This week, we’ll take a look at the numbers behind Mitch Marner’s slow-ish start and the decision to bring back Roman Polak on a one-year contract.
Justin Bourne penned an excellent piece dissecting the play of the Maple Leafs‘ little dynamo, Mitch Marner, and attempted to find justification in the notion of Marner being defensively challenged early on in his sophomore season. He broke down several of the intricacies attributed to Marner — some items that can be coached out, and some inherent in hockey DNA.
As an aside, Marner has been used lightly on the PK — 2:09 in total so far this season — and it would make some sense to have a scoring threat element on the PK unit to take advantage of turnovers and quick breaks the other way on broken plays at the top of the zone.
Offensively, the numbers are the exact same as his production through his first nine games in his rookie year — one goal, five assists. He has three points at 5v5 so far. He’s recently been moved to a lower unit, off the regular Bozak/van Riemsdyk line, although may move back up the lineup if JVR (a game-time decision) is out against Carolina on Thursday night.
The table below is amassed via Natural Stat Trick. The ‘I’ signifies ‘individual’ metrics — the rate at which each player is contributing to the given metrics. SCF designates scoring chances for, and HD is ‘high danger’ chances. CF signifies shot attempts directed at the net (Corsi For), and CA is Corsi Against.
All rate stats are below the average for the team’s forwards across the board. I don’t like the giveaways stat and its inherent flaws very much, however, and it’s not like he’s generating an excessive amount of giveaways as a result of poor play.
An interesting note here, however, is that despite the questions surrounding his defensive play, there isn’t a significant amount of shot attempts being directed towards the Leafs goal while Marner is on the ice at 5v5. On Monday against the Kings, the Leafs‘ fourth line hemmed in the Kings in the defensive zone excessively, with Matt Martin producing one of his better visible games in Leafs silks (if you discount the fights after Marner was pasted with a solid hit).
There’s a time on ice component as well — and probably much more to this for contextual purposes — but the deficiencies aren’t showing up in the final results … yet.
Marner at his best: Electrifying End-to-End
To me, a noticeable difference this season in compared to Marner’s rookie year is the decline in individualism. Normally, a player doing too much would be considered a detriment, but Marner was at his best when taking off up the ice and creating havoc with his speed and creativity.
Marner’s rushes induced chaos as a rookie. He pushed back the defensive pairings and wriggled out of harm’s way from back checking forwards. Teams scrambled back, with no idea what the diminutive former London Knights forward had in mind, and were duped often with slick moves in the offensive zone.
This season, he seems to be taking fewer individual rushes and having much less success even when he’s getting the puck. Rather than ending in the chaos like in his rookie campaign, the electrifying start-up put fans on the edge of their seats in 2016-17 has more often hit a wall while he’s picking up steam.
Justin actually wrote another good piece on Dylan Larkin that outlined how the league may be catching up to his particular skill — speed. As a side note, this should somewhat apply to Kasperi Kapanen, but that’s another blog for another time. Shutting down the Red Wings pivot is about limiting the situations in which can use his most valuable skill – straightaway speed.
Marner contains a more dynamic skillset than Larkin, meaning that he’s less reliant on any one particular skill to dominate his production. Teams can’t fully shut down everything that makes Marner an exciting young player and valuable producer.
Keying in on his speed, teams aren’t giving Marner the room to rev the engine and take off. Teams are limiting this particular dynamic, shifting his effectiveness more solely into the offensive zone.
The short term provides a valuable learning lesson about working with available space, similar to what Patrick Kane did in Chicago. When confronted with the bigger, physical NHL, Kane learned to operate in the perimeter, circling the wagons – so to speak – in the offensive zone and becoming a threat with – and without – the puck.
Using speed through the neutral zone and figuring out how to maximize the effect of rushing the puck will be another element he has to discover. Kane approached this by reading the defenseman prior to the zone entry by focusing on a specific spot: the outside face off dot. Depending on the defensive positioning, he would alter his point of attack, zone entry and eventual in-zone tactics without an immediately-available first option.
Marner will have to figure out the game in a similar fashion. The diminutive winger has already figured out how to use his opponent’s size against them when challenged by a bigger, more physical opponent, as I outlined here.
Now, he will have to figure out how to create lanes and space to operate prior to getting into the offensive zone.
The Leafs signed the hulking defender to a short term deal to provide ….
I struggle with the end of that sentence, because I am not sure how to appropriately complete it. Grit? Net-side presence? Physicality? If it’s specific to penalty killing, I’d be a little more concerned.
I have some questions around Connor Carrik and Andreas Borgman, but is Polak an upgrade if those players aren’t performing?
The horrible broken leg injury is only part of the question here. One of the best elements of the mammoth Czech above physicality was mobility. He could skate, and recover. How will this injury affect that? How will it affect his effectiveness in small-area games, especially in front of the net or along the boards? Can he pivot and change directions properly/accurately at NHL pace? Will he just aggravate the issue with NHL game play?
To me, I’ve considered Polak to be a defenseman who is staunchly rigid within the coaching system. He doesn’t freestyle much outside of his role – and when he does, he recovers fairly well and quickly.
I can somewhat understand the allure by coaching staff, as he adheres to their overall philosophy, even if it means accepting that rigidity to act as a point of blueline stability.
Penalty killing, in my own view, is systemic and can be developed via philosophy. The pieces are interchangeable; meaning, all elements of the penalty kill should be replaceable without deviation from philosophy and — ultimately — performance. Increased physicality and net-front presence shouldn’t belie the fact the unit itself is rigidly structured with moving, transposable parts.
Is this enough to determine if he’s a capable NHL defenseman at this point? The game is about being fleet of foot, and smart. The first one is a question mark coming of a major injury, and likely the biggest surrounding his performance in 2017-18.