Mitch Marner hasn’t produced enough offence but he’s still had a positive impact

Mitch Marner has only a single point so far this postseason but to suggest he’s not had any impact for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Boston Bruins is kind of missing the point, or part of the point anyway.

Take Game 3 for example, a 4-2 loss for the Leafs.

Even though they got the David Pastrnak matchup, Marner’s line dominated. In just over eight minutes of action, the line of Marner, John Tavares, and Matthew Knies won almost 90 percent of the expected goals for the Leafs. The threesome didn’t line up for even one faceoff in the offensive zone.

They still scored the first Leafs goal on a play that few players can make. Marner starts by undressing Parker Wotherspoon and then threads a pass that Knies can hammer home.

There’s no way that pass should get through all those sticks.

Do the Leafs need more offence from Marner? Absolutely. But it’s important to consider the context of what the Leafs are asking him (and his line) to do in this series: Keep the Bruins’ best player off the scoreboard as much as possible.

Through three games, they’ve done as well as the Leafs could have hoped: Pastrnak has only a single point and two shots in almost 41 five-on-five minutes.

That’s a big win for the Leafs.

So is this: In the 16 head-to-head minutes that Marner, Knies, and Tavares have played against Pastrnak and Pavel Zacha (the third forward on the line has varied), the Leafs have won about 60 percent of the scoring chances and 75 percent of the high-danger shot attempts.

And again, that’s with Marner’s line getting buried in defensive zone draws: 10, to be precise, in that specific matchup – and just two at the other end. Marner’s line is being deployed as if it were a David Kämpf special. They have an offensive faceoff percentage of 26 percent in this series.

Auston Matthews’ line, on the other hand, is up over 80 percent through three games. The Leafs can keep loading them up for O-zone draws because Marner’s line is making it out of quicksand more often than not.

With different personnel, the Leafs wouldn’t have stuck their second or third-best offensive player in these spots. But because they don’t want the Kämpf-led fourth line doing it regularly and have no interest in using their Pontus Holmberg-led third line that way, or Matthews for that matter, it falls to Marner and company to take on the biggest challenge from the Bruins.

“Mitch is our most reliable and consistent defensive player, and he’ll continue to be that,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said ahead of Game 3, “and he’ll make plays when they’re available.”

Morgan Rielly compared the effectiveness of Marner’s line in their matchup to the defenceman who doesn’t get noticed for good reasons.

“I watched the (last) game back, and he’s just in a great spot,” Rielly said of Marner. “He constantly has a good stick. He’s responsible defensively. He’s down low in (our) zone a lot of times; he’s down by the goal line doing his job and then some. He’s out there taking care of his teammates, and he’s doing an outstanding job for us.”

Sealed in a playoff bubble, Rielly wasn’t aware of any criticism of Marner but said, “I think for Mitch, he’s a world-class player. So when I watch his game, there’s a million little things he does away from the puck and defensively and on special teams that not many players can do. I think for a long time now that’s been underappreciated.”

It’s easy to miss the little stuff, like Marner hammering Mason Lohrei here on the forecheck in Game 3, which helps create a turnover that leads to a pretty good look from the left faceoff dot for Tavares.

Marner’s line has done some of its best work on the forecheck, led by Marner, who disrupts the Bruins here, keying a turnover in Game 2:

Keefe has worked to get Marner the odd shift with Matthews and on most of those occasions, the Leafs have gotten their looks, including a Marner-Matthews connection from the high slot in the third period of Game 2 – not long before Matthews gave the Leafs a 3-2 lead.

In the first period of Game 1, Marner shrewdly threw a puck at the net because he knew Matthews was hovering nearby. Matthews nearly beat Jeremy Swayman on the rebound.

As Keefe pointed out, Marner would have nabbed another point had Tyler Bertuzzi kept his stick just a little lower here:

Marner hasn’t looked tight or tense as in past postseasons. That’s been evident off the ice in his calm, measured, and optimistic meetups with the media. (It was a different story that way last spring.)

“He’s done a terrific job with the matchups,” Keefe said. “The points stuff, no I don’t get too worked up over that.”

Has Marner played a great series to this point? No. Has he played a bad series? Also, no. And he does need to unlock another gear and somehow create more offence for the Leafs to get over the hump in Round 1. Some of those chances have to drop, whether it’s at even strength against Pastrnak or on a power play that needs to come through at some point for the Leafs.

This team isn’t deep enough offensively for Marner not to produce at all in this series.

He needs to find another level of aggression shooting the puck, especially if he’s not going to be playing with Matthews. Marner has only two five-on-five shots all series, the same number as Ryan Reaves. And while it’s not in his game to crash the blue paint with fury, like some may like, he should look to score more than he has so far in this series.

Marner isn’t thought of as a scorer, but he’s scored only one fewer goal (91) than Tavares (92) over the past three regular seasons in 18 fewer games. Marner’s 0.41 goals per game during that stretch ranks 38th among NHLers who logged at least 200 games, just ahead of guys like Tavares, Travis Konecny, Mika Zibanejad, and Alex DeBrincat and just behind the likes of Brady Tkachuk, J.T. Miller and Elias Pettersson.

Marner is at his best, his most dangerous, when he becomes more of a dual threat, when he’s occasionally selfish and looks for his own shot.

Marner isn’t Doug Gilmour. And to expect him to do Doug Gilmour things is misguided. He doesn’t need to be that to be effective for the Leafs. Marner’s game is finesse. It’s using his mind and skill to make things happen, on both sides of the puck.

The Leafs need him to do more of it on offence against the Bruins. If he can’t get there, and the Leafs fall flat somehow, he’ll be deserving of his share of blame.

But so far, his line has neutralized the most dangerous player on the opposing team. That has to count for something.

“As series go on, as playoffs go on, everybody gets their time and get their moment,” Keefe said. “Mitch has come through for us offensively in so many ways in the past and found ways to produce, and he’ll do it again.”

(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference

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