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Mitch Marner may be the most compelling Maple Leaf, in the middle of all they hope to accomplish – Toronto Star

By Chris JohnstonContributing Columnist

Mon., Sept. 27, 20214 min. read

On the surface it is merely a change in position on the power play. But it offers a tell as to where Mitch Marner’s mind is at.

“I’m up to trying new things, so I’m excited to give it a shot,” he said Monday before a pre-season game in Montreal.

The Maple Leafs star is embracing the idea of staying in the moment. He’s already let go of a past that included heavy scrutiny for his goalless first-round series against the Canadiens, not to mention all of the good that came before it when he finished as the NHL’s fourth-best point producer in the regular season.

Marner got away to Muskoka over the summer and proposed to partner Steph Lachance. He also travelled to Montreal last month and rubbed elbows with some of the league’s fellow elite talents — Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby, among them — as part of a camp designed to ramp everyone up for the season.

He stands here now wanting to embrace exactly where he is.

On Sheldon Keefe’s top power-play unit, that means an unfamiliar spot in the middle of the ice often referred to as the bumper position. There it will be Marner’s job to offer a passing outlet to teammates and fire loose pucks toward the net. Brayden Point has filled that role to great effect for Tampa Bay, and Marner is already soaking up what he can learn from video of the Lightning centre.

“I think in that spot you have a lot of options,” he said. “I mean you have a guy behind you in a (one-timer) spot, you have (Morgan Rielly) obviously up top. I think for shooting-wise you don’t really need to place it that much. I think it’s just about getting it on the net.”

The Leafs aren’t reinventing the wheel with their approach, according to Rielly, but they are putting a fresh set of paint on a unit that desperately needed it.

They’re also providing Marner with a new task to master.

He’s a wizard at holding the puck under defensive pressure and finding a way to safely distribute it. There’s a dangerous shooting option available on each flank in Auston Matthews and William Nylander. And moving Marner to the middle of the ice should create more options to connect with teammates while also placing him closer to the crease for high redirection or rebound opportunities.

After an unsuccessful playoff series against the Canadiens, Leafs forward Mitch Marner says he’s focused on nothing but what lies ahead.

“He’s got as good of ability or better than anyone we have in terms of getting out of tight spaces and creating a play that you would otherwise think isn’t there,” said Keefe.

Entering his age-24 season, there may be no more compelling Maple Leaf.

Marner scored at a 100-point pace last year even without the benefit of a power-play bonanza, and could take a run at becoming the organization’s first player to crack that mark since Doug Gilmour in 1993-94. He’s also basically assured of getting an invitation from Team Canada to the Beijing Olympics.

And somewhere well down the road — somewhere Marner doesn’t yet want to think about — he’ll be thrown back in the middle of the playoff pressure-cooker. There will be questions and a chance to answer.

You couldn’t miss the weight of a city’s frustration on his shoulders in the final episode of Amazon’s behind-the-scenes “All or Nothing” series. Long after Game 7 ended, the cameras showed Marner and linemate Auston Matthews still in their gear in the dressing room. Marner had a towel covering his head.

Keefe told Amazon that Marner’s position as a local kid who grew up yearning for the Leafs to have success made matters worse: “He probably takes on too much of that and internalizes that pressure,” said Keefe.

Still he carries no evident scars from the experience. Back at training camp, his mind seems clear and focused.

In fact, Marner appears to be enjoying the rink as much as ever, and he’s throwing himself into the work of slowly rebuilding the Leafs foundation alongside his teammates. There’s a clear theme developing around a group that isn’t reflecting as much as the fan base and the media who cover them.

“We’re a team that is trying to build something that’s sustainable when things are hardest,” said Keefe. “Until you’ve actually done that, you’re going to question whether you’re going to have what it takes or whether you’re doing the right things. Having our own belief in what we’re doing and who we are as a team is important.”

They are keeping their minds in small places.

“I’m sure you’re going to hear this a lot, but we don’t want to think too far into the future and we don’t want to think about the past,” said Marner. “So it’s just making sure we’re staying on the here and now.”

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris


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