Evaluating Mitch Marner’s Impact in the Leafs Lineup

The first 31 games of Mitch Marner‘s NHL career have been more than a success, based on preseason expectations. With 23 points to his name already, he’s third in rookie scoring (behind his teammate Auston Matthews), and he has unequivocally answered the question of whether or not he’s ready for the big leagues. With that said, lets take a look at his season to date, and some of the numbers that factor into Marner’s impact.

Evaluating Mitch Marner’s Impact in the Leafs Lineup

Ice Time and Shift Length

Among rookie forwards, Marner is fourth in average ice time, playing 17:08 per game. However, what immediately jumps out about his playing time is that he appears to be more successful when coach Mike Babcock plays him less, and when he takes shorter shifts.

Marner takes the third-longest shifts on the team, at 46.9 seconds each, and takes more shifts per game (21.9) than all but five rookie forwards.

The following charts track Marner’s minutes played and average shift length on a game-by-game basis, separating Leafs wins (left) and regulation losses (right).

With some variation, there seems to be something of a trend. Granted, it’s a small sample size with just 24 games counted, but Marner fairly consistently plays less and takes shorter shifts in Toronto victories. Overtime and shootout losses aren’t tracked here, because of the extra minute or two Marner typically plays in the extra period. As one of the Leafs forwards most suited to 3-on-3 play, such games skew his total ice time significantly.

Combined here, the data shows that Marner’s shifts are shortest in Leaf victories, and longest in regulation losses.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Leafs play better when Marner plays less. It implies that a key player in the lineup, on a line with two established team veterans, plays better when his ice time is limited to under 17 minutes, and shifts below 46 seconds or so.

Time on Ice and Scoring

In fact, 19 of Marner’s 23 points have come in games the Leafs won, with just 1 point in a Leaf regulation loss. Obviously it makes sense that any player would score more in wins than in losses, but this stat pops out because of the major discrepancy.

One last infogr.am chart. The graph on the left tracks Marner’s points-per-60 in wins, losses, and pity-point losses. The graph on the right compares his points-per-60 when he plays less than 17 minutes, and when he plays more.

Marner’s overall points-per-60 of 2.60 makes him the third-most productive rookie forward in the NHL, behind Matthews and Patrik Laine.

From a possession standpoint, the trend seems to be the same. If his importance to the team is primarily offensive, then his role is to generate scoring opportunities, and therefore shot attempts. He starts in the offensive zone more than any other Leaf, except for his linemate James van Riemsdyk. Of Marner’s top 10 games for on-ice shot attempts-per-60, seven were nights where he played less than 14 minutes at even strength. His best game in this department was a 6-3 win over Vancouver where he produced shot attempts at a rate of 101.22/60 minutes. That night, Marner played just 15:44 in total, with 24 shifts averaging 39.33 seconds. He had a goal and an assist in the game, too.

Power Play

In junior with the London Knights, Marner was perhaps most effective on the power play. He scored 41 of his 116 points with the man advantage last season. So far this year, though, he has just 5 points from the power play. That’s not for lack of opportunity, either, as he’s logged the third-most power play minutes on the Leafs.

For one, Marner has an unusually low on-ice PDO for the power play, at just 92.6. He’s been on for two shorthanded goals against, one of which was a rink-long empty netter (although, Mitch, come on). The Leafs are shooting just 5.97% on power plays with Marner involved, the lowest of any Toronto player. The team’s power play as a whole just isn’t as good as it should be with the offensive skill they have.

If Babcock continues to use Marner regularly on the power play, as he should, his production will improve. Whether it’s a system adjustment, a confidence issue, or just bad luck is unclear, but Marner’s skillset is perfect for a lethal 5-on-4 offence.

Comparisons to Junior

As with any statistical analysis of rookies, small sample size is an issue here. Unfortunately, analytics in the OHL aren’t quite what they are for the NHL, so there’s little hard evidence to compare Marner’s junior career to this season. Prospect-stats.com has some basic numbers that give some information, though.

In his MVP season last year, Marner ranked 16th among forwards with an estimated average 5-on-5 ice time of 16:50. He finished fourth in the league in 5-on-5 points-per-60, with 3.88, and 62 total points.

No ice time data exists for individual OHL games, but the trend of Marner scoring disproportionately more in victories is constant. In 2015-16, he produced at 2.32 points-per-game when the Knights won, and 0.75 in losses. The year before that, when the Knights were a heavyweight rather than a powerhouse, his points-per-game in wins was 2.74, versus an 0.84 rate in losses.

Again, a player would obviously score more in wins than in losses, but these figures drive home the importance of Marner’s offensive production to London.

Marner’s role with the Knights, particularly last season, was vastly different from his current one, of course. Toward the end of the season and particularly in the playoffs, his line saw upwards of 25 minutes a game, often out for shifts well over a minute.

Obviously the OHL competition is weaker than the NHL, and Marner had the entire league figured out. Now, as a player learning the professional game, he’s performing better when he conserves energy.

The Bottom Line

For a 5’10 skilled winger whom many thought would be pushed around in the NHL this year, Marner has kept up with the league’s best. His possession stats aren’t amazing, relative to the rest of the Leafs (one of the top shot-generating teams in the NHL, thanks in large part to Auston Matthews’ incredible play), but they’ll improve. Marner is good at shot generation, particularly quality scoring chances.

It’s hard to pass judgement on any of these stats yet, based on the small sample size that can’t be avoided. Nonetheless, if things stay consistent, Babcock would do better to limit (not shelter) Marner’s minutes, and have him keep his shifts under 45 seconds. At least for another few months, that is, while he continues to adapt to the NHL level.

Marner is an extremely talented offensive player, who will continue to improve.

Stats from NHL.com, corsica.hockey, hockeyanalysis.com, naturalstattrick.com, and prospect-stats.com. 

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