Craig Button joined Bryan Hayes and Jonas Siegel on TSN Radio to discuss Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Auston Matthews’ decision to play for the ZSC Lions in Switzerland.
Bryan Hayes: How good did Mitch Marner look (at the World Junior Summer Showcase)?
Craig Button: He looked fabulous. Mitch Marner is an elite talent. There’s no other way to put it. You start to talk about talent, so you’ve got an elite talent, right? He’s a big-time competitor, and then you add in the third factor, which is that he’s exciting. That’s a hat trick of a player to me. You’ve got all the elements. There’s lots of players that are very skilled, there’s lots of players that are very competitive, but that exciting part of it – that’s the third part of it – really, really makes him a real joy and a treat to watch.
Jonas Siegel: How do you think that conversation went inside the Leaf front office when they were debating between, let’s assume, Hanifin and Marner? How do you think that conversation would’ve gone, and how do you think they would’ve stumbled onto Marner with that fourth pick?
Button: It all depends on what you’re projecting the player as. I think that Mitch Marner projects as an elite offensive player. I think that’s exactly where the Toronto Maple Leafs got to on Mitch Marner. People ask me all the time, “why do you think they took Marner over Hanifin?” Real simple. They think Marner is better.
Really, that’s what it comes down to. Are the margins close? Yeah, I’m not going to suggest otherwise, but you’d be amazed how many times I get asked that question. Real simple. They like ‘that guy’ better than ‘that guy.’
Hayes: Scott Burnside wrote a piece on ESPN.com suggesting that Mitch Marner is in the most important player in the organization, based on what he represents: obviously high-end skill, high-end pick, and he has the potential to play the wing and maybe center at the NHL level. I suggest Morgan Rielly is the most important, because I’m not convinced Marner’s going to play up the middle. I think if your most important player is on the wing, you’re probably starting behind the eight ball. Where do you stand on that when you look at where this organization is right now? Which player or players clearly should have the most focus on them in terms of importance and long-term growth?
Button: I think you have to rewind, too. You have to go back to William Nylander, obviously Morgan Rielly, and then players we don’t even know yet – players that are going to be drafted next year, players that are going to be drafted the year after, players that have been drafted already that might not be on the radar screen, not really having emerged yet. You know, it’s never about one player. If I had to give anybody a reminder, I’ll just tell everybody pay attention to what happened in Edmonton the last nine years. Just pay attention. They had some real terrific players, and it’s never about one. People want to say, “oh, Taylor Hall.” Taylor Hall is a terrific player, but he can’t do it by himself and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can’t do it by himself, or Jordan Eberle. It’s a collective. That ist he biggest thing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That being said, you want to get difference makers in your lineup. To me, Morgan Rielly is a difference maker. William Nylander is a difference maker. Mitch Marner is a difference maker. The more you can put checkmarks in that box that says difference maker, the better chances the Maple Leafs, or any team in the NHL, are going to have to compete for the Stanley Cup. Ultimately, you need the skill, but you need difference makers. Those guys are difference makers, but they need to add a lot more difference makers than the ones they have.
Siegel: Do you buy Mitch Marner being an NHL center, and by extension do you buy William Nylander playing center in the NHL, or do you think that’s going to be more difficult than maybe is assumed?
Button: I’ve watched William Nylander play since he was fifteen years old — at the AHL level, in the Swedish League, in the Allsvenskan. I’ve never seen William Nylander play center ice. Never. I know he played there, but I’ve never seen him play at center ice. I’ve seen Mitch Marner play center once, and it was in a playoff game this year. Dale Hunter told me he needed to spread out his offense because he felt Dvorak, Marner and Domi were too many eggs in one basket. I’ve seen Mitch Marner play center; he was terrific. I’ve never seen William Nylander play center, so I’m not able to comment on how he’s played there. Obviously, [they’re] small sample sizes. That being said, there’s a reason coaches end up putting players on the wing or players find themselves on the wing. I’m not suggesting that those players can’t play in the middle of the ice, because one of the things that Mitch and William can do is make plays. I think an offensive element to being a centerman is you’ve got to be able to make plays. If you can make plays and distribute the puck, and use as much as ice and space as you can to be dangerous, then I think that you can move into the middle of the ice offensively. Nylander and Marner qualify there. Coaches will tell you this all the time; that the big challenge becomes, “can you do the work in the defensive zone?” You can modify that — maybe have other players play a little bit more down low in those situations — but I think there is two parts to go with it. If you believe that [they] can play there, you’ve got to really get them playing in the middle. In my mind, if you have a player or players you want to play in the middle, then you have to get them in there and test them and see what they can do. There’s nothing, in my view, that precludes them from being put in those positions and seeing if they are capable of carrying the responsibility.
Hayes: I think that’s why we expect Nylander to start with the Marlies and play center. If Marner goes back, I’m sure that’s the intention in London. If it gets to a point where they get to the NHL and they can’t play center, then the pursuit of a number-one center will continue. Next year’s draft, everyone is focused on the top guy, who projects to be Auston Matthews. He is undoubtedly a number-one center in the future. The news came over just a short while ago that he will end up playing this upcoming season in Switzerland. We’ve heard this for quite some time and there’s been speculation about it. The belief is he’s always wanted to go this route. I know you’ve talked about it before, but refresh my memory – how do you feel about this, and could it possibly change how scouts would look at him in terms of next year’s draft?
Button: Auston Matthews is an elite player. He could play in Uzbekistan; it’s not going to make a difference to me in terms of his potential. Interestingly, he is playing for Marc Crawford. Marc Crawford has loads of NHL experience, but he’s coached juniors. He coached Owen Nolan, the first overall pick in 1990. Marc Crawford understands very well what a player is going through in his draft year, and ultimately what a player may be able to do to be the first overall pick. He’s done that. I think there’s a great benefit to Auston playing for Marc. I think he’s going to play for the World Junior team in Finland, so that doesn’t preclude him from there. I think he wants to go and play hockey. He talked about it a couple of times – he wants to prepare himself, in the best way possible in his mind, to be ready for the NHL next year. Obviously he didn’t feel college was the route for him; he feels that Switzerland is better for him than the Western Hockey League.