Like William Nylander and Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner projects a light-hearted vibe in his TV ad that runs during Maple Leaf games, whoops it up in warmups with stick tricks for the camera, then flies into the tunnel to show he’s ready to rock.
But oh brother there’s a disconnect between those fan-friendly antics and what transpires after O Canada.
Where Nylander had a point in his first 17 games (nearly single-handedly making the Global Series in Stockholm a team success) and we’ll cut Matthews some slack for staying near the league goal lead despite just one in his past seven, it’s getting harder for Marner to keep smiling.
Puck moving creativity is his calling card, so having no goals the past seven games, tying his longest dry spell in last year’s 99-point regular season, is not the main concern. But the right winger is having issues staying on the same page with linemate Matthews and with Nylander, John Tavares and whoever’s got point duty on the first power play.
In weekend losses to Chicago and Pittsburgh, the Leafs vaunted unit was blanked twice for the first time in consecutive games all season, going 0-for-5. When all else fails, the Leafs ability to score their way out of trouble must be retained, but Marner looked pained a couple of times Saturday and not just because of a hard shot block off of his foot.
Coach Sheldon Keefe owes part of his and the club’s success to Marner’s consistency, 574 points, higher than any of their Core Four forwards. Thus, he can get sensitive when pressed about Marner’s current struggles.
“We’ll stay building our group and building our game, but let’s not pile on the negatives here,” Keefe told the media when Marner’s woes were raised again after the 3-2 Pittsburgh loss.
“One of the main reports I get before every game I’m reading is our 5-on-5 scoring this season. At the top of the list is Mitch, a guy who we say hasn’t played his best hockey and has all the hardest match-ups every single night, yet is at the top of our team.”
Subtracting Marner’s seven power play points leaves him with 13 at even strength through 19 games. The same math applied to Nylander, who also has a short-handed goal, puts him at 16 points at 5-on-5 so Keefe might be referencing finite internal analytics for Marner’s puck possession, chances generated and so forth.
Marner was not made available to media after the Pittsburgh game.
“It’s interesting how it all works out,” Keefe said. “We’re getting all sorts of questions about these guys and you know we’d all agree they could play better, they set such a high standard. Yet here we are.
“I thought the top line (Marner, Matthews and Matthew Knies, who scored) was good. They had plenty of jump, they were on the attack. I have no issues with them.”
Some consideration, however, must go into splitting up Marner and Matthews if this joint decline continues, perhaps as early as this week with three games at home. Marner and the down-low cycle Tavares generates have meshed before and the potential for Nylander’s speed and dazzling moves in harmony with Matthews’s shot could increase a tandem that already accounts for nearly 40% of Toronto’s offence.
The drop in Marner’s production is more noticeable after the scrutiny of this weekend when Matthews and Nylander were held off the board, too. And while noteworthy on Saturday that Tyler Bertuzzi, part of Brad Treliving’s signings to put his own stamp on the Leafs, had the game-opening goal against predecessor Kyle Dubas’s Penguins and Noah Gregor almost scored short-handed, it was ex-Leaf Noel Acciari whom Dubas retained in Pittsburgh as a UFA who had the bigger impact.
Of the Treliving newcomers up front, Max Domi has yet to score (11 assists), though Ryan Reaves did click in Chicago. While having Reaves back in the lineup against the physical Florida Panthers on Tuesday is an option, that would mean call-up Bobby McMann sits a third straight game after Keefe sat both he and Reaves in Pittsburgh to use seven defencemen.