Sending an intimate text to the wrong person. Opening an exam to a series of questions on the topic you strategically didn’t study because it surely wouldn’t be on the exam. Repeatedly yanking the door handle of a car that’s not yours – and failing to notice the person sitting inside. Watching Mitch Marner receive the puck with time and space to operate against your team.
We call each of these an “Oh sh*t!” moment. While most of them can (hopefully) be classified as one-offs, the latter is the exception.
When Mitch Marner has the puck, he often seems to have copious amounts of time and space with which to make a play. When teams afford a player with hands smoother than butter, God-given hockey IQ, and the vision of an eight-eyed, ten-foot-tall creature copious amounts of time and space to make a play, they inevitably end up torched. And diminished in dignity.
Here’s the catch: the matter isn’t one of teams affording No. 16 time and space so much as it’s one of him creating time and space for himself. How he’s able to do so is fascinating. Mitch Marner’s most underrated skill – a skill largely responsible for his classification as an elite player – is his tendency to take routes that position him for success prior to receiving the puck.
Marner takes routes that allow him to:
- guarantee a widened or substantial gap on defenders, and
- attack defenders at an angle.
By establishing physical distance from his defender, Marner directly sets himself up to receive the puck with time and space.
By taking a curved path rather than a straight one en route to collecting the puck, he unlocks the capacity to manipulate defenders once he’s gained possession, resulting in separation once more. When a puck carrier approaches a defender head-on, the defender maintains the ability to control and dictate the play, but when approached from an angle, this power shifts to the puck carrier. The angle provides the puck carrier with more options, and the ability to execute any given one more effectively, which makes him more dangerous and unpredictable, allowing manipulation to enter the equation.
Amid the hot mess that is Mitch Marner’s contract saga and its surrounding narratives, it’s important to highlight his skill involving routes as it offers important insight into his value and promised future production as a player. More on that after we break down some clips from the 2018-19 season.
Each video below shows the given Marner highlight twice: first at full speed, and then with pauses and telestrations unpacking his route. Points pertaining to his gap creation are marked in red and those concerning his angle of attack in blue.
This clip from a regular season game against the Boston Bruins beautifully demonstrates how Marner creates time and space for himself, once in the lead-up to receiving the puck and then again after collecting it, thanks to his route. The result is a highlight-reel play culminating in a goal.
As Frederik Gauthier (No. 33) carries the puck over centre ice, the gap between Marner and Matt Grzelcyk (No. 48), the defender covering him throughout this sequence, is substantial, but would close fairly quickly if the winger were to continue along a straight route into the offensive zone. This route – driving more or less directly to the net – is one the vast majority of players in the NHL would travel in this instance, steering themselves right into their check in the process. Instead, Marner decides to cut to his left and drop behind Gauthier, making it easier to receive a pass and more importantly, ensuring a gap between he and the Boston blueliner – and one nearly double the size of that which existed at the time Gauthier crossed centre. Marner gathers the puck and voila, he enjoys time and space.
Additionally, his route leaves Grzelcyk in a vulnerable position. Desperate to recover his gap, the Bruin is forced to stop up, pushing his momentum forward as he awaits his opponent’s arrival. Marner, who’s accumulated speed, is now licking his chops as he stares down a defender who’s flat-footed and drifting in the wrong direction. One word for Matt Grzelcyk: yikes.
The situation only exacerbates for Grzelcyk as Marner toys with him once more via manipulation made possible by his angle of attack. Marner curls to his right on his path to receiving the puck, putting him in the driver’s seat to effectively make any number of plays. Most notably, he can shoot, deke, pass, drive wide, stop up, or execute a tight turn. The Leaf uses the threat of these options advantageously, deceiving Grzelcyk by winding up, with his toes pointed at the net, as if intending to fire the puck. The defenceman turns his skates toward the middle of the ice in response, opening the door for Marner to exploit his positioning by attacking his backside, which he does with a backhand toe drag wide. With Grzelcyk scrambling to appropriately reorient his body, Marner successfully creates separation yet again. The rest of the play is typical Marner magic, courtesy of this time and space.
In this example, a play that begins as a seemingly innocent 2-on-2 rush at the tail end of a period concludes in a goal for the Leafs, largely because Mitch Marner’s route enables him to create something from nothing.
As Zach Hyman (No. 11) carries the puck out of the Toronto zone, Marner skates in a straight line across from him. If Marner were to continue on this linear path, the gap between he and the Buffalo defenceman (which is already respectably tight by neutral zone standards) would become increasingly narrow, making it difficult for Marner to receive a pass and leaving him with minimal time, space, and options should he successfully do so. Marner instead decides to crisscross with Hyman, – the key here is that he crosses behind Hyman rather than in front of him – which throws off the timing of both defencemen as it slows up the play slightly. As the Sabres drift further back because of their momentum, Marner benefits from an extra few centimeters of ice, and tenths of a second, upon picking up the biscuit. His route not only guarantees a sufficient gap, but also allows him to generate additional speed and corral the puck without breaking stride, which likely would have otherwise proved challenging.
