janvier 27, 2023

Mitch Marner has entered the Hart Trophy chat

5 min read

A soaking wet Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room floor is always a positive omen. It means someone got a congratulatory post-game shower. If we set aside any snickering judgments on whether a team that can’t escape the first round of the playoffs should keep unofficially crowning guys for regular-season milestones, it’s a nice tradition from a closely knit team that finds fun in the little things.

Last season? The showers were typically reserved for Auston Matthews, who torched the franchise record books. He delivered the Leafs’ first 50-goal season in almost three decades; beat Rick Vaive’s single-season team record of 54 goals; and became the first NHLer in 10 years to score 60 in a season. Those accomplishments were stepping stones en route to him winning the Hart Trophy, becoming the first Leaf to do so since Ted Kennedy in 1955. It was Matthews’ year, to say the least.

But the shower wasn’t reserved for him Wednesday night after the Leafs’ 3-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks, which finished off an 11-1-3 November. This time, it was Mitch Marner’s turn. He earned the honor after he recorded a point in his 18th straight game, equalling the franchise mark shared by Darryl Sittler and Ed Olcyzk. It was a white-knuckle ride to 18, as Marner passed up an empty net to feed a not-open Michael Bunting, then missed an attempt at the yawning cage before finally burying the puck with 1:11 to go.

“Did you see me? I can’t wait to talk to my father. He’s going to be like, ‘What the hell were you doing on that pass?’ ” said Marner, who noted that his teammates were trying to feed him with the net empty. “Big Mike on the bench right away looked at me and couldn’t believe I tried to pass it to him. He was pissed at me to be honest.”

“The first two tries was like, ‘What are you doin? Just put in in the net and let’s go home, let’s get this over with,” Matthews joked. “We were having some fun there and laughing. Just really happy it ended up going in. I know it means a lot and obviously him being from here, it’s got to be special. We’re all so happy for him and he’s just a huge part of this team and does so much stuff for us.”

Leafs fans at regular-season home games are known for their morgue-like quietness. But no one ever doubts their hockey knowledge. They rank among the league’s best in that regard, and they understood exactly what was happening during the final couple minutes. With the net empty, they were as engaged and raucous as they were all game, fully aware that the streak was on the line. When Marner finally converted, they gave him a standing ovation.

“That meant a lot,” Marner said. “We were talking yesterday about family being there, and I’ve got my family here. Obviously they’re not beside me but I’m sure they’re in the crowd loving that moment, too, and taking it in with me. It was a special moment to grow up in this city, be a huge fan of this team, and to have my name with a couple unbelievable players it’s pretty special. A kid growing up wouldn’t have expected this, and it’s now kind of a reality.”

Looking at the accomplishment from more of a bird’s eye view, it’s not exactly the holy grail of records. Marner has only tied the streak, it’s barely a third of the way to Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 51, and Taylor Hall bested Marner’s current number with a 26-game streak in 2017-18, as did Patrick Kane in 2015-16. For what it’s worth, Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov, twinkle in his eye, said after the game he believed Marner could get to 50.

But the streak is significant more because it’s a microcosm of what we’re seeing from Marner in 2022-23. It’s not a breakout, as that happened long ago. It’s not even an arrival as an elite player, as he’s already a two-time first-team all-star. But Marner may be establishing himself as an MVP-caliber NHL player, one just as important to the franchise as Matthews.

Speaking at the NHL Player Media Tour before the season started, Matthews stated that Marner was “the best player in the world” down the stretch last season. It seemed like hyperbole coming from Marner’s own linemate, sure, but the comment wasn’t pulled from nowhere. Marner has performed at a truly elite level since the stretch run of last season.

Marner’s past 82 games: 40 goals, 73 assists, 113 points. Over that stretch, in 5-on-5 play, his results compared to his peers are pretty staggering.

Points per 60: 1st
Goals per 60: 11th
Assists per 60: 1st
Primary assists per 60: 4th

Connor McDavid is the best player in the galaxy. But how surprising is it to see Marner, a player who has received a single fifth-place Hart vote in his career, performing almost as well and being the best pure 5-on-5 scorer in the league over his last 82 games?

Marner has also done so while establishing himself as one of the premier two-way forwards in the game. Over that same sample across his past 82 games, he’s 18th in takeaways per 60. Since the start of last season, Marner also joins Aleksander Barkov and Elias Lindholm as the only forwards in the NHL to rank top-40 or better in shorthanded ice time per game and points scored. That’s a significant stat given the Leafs’ penalty kill has ranked ninth in the league over that span.

With Marner on the ice at 5-on-5, the Leafs have owned more than 62 percent of the scoring chances over his past 82 games. Only Patrice Bergeron, Matthew Tkachuk and Brad Marchand have tilted the ice more.

So the points streak is nice. But rather than celebrate what might not end up being an overly memorable accomplishment in the end, Leafs Nation should celebrate that they have not one, but two MVP caliber players at the moment.

No one is likely to touch McDavid for the MVP this season. But it may be time we at least see Marner on the ballot as a finalist. And if not for the Hart, perhaps the Selke.

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