Maple Leafs Have a “Not so Secret” Weapon for the Playoffs

No one had more of a disappointing performance in the 2021 playoffs than Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner. He didn’t seem to have anything going, he was too predictable with the puck and made costly mistakes against the Montreal Canadiens.

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Even at the start of this season, he shined at times but still it seemed like his play was weighing on him. When the calendar turned to January and the second half, something clicked and Marner went into full on attack mode. The production shot up, the goal scoring became increasingly evident and he seemed more engaged with a tenacious side to his game.

Related: Maple Leafs Possible Line Combinations Without Bunting 

With the playoffs approaching, there’s always talk about “secret weapons” in the postseason. However, the Maple Leafs have a secret weapon that may not be so secret in Marner as his offensive game has been taken to new heights. If what we’ve seen from him in the second half is any indication, he will be one player that will throw everyone off as he’s a whole new player compared to what we’ve seen in the past.

Marner Remains Goal Scoring Threat

Marner has always been an elite level playmaker with his quick hands and elusive skating. He was always making and creating plays, but the finishing aspect was missing. Even his tendencies to always pass up a scoring opportunity in order to try and find an open teammate would be his downfall at times.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Derik Hamilton)

While he still remains one of the top playmakers in the league this season, Marner has re-discovered his scoring touch, becoming a dual offensive threat. He has set a new career-high in goals with 35, his second-best shots on goal total with 220 and the best shooting percentage of 15.9%. In the process he isn’t doing damage at one specific strength, as he has 26 goals at even strength, six on the power play and three short-handed. 

Marner only had six goals in his first 23 games. To find success on his torrid scoring pace midway through the season and for it to be consistent as it has been, it will make him a force in the playoffs. 

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Marner isn’t a one-dimensional player anymore. The player we saw where his first instinct was to pass, is out the window as he’s becoming that goal scoring threat that will catch opponents by surprise. He re-discovered this skill at the right time as the opposition is going to second guess what he will do. He’s become more alert of when he has the green light for a shot. Since Jan.15, he’s just outside 12th in shots on goal (157) and is tied for fourth overall with Leon Draisaitl in goals with 29. 

The power and release in his shot appears to be the best that it’s ever been. Whenever he’s ready for a shot, he’s not going to pass it up as he has in the past. He’s been working on his shooting for a number of seasons, but the shots are now going in more than in the past as he’s put in the work and found that shooter’s mentality. 

Individually at all strengths, Marner continues to also be a driving force as his numbers are just under his career high. His 414 individual Corsi For and 245 individual scoring chances for are both the second highest of his career, as his best totals came back in 2018-19 when he had that stellar 94-point season. Marner’s always done a great a job at creating offense and generating opportunities but hasn’t matched that consistency since that season.

That all changed this season as he’s elevated his level to be difference maker and take charge of an offense. His numbers at five-on-five (min. 500 minutes) are a good representation of that as he’s been dominant.

Corsi For %58.002nd
expected goals for %61.652nd
scoring chances for %62.072nd
high danger goals for %58.751st

The most notable piece of information that sticks out is Marner’s new found ability to consistently get to the high danger areas as he leads that category among the Maple Leafs. His 86 individual high danger chances for in all situations is the best of his career, as he’s doing more to attack the net and utilize his improved shot. While we’ve seen him be factor in tight with hands and ability to maneuver in tight spaces, he’s now driving to the net using his stickhandling and skating to get a shot off in the high danger area. 

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Marner’s finding the open space and picking his spot to shoot, making him extremely unpredictable, either in close or from far out. Before, you knew exactly what he was going to do. That may not be the case this time around as he’s been unpredictable for the second half of the season and will look to maintain that throughout the playoffs.

More Engaged and Physical

Based on previous seasons, you would never expect Marner to be involved in or amp up the physical play. He’s not going to be that kind of player like a Wayne Simmonds or Ilya Lyubushkin to provide the physicality. Previously, Marner would shy away from that kind of play or even let up if things were going to be aggressive. With the playoffs approaching, that’s the one area for Marner where he needs to be prepared for.

Now, Marner isn’t afraid to make a timely hit when he needs to. He currently has 75 hits this season, the highest total of his career. He appears to be more involved with the play, getting into the tougher areas and playing with an aggressive style that would eventually lead to what he’s good at– puck possession. 

“I’m trying to be more competitive on pucks,” Marner said according to TSN’s Mark Masters. “That’s something our line’s done good is just forechecking and being physical on the puck. We’re using our body a little more in trying to get in there and get the puck out of sticky situations and into our hands and into the middle and working from there.” 

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Marner then adds, “I’m not trying to blow anyone up or anything like that. Just trying to work my body into hands and trying to separate the puck from the guy.”

This is Marner playing to his strengths. He needs to maintain that increased physical presence in order to continue getting the inside edge and make life difficult for the opposition to regain control of the puck. It seems to work as he has 70 takeaways (top-10 in the league) this season as a result of him playing with this persistent and somewhat aggressive side to his game. That kind of pesky play will lead to great results in the playoffs. 

That has been evident for some time and will be even more critical in the playoffs when the physicality amps up.

Out to Prove Everyone Wrong

No one would love to have a clean slate and prove everyone wrong that last year was a write off more than Marner. The criticism was mounting after their series loss to the Montreal Canadiens as Marner clearly wasn’t happy with his play

The struggles continued at the start of the season as the production still wasn’t where it needed to be. As this season showed, Marner can rise up when his team needs him. 

Related: 3 Things the Maple Leafs Must Accomplish During the Final Week

It’s expected that your top players should show up every game when it matters and yet Marner, and even Matthews, have gone cold at times in the playoffs. The fact Marner appears to be hungrier than ever and the new found mentality with this team, he appears poised to be a major difference maker in what could be a make-or-break playoffs for the Maple Leafs.

Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has stated that the attitude is different this time around as they look to be more competitive when the games mean more than before. With Marner being one of the players to lead that charge with his new found dominance, expectations should be high for him to make a difference every time he steps on the ice.  

You never expect a super star player to be a “secret weapon” in the playoffs. Considering the offensive outburst that Marner has had this season, he’s determined and more energised than ever before. The fact that he’s been noticeable and on the score sheet consistently in the second half, the expectation is that kind of play continues into the postseason as the Maple Leafs look to make a deep run.

Statistics from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and NHL.

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