Mitch Marner’s Underappreciated Greatness — Staturday Weekly Column #18

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What can be said about great players that hasn’t already been said? Especially around these parts. Those players who see themselves leading the Maple Leafs in some capacity can’t escape media attention. It’s the nature of being part of the NHL team with the largest fanbase: the more fans there are, the more media coverage can be consumed. It’s simple economics. Supply and demand.

Acknowledging that, I have to ask: how is it that Mitchell Marner has gone underappreciated? This is a player who was highly drafted, playing an important role, and yet the positive coverage is always on Auston Matthews. The negative coverage, too, misses Marner. It’s quite an interesting spectacle: when bad times come, Marner is a player who can’t be disrespected like William Nylander is constantly, or John Tavares is occasionally. At the same time, he also doesn’t see the glow-ups that Matthews does, or Morgan Rielly, or Jack Campbell, in the good times.

Look at the most recent stories featuring Marner: how he experienced Auston Matthews getting drafted; or about how great his mullet looks.

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It’s not just me who sees this trend, Kristen Shilton made the very same point just yesterday. She validly points out that Marner’s season deserves more than just stories about how cool is was when Toronto got Papi. She also validly notes that Marner sits 3rd in the league with 66 points in just 53 games.

Where Shilton’s piece lacks is in the type of statistics that these Staturday columns usually cover. This is due entirely to our differing target audiences, not any lack in ability on her part. Anyway, I’m going to fill that gap in.

This is the question that fancy stats aim to answer. Points can only tell you so much; yes Marner is good. Of course he’s good, he has 66 points in 53 games. But you all should know by now that we can do much better than that.

Even with points, we can delve a bit deeper. For instance, in terms of points per game, Marner sits 8th in the league instead of 3rd, because of missed games by Matthews, Artemi Panarin, Nathan Mackinnon, and others.

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What about using ice time instead of games played? And, what if we look just at 5-on-5 minutes, so we can eliminate the Leafs’ powerplay woes from consideration? Well in that case, Marner jumps back up to 4th in the league, behind just McDavid, Marchand (who sees about 3 minutes fewer in ice time per game than Marner) and our own Jason Spezza, who has found a way to make a lot out 4th line minutes.

We can do even better than that, though, as the readership of this column well knows.

Player Team GP CF% xGF% SCF%
Mitchell Marner TOR 194 52.49 55.19 55.98

Marner has been a positive player in the most basic “fancy” stats we can look at, such as Corsi For %. This means that when he’s on the ice, the Leafs are having positive ratio of shots for to shots against. The same goes for scoring chances, which are shots from the home plate area in front of the net, and “expected goals”, which is just shots that have a value assigned to them based on location.

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Take a look at the graphic below from hockeyviz.com, a site developed and run by Micah Blake McCurdy to showcase his Magnus IV predictive model, and other fun features.

We can see that Marner is having a positive impact everywhere he plays: excellent on the powerplay, good on the PK, and obviously good on offense as well. “Shootiness” is a fun way to describe whether the player is individually taking shots, or if they’re just generally present when shots are taken. In Marner’s case, as would be expected as a playmaker, he’s less often the one actually taking the shots. But defense is probably the most surprising element of Marner’s game either. This isn’t just this season either: here’s how his defensive impact has grown over his young career in the NHL.

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Another fun tool on hockeyviz.com is the Environment Distiller (ED). We know that Marner and Matthews have spent most if not all of this season on the same line. In fact, of Marner’s ~850 minutes of 5-on-5 time on ice, ~720 of that has been with Matthews.

By the power of ED, we can see what happens when Marner plays with and without Matthews. Marner and Matthews together are a +33% on offense and -22% on defense. That’s past incredible, and into amazing. As a reminder, negatives on defense are good in this case, because you’re allowing fewer shots against.

When Marner is away from Matthews, his only semi-consistent teammate is Tavares with 90 of those 130 minutes. Swapping Matthews with Tavares, then, we can see that the charts are a complete flip. Marner and Tavares together, without Matthews, are a -15% on offense and a +21% on defense. Mind you, this is just 90 minutes of ice time, probably 3 games at 16 minutes a game when Matthews was out, but the rest is probably line changes. I’ll spare you those charts, since the data is relatively insignificant.

Regardless, while Marner’s season has been incredible, playing all of his time with a Matthews playing at the level he’s playing at, he’s got to receive some benefit. Or is it Marner’s playmaking ability that has elevated Matthews to that level? Impossible to say.

Marner and Matthews seem like an inseparable pair at the moment, from a lineup perspective. Unfortunately, that also makes the data inseparable. The time Marner has spent away from Matthews this year isn’t statistically significant. They’ve been incredible together. That can’t be questioned. From where I stand, I might as well evaluate them as one player.

That said, Marner deserves some individual credit for being a part of that incredible duo. That’s all I’m trying to say here. His impressive offensive numbers are complemented by a positive defensive impact while playing on the top line. So, let’s appreciate what we’ve got with Marner: one of the best, if not the best, winger in the league.