Obviously, on the power play he plays up there quite a bit … He’s run the power play from the top in a five-forward look in junior so he’s got lots of experience doing that.”

Related: Mitch Marner Has Proved to Be Most Valuable of Maple Leafs’ Core Four

Perhaps this is all talk and speculation fueled by Wednesday’s successful use of Jarnkrok and Kerfoot as emergency defensemen. Or, perhaps it’s an opportunity to put a band-aid on the team’s injury status on defense. However, it also might be more of a long-term plan.

Marner, who by the way, would be a desperately needed right-handed shot, took some reps alongside Morgan Rielly at practice on Thursday. 

Rielly’s smiling assessment was that he thought Marner would do well. “I think he would be considered an offensive defenceman. He’d be able to contribute in that way. We’re open to trying anything.”

In his own way, Keefe doubled down on the idea by noting, “I’ve got a pretty good library of clips where [Mitch’s] actually playing defense.” 

Keefe then added, “Even though he’s the forward on the shift he’s in the defense spot and quarterbacking things and, at times, even defending.”

Changes Might Be Coming – Could Marner Be One of Them?

For those fans interested in what happens with Marner’s place as a top-six forward, his move to the blue line during practice gave William Nylander a chance to jump to a line with Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting. 

The Maple Leafs have one of the best offenses in the game, but is there a possibility they might be trying to create an offensive blue line as well? Keefe noted that he and other NHL coaches are more open to different ideas. But, is coach Keefe really beginning a new way of thinking about player deployment in hockey; or, is this an older idea?

Related: Maple Leafs’ Depth Stepping Up in Ways it’s Failed in Recent Years

In 1997, the Detroit Red Wings were down defensemen and head coach Scotty Bowman moved Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov to the defense for about 15 games. 

Federov, who was a fine center, was also a fine defenseman. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup that season. One of Federov’s teammates? Maple Leafs’ President Brandan Shanahan.


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