The London Knights are steamrolling the competition at the Memorial Cup and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Mitch Marner is leading the way, just as he did in the OHL playoffs. All told, the right winger has 57 points in his past 21 games (13 in three Memorial Cup wins). Add in the 116 points he had during the regular season and you've got a weaponized threat on the ice.
The Knights have already clinched a spot in the Memorial Cup final thanks to a 3-0 record (in which they have outscored their opponents 20-5), so with one game left on the docket for the team, it's hard not to speculate what Marner's future holds next season.
So let's speculate, shall we?
Due to his age, Marner would not be able to play in the AHL next season, which is a shame. And maybe two months ago I would have said it was a travesty, since the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder would seem perfect for the circuit. After all, the AHL would have given the kid the challenge of playing against bigger, stronger men, but those players also wouldn't have the same level of game smarts as their NHL counterparts. By my logic, Marner's incredible smarts would have allowed him to grow his game without getting killed every night.
But that was never a possibility due to the agreement the NHL has with the CHL about 19-year-olds who were drafted out of major junior. So the other option for 2016-17 would have been to give Marner a nine-game tryout with the Maple Leafs, but spread out over a longer period of time – having him watch games in the press box in between. That would serve the dual purpose of keeping him up longer, allowing for more practice time, while also giving him a bird's-eye view of how fast and intense the NHL game is. Alex Pietrangelo did it in St. Louis, as have many others.
From the NHL team's perspective, the nine-game stint also causes Marner's entry-level contract to "slide" a year, keeping him one season longer on those inexpensive rookie deals and pushing free agency away by one season.
Under this option, Marner stays with the Leafs until, say, late November. Then he returns to the Knights for a couple weeks before heading off to Canada's world junior camp, where he would be the centerpiece for a team gunning for gold after a poor showing in Helsinki (on home ice in Montreal, no less).
After the world juniors, he goes back to London and tries to win another title with a team that will once again be stacked.
But now I'm pausing on this scenario. Because Marner seems so advanced, that I wonder if he could step right into the Toronto lineup next year full-time, more or less. He's not going to have much of a summer in terms of gaining strength and pounds, but it may not matter: The kid is just so skilled and so smart.
Let's take a look at two other players similar in size and skill to Marner: Winnipeg's Nikolaj Ehlers and St. Louis' Robby Fabbri. Both Ehlers and Fabbri went back to junior after their draft year, just like Marner. But as 19-year-olds, they made the jump.
Ehlers finished tied for sixth in scoring on the Jets with 38 points in 72 games this year, though he accomplished that while playing 16 minutes a night. That ranked eighth among Winnipeg forwards. To the Jets' credit, they gave him pretty ample power play time for a rookie (2:18 per game) and sheltered his zone starts. Ehlers began 56 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, one of the highest totals of any Winnipeg player.
In St. Louis, we're still seeing what Fabbri can do – and it's a lot. The speedy and tenacious youngster is leading the Blues in scoring with 15 points in 19 post-season games and has done so with just 14:24 of ice time per night. During the regular campaign, Fabbri started 53 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, but that paled in comparison to Vladimir Tarasenko's line, with the Russian sniper clocking in at 65 percent (all zone starts sourced from Hockey Abstract).
Fabbri actually had very similar numbers to Ehlers in the regular season, however. Fabbri ranked seventh in St. Louis offense with 37 points in 72 games, while playing just 13 minutes a game and getting 1:26 of power play time per game. Had Winnipeg made the post-season, perhaps we would have seen Ehlers go on a tear (his world junior performance for Denmark in 2015 would back that up) too.
So if we're going to keep our feet rooted on the ground, a full season of NHL hockey for Marner in 2016-17 would probably net around 40 points, depending on usage. Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock has said in the past that young players must take jobs away from veterans in camp, but based on Toronto's depth chart right now, that might not be too hard for a skilled winger like Marner.
And while the Leafs may not win many more games than they did this season, it's hard not to think how fun it would be to see what Marner could do on a line with Auston Matthews and maybe even William Nylander next season.