By picking Marner, Leafs opt for skill
SUNRISE, Fla . — His shirt was blue, his tie was blue and, as Mitch Marner stepped onto the riser as a first-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it became obvious he was, in the most literal sense, blue right down to his socks.
“I like blue,” he said. “It’s kind of funny this worked out.”
The Leafs got him with the fourth pick of the draft, turning the 18-year-old forward into a signal post on the road to rebuilding the roster. Marner is not the tallest signal post, listed — generously, maybe — at 5-foot-11, but he has been hailed for his creativity, and for an uncanny ability with the puck on his stick.
He was second in the Ontario Hockey League scoring race last season, with 126 points in 63 games with the London Knights. Mark Hunter, now director of player personnel with the Leafs, also drafted Marner in London.
“He had no doubt in me there, and it looks like he has no doubt in me now,” Marner said on Friday night. “That means a lot for a kid growing up.”
He said he was only 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds when Hunter decided to roll the dice on his skill the first time around. (Hunter discussed some of his reasoning in a recent interview with TSN: “Mitch Marner’s mom was a good size, you would think he’d grow, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.”)
Marner said he wants to make the NHL team right away.
“That’s the goal for me,” he said. “I want to play.”
It was the first time in 31 years the Leafs had the fourth overall pick, since defenceman Al Iafrate in was picked in 1984. Forward Lanny McDonald was also selected fourth overall by the Leafs in 1973.
With all of the trade speculation swirling in off the beach in Fort Lauderdale, there was a thought other movement would overshadow the pick.
Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told reporters on Thursday that the team had been fielding inquiries from across the NHL, and that Phil Kessel was “probably the player that has gotten the most phone calls.”
He stressed, though, that outside pressures would not force the team into a trade, which is a sentiment he repeated again on Friday during an appearance on TSN Radio.
“Maybe some people have gotten frustrated with my patience,” Shanahan told the station. “But when the time is right for the Maple Leafs, that’s when we’ll do something. And if that’s this summer, or that’s in the fall, or if that’s at the trade deadline next year, that’s when we’ll do it.”
Besides, he said, the Leafs had “earned” the fourth pick.
Toronto had two picks in the first round, having also landed the 24th pick in a trade with the Nashville Predators in March. The Leafs traded that pick to the Flyers on Friday night in exchange for the 29th and 61st picks.
Toronto does not have a pick in the second round, which begins Saturday morning, but it does have two picks in the third round (61st and 65th overall) and two more in the fourth round (95th and 107th). The Leafs also pick in each of the final three rounds (125th, 155th and 185th).
By the end of the season, NHL Central Scouting had Marner ranked sixth among North American skaters. He has drawn praise for his speed and for his playmaking ability, but at only 160 pounds, he still faces questions about his size.
He conceded adding weight and improving his strength are among his greatest needs in making it to the NHL. It seems unlikely he will make that jump this fall, with the Leafs heading into a rebuild.