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History honored, Mitch Marner puts Maple Leafs’ bright future in the spotlight

The Toronto Maple Leafs retired 17 players’ numbers in a massive pregame ceremony on Saturday, but it was their bright future that stole the show in their 2016-17 home opener.

TORONTO — On a night when the Toronto Maple Leafs honored their past by retiring 17 players’ numbers, the team’s young core showed there are also many reasons to be excited about the future.

In a back-and-forth affair, the Maple Leafs bested their Atlantic Division rival Boston Bruins 4-1 in the home opener of their centennial season. Toronto opened the scoring with three goals in the first period, the first two scored by rookies Connor Brown and Mitch Marner, making the Leafs became the first team in the expansion era to have to have rookies score the first six goals of their season.

Anyone in need of evidence that the Toronto youth movement isn’t just underway, but promising as well, look no further than Marner’s goal. The 19-year-old winger deftly corralled a Tyler Bozak pass through the neutral zone and without breaking stride, fired a quick wrist shot past Bruins goaltender Anton Khudobin.

It looked all too easy for Marner, whose immense skill and playmaking ability was evident throughout the game. It was the kind of goal an uber-talented youngster like Marner could score in his sleep, but his celebration over his first NHL beguiled that poise. His face lit up and he pumped his fists electrically.

“As soon as it went in, excitement took over my body and the first guy I saw I gave a big hug to,” Marner said after the game. “It’s a thing I’m going to cherish for awhile.”

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“That’s straight from the London Knights right there,” added Nazem Kadri, himself a former OHL Knight. “I know a thing or two about that.”

Now, if Marner’s evening had ended after what was easily the goal of the game, few would have doubted his ability to become an offensive impact player in the league.

“Any goal in this league is a nice goal,” he said.

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But Marner had so much more up his sleeve.

Midway through the second period, Marner eluded a number of Bruins close to the net, creating the kind of dynamic scoring chances that serve as a proof why the Maple Leafs wanted him at No. 4 in the 2015 draft. He then drew a tripping penalty to send the Leafs to the power play.

“He’s a fun guy to play with,” said Bozak.

With all the history on display before the game, the comparisons between the Leafs of old and new were quick to emerge throughout the evening. And as he has been since he was drafted by Toronto, Marner’s fearless play drew comparisons to one of the Leafs whose number was retired: Doug Gilmour. 

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“Obviously Dougie’s a guy I watched growing up,” Marner said. “I really loved watching him play and seeing how he played as a smaller guy in a bigger group of hockey players.”

It’s still early in the season but for these young Leafs, and their long-suffering fans, the signs of promise were clear.  

The move to retire numbers instead of simply “Honouring” them as they had in the past is one that drew the approval of many on Twitter. But you can only celebrate the past for so long. For now, Mitch Marner and the high-flying approach the Maple Leafs had at their home opener will have many salivating at what could come in the future.

“It’s exciting for all of us,” said Marner. “We had a lot of fun out there, I feel, tonight and things are just going to keep getting better.”