TORONTO – And now for something completely different.
Mitch Marner is a versatile, adaptable sort of star player.
Over the course of his hockey life, he’s played centre and wing. He’s driven offence and been tasked with shutting down some of the toughest forwards in the business. He has run the power play and volunteered to assume a prominent position on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ penalty kill.
So, it’s noteworthy that Marner is now trying something he’s never done at any level: move from the flank to the slot on the power play.
“I’ve never played it, to be honest, so it’s definitely something new to me,” Marner said Monday, before jetting to Montreal for the Leafs’ 5-2 preseason loss.
“I love to try new things, so I’m excited to give that give it a shot. Hopefully, I get used to it pretty fast.”
The rearrangement of Toronto’s beleaguered top power-play crew is no small storyline heading into 2021-22.
Despite loading their 5-on-4 unit with more than $40 million worth of talent, the 2020-21 Leafs’ power-play tumbled to 16th overall (20 per cent) in the regular season, then converted on only 13 per cent of those opportunities in their seven-game collapse to Montreal. (Among all playoff teams, only Vegas and Nashville’s power plays were less effective.)
Coach Sheldon Keefe watched his high-powered superstars go just plus-2 in 23 power-play chances in a series in which the Leafs lost three one-goal games.
Yep. Power-plays matter.
The PP’s ineffectiveness turned to ugly when Marner vehemently shot down an unverified rumour that he had refused to accept a coaching staff request to move off the half-wall last season.
“It’s a complete lie,” said Marner after the season, visibly upset by the idea. “It sucks that stuff like that’s being said, but I’m not surprised either.
“I think everyone can see I’ll try and play any role I can to help this team win.”
So disastrous was Toronto’s 2021 power play that it cost assistant coach Manny Malhotra his primary responsibility.
Keefe has flipped the PP to new assistant Spencer Carbery’s purview, and changes are already underway.
“Tough conversation, you know, because [Malhotra] was brought here to do a job. But Manny’s a team guy, and he’s still very much involved in everything that we’re doing off the ice, including the power play,” Keefe said.
“Spencer’s a great coach. He’s got a good vision and a good plan and has that perspective as a head coach [with the Hershey Bears] in terms of how things play out.
“The biggest thing is just fresh voice, fresh eyes, good ideas. And just like it seems a good fit for us, given what we went through last season.”
Marner scored 20 goals last season, all even-strength.
Even though he saw more PP minutes (3:08 per game) than any Leaf not named Auston Matthews, and even though he’s striving to develop into a dual shooting threat, Marner never scored once on the man-advantage.
Yet despite cries from the outside to adjust the formation and try William Nylander on the flank, Marner stayed put.
That changes under Carbery.
The assistant’s first look at Nylander on the flank resulted in a power-play goal Saturday in exhibition, as John Tavares tipped a Nylander shot 10 seconds into a PP.
“It’s not really a big deal. I like to play whatever,” Nylander said. “As long as you’re on the powerplay, it’s fun.”
Marner’s teammates believe he’ll adapt fine to the bumper spot, and Carbery has been showing him video of Brayden Point’s slot work on Tampa Bay’s deadly PP as an example.
From the middle, Marner can feed Matthews or Nylander for one-timers — or fire the puck on net himself to create havoc and loose pucks for a net-front guy, like Nick Ritchie, to bang home.
“He’s just so smart, he can play anywhere. I think he just wants to be productive, be helpful. He wants to be in the middle of the ice, wants to get lots of puck touches, and he’s very good at that,” Morgan Rielly said.
“Being the middle, I think he’s gonna get lots of action. I mean, he’ll go wherever anybody tells him to go. He just wants to help the team.”
Kase set to be Keefe’s Swiss army knife
While Nick Ritchie and Michael Bunting appear to have penciled themselves in as Toronto’s brand-new top-six wingers, Ondrej Kase has all the tools and experience to steal some of that ice time in event of injury or underperformance.
Keefe believes Kase’s troubled injury history has lessened the level of hype he’s gotten so far in Toronto, but the coach is excited to see what he can contribute in a variety of roles.
“He’s got a really good skillset, both offensively — the ability to make plays and finish plays — but also he’s tenacious on the puck. So, I think he can move up and down our lineup and play anywhere we feel we need him,” Keefe said.
“It’s evident when you watch him that he’s an NHL player.”
Kase finished off a beauty pass by Rielly Monday and tied a game-high with four shots on net during his first peek in a Leafs sweater.
A 20-goal man for Anaheim in 2017-18, Kase could potentially slide onto the Leafs’ second power-play unit. But Keefe is also going to try him out on the penalty kill, as the coach searches for the best winger to take up some of Zach Hyman’s PK minutes.
“[Kase] hasn’t had a great deal of time on the penalty kill in his career, but I’m hoping to get him some looks there,” Keefe said. “From a skillset standpoint, in terms of how he skates, his anticipation, he’s hungry on the puck — those are all the things we want on our penalty kill. He seems to have those traits.”
What a feed from Rielly pic.twitter.com/FC9U8LF6eS
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 28, 2021
Make-or-break season for Liljegren?
Although it seems like yesterday Timothy Liljegren garnered headlines as a promising first-round draft pick in this city — a right-shot defenceman, finally! — the prospect reminded us Monday that he’s now spent the bulk of four seasons with the Marlies.
Rare is the player who breaks through and establishes himself as a bona fide after that many tours on the minor league circuit. (Justin Holl, for example, is the exception, not the rule.) At some point, the potential needs to pop.
So… where does that leave the 22-year-old Swede heading into a training camp where he’s clearly the seventh-best D-man?
“Tough to tell. Going into my fifth year, I need to play good,” Liljegren said. “It’s my fifth year. I need to get things done, you know.
“I gotta fight for my spot on the roster. That’s what I’m focusing on.”
That means cleaning up turnovers, playing sound positional hockey, and chipping in offence when he spots a chance.
Liljegren believes he “grew a lot as a person” from a tumultuous 2020-21 campaign that saw him jostling from the AHL to the taxi squad and eventually sneaking into a pair of late-season NHL games.
Keefe has paired Liljegren with the laid-back Jake Muzzin in camp, hoping the veteran’s wisdom and calming presence rubs off.
And yet, barring an injury to a member of the top six, we don’t see Liljegren suiting up on Opening Night.
“I can’t focus on other things,” Liljegren said. “I just have to focus on playing a good game.”
Nylander impressed by Fernandez’s U.S. Open run
William Nylander tends to keep his public commentary concise.
So, after 16 months passed without an original tweet, the star forward was compelled to break his silence while taking in September’s incredible U.S. Open women’s final between Britain’s Emma Raducanu and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez.
Both unseeded. Both entering the tournament as teenagers.
“I thought it was amazing. Both young women doing an unbelievable job,” said Nylander, an avid tennis player himself.
“I can just imagine for both girls, they probably didn’t think they were going to be in the final. And all of a sudden, they’re there — 20,000 fans, and the entire world’s watching on TV. I mean, it’s pretty cool to see what they were able to do.”
Maple Leafs lineup for preseason Game 2