Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s natural that Marner is a Toronto Maple Leafs’ fan. And the drums have already started beating in southwestern Ontario, seeing a ready-made pairing of the Leafs’ high draft pick and Marner’s projected draft ranking. And while he said he’d be excited about joining the hometown club, he’s also conversant of saying the right things.
“Obviously, if I go to Toronto, it’s going to be a special moment for me and my family. Growing up there, you’re a Leafs fan,” he said. “Walking around downtown Toronto all you see are Leafs’ jerseys — everyone loves them there. They’re going through a rough patch this year, but fans keep supporting them and packing that building — it’s special seeing that.
“It’ll be special going anywhere in the draft — I’m just excited to go, but if it’s Toronto then I’ll be just as excited as any other team.”
Before he gets to the NHL, Marner may rewrite London’s OHL record book. He’s already outpacing the team’s career scoring leader, Corey Perry. In 2001-02, Perry scored 59 points — a number Marner matched in his rookie campaign. In Perry’s second season, he scored 78 points; a total Marner obliterated this year. Perry leads the team with 380 points over his four seasons; Marner already sits at 185.
Marner admits to considering his London Knights’ legacy.
“A little bit. It’s always in the back of your head. In my first year, matching Corey Perry’s rookie totals was special for me,” he said “I never thought I’d be able to do that. It was a special moment for me. My goal this year was to put up more points, obviously, and to be a big part of this team’s success. I just tried to do that and if that means putting up points, then that’s what I have to do.”
Marner’s rookie campaign also included a trip to the Memorial Cup — the team’s third in three years — as the host city. And while the experience didn’t end the way he had hoped, he said he learned a tremendous amount.
“It was a special moment. You don’t really get to go there often. You’re lucky if you get five years in the league and you get to go there once,” Marner said. “For me, it was a special moment going in my first year and this place was obviously pretty crazy. We were getting police tours around in our bus.
“It was a learning moment, stepping out on that ice. Most of them are in the AHL or NHL now — I learned no matter what shift or what line you’re going against you have to give it 100 per cent. If you’re getting tired, then you have to get off the ice. Everyone’s ready to go and it’s a quick, fast game.”
And he’s taken what he learned from that experience and applied it to this year’s playoffs, which included a first-round defeat of the Kitchener Rangers.
“It’s all about taking care of your body. If you take care of your body, then you’re going to be healthy,” he said. “You’ve got to get the right sleep and get the right food in you. If you do that, then you’re going to be healthy.”
While he admitted that playoff success may helped improve his standing in some people’s eyes, his focus is not on the name on the back of his jersey.
“I think it’s a little bit, but it’s about playing for your team and that crest on the front,” he said. “My home right now is London and I want to take this team as far as we can. This city deserves another run like that.”
Hunter added that Marner’s done a good job of keeping his focus where it needs to be.
“He’s done pretty well. He’s pretty mature that when when it comes to that extra stuff outside of the ice — the outside pressure, I guess you’d say. But you know it’s tough — it’s tough for a 17-year-old,” Hunter added. “The guys that are ranked at the top, where he was — usually you can only lose spots. So I thought he’s done a great job combining playing well enough to prove that he could be a top-10 pick, but also playing the right way for us to give us a chance to win every night.”
And while the top draft spot is sewn up, playing against Connor McDavid and Strome regularly has been a good measuring stick for Marner, Hunter added — and it’s helped keep the focus from being completely on the Knight.
“Obviously, a McDavid only comes around once over 10 years, so a lot of the focus is on him,” Hunter said. “I think it’s good in the fact that when you have a top draft class and you’re playing against them regularly you can size yourself up against them — it’s somebody that you can match yourself up and get motivated against.
“It’s not somebody you don’t know in the “Dub” or ‘Q’ — he’s right there and they know each other very well. It’s a friendly rivalry and it’s keeping each other motivated.”
Marner finished the season ranked sixth overall by ISS Hockey and sixth amongst North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. At only 165 pounds, Marner knows he needs to get a little bigger. He’s committed to putting in the time this summer.
“I think it’s strength. I want to do a little bit of everything,” Marner said. “I want to do a lot more on-ice and I want to improve off-ice and get stronger with my wrists. Shooting and stuff like that. I think if I can do that, then I’m going to be successful at the next level.”
Hunter added that Marner has a few things to work on, but has been impressed with his dedication to getting better. He may be a star, but he approaches each day looking to improve his deficiencies.
“I think, with everything, he could put weight on, but you could say that about a lot of 17 year olds. With him, it’s just to keep improving his game and score from all different areas,” Hunter said. “You see the guys in the NHL that score 40 goals, you don’t just see them score — well, I guess save [Alex] Ovechkin — the rest of the guys they score from different areas. He’s worked hard on it this year, going to different areas, and trying to score the rebounds, shots. He’s improved his shot — it’s something that he needs to work on.
“We compare him to [Claude] Giroux — he did the same where he worked on his deficiencies. That’s what’s good about him. He wants to work on it. Some guys have an idea of themselves and they don’t want to work on certain things, and that’s not [Mitch]. He will work on things and I thinks that’s what makes him excel at 17 and do as much as he has.”
And, like he has since he was four years old, Marner will be headed back to Ajax to the man who has helped him climb to the top of the draft charts.
“Yeah, I’ll be going back to Rob in Ajax,” Marner said. “He’s a big part of why I’m here now and he’s really pushed me to the next level.
“I don’t doubt that he can push me to that next level again.”
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