Of equal significance pertaining to Marner’s route is how he curls to his right as he gains possession, allowing him to use this angle to create time and space again by manipulating defender Lawrence Pilut (No. 24). The fact that Marner is crossing over to his right, with toes and eyes headed in the same direction, indicates that he intends to continue along this trajectory in an effort to attack the middle of the ice. Anticipating this play, the defender turns his feet toward the middle, inviting Marner to capitalize on the deception he’s engineered by attacking Pilut’s backside. As he does so via pulling the puck wide, Pilut has already committed to crossing over to his left, even though Marner is now moving to his right. The defenceman is forced to stifle his crossover, regain his balance (hence his stick coming off the ice), and push his momentum in the opposite direction – a process which buys Marner a little extra time and real estate. This edge is all the baby-faced Bud needs to remain one step ahead of Pilut the rest of the play.
Another jaw-dropping play by Mitch Marner facilitated by his route without the puck leads to another goal in this sequence against Winnipeg.
As Marner approaches the blue line, it appears as though the only course that makes sense for him to travel – considering the location of the puck and position of the other players on the ice – is the one straight ahead. Doing so, however, would quickly close the generous gap he’s been given by Jets defender Dustin Byfuglien (No. 33), leaving the 6’0’’ forward contending with said hulking beast of a man as he tries to receive a pass (likely from a difficult angle) and make some sort of play. Rather than skate into Big Buff and this predicament, in a highly creative move, Marner cuts to his right and crisscrosses with John Tavares (No. 91), putting himself in position to cradle a pass with time and space as he’s composed a sizeable gap – and one in a high-danger area to boot. Contrasting highlight #2, the key to this crisscross is Marner crossing in front of the puck carrier as opposed to behind him. In addition to avoiding encroaching backcheckers, this maneuver allows Marner to blow by the left defenceman and receive the puck with only one defender left to beat.
Marner’s curved route not only helps him gather a great deal of speed as alluded to (crossovers are the crucial ingredient), but also provides him with an angle that he can leverage once the puck is on his stick. The only reason Marner is able to undress four-time all-star Byfuglien is because of the power and control this angle presents him in the form of a slew of options that can be executed effectively (i.e. drive to the net, drive wide, shoot, deke, etc.). Toes and eyes facing the goal, he manipulates Byfuglien with the threat of a direct net drive, prompting the defender to move his stick to the outside lane, and spin his feet and body toward the half-wall. The middle of the ice is now exposed and as Byfuglien’s momentum causes him to turn his back on Marner, the shifty forward slips the puck between his legs and skates around his backside, twirling the big man around and creating separation. Again, if Marner’s route before receiving the puck is straight, none of this sorcery is possible.
This highlight from a contest against the Vancouver Canucks offers fascinating insight into how Mitch Marner processes the game, clearly revealing that he consciously considers his routes before taking them. Those “Oh sh*t!” moments are no accident.
This play, especially the way Marner picks up the puck, is an absolute work of art. After blocking a shot, a teammate flips the puck to him in the neutral zone. Initially, he plans to collect it on his backhand and continue forward, which is the logical play. But upon surveying the location and momentum of Troy Stecher (No. 51), the Vancouver defender, Marner realizes that this plan will lead to an unfavourable outcome: Stecher will be able to keep skating forward, close the existing gap, and angle Marner to the outside (or at least push him towards the boards). Marner will be the one under pressure. After contemplating this situation in half a second, Marner decides to change his route by veering to his left and gathering the puck on his forehand. This extended route forces Stecher to pivot, slow down, and back off, yielding time and space for Marner, and handing him the reins. His route once again helps him amass speed and in this instance, buys time for his teammates to catch up in hopes of establishing an odd-man rush. This route modification is incredibly subtle, but makes a massive difference. There are very few players in the NHL who possess the IQ to even envision this play, let alone execute it.
Since Marner picks up the puck while skating east-west, his route enables him to curl in a big loop and attack Stecher at an angle. The angle component of this play entails the same principles outlined in the previous highlights: Marner holds several quality options, uses one to deceive the defenceman enough to turn his body and/or move his stick out of position (both in this case thanks to somewhat of a shot fake), and then exploits the opening he’s created.
What It All Means
Mitch Marner’s innate ability to take routes without the puck that afford him time and space once he receives it is a skill that powers his success to a large degree. It’s also a skill that makes him a very special talent because he employs it consistently. While the plays he orchestrates require top-tier hands, smarts, vision, passing ability, anticipation, agility, edges, quickness, and deceptiveness, – all of which he’s blessed with – many of them wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for his routes. The routes enable him to play to his strengths and maximize his skill set.
Generating time and space has been, and will always be, the foolproof formula for successfully manufacturing offence in hockey. When the team with the puck has room, it means that one or more players on the defending team are out of position. When that’s the case, the squad with possession is able to create controlled, high-danger plays which ultimately lead to prime scoring chances and goals.
Players who are skilled at generating time and space with the puck will therefore always be architects of offence who, by extension, inevitably pile up points. Even at the NHL level, these players are few and far between, making them invaluable assets. Mitch Marner is undoubtedly one of them. Rather than leaving it up to chance or relying on lucky breaks, he actively and frequently creates time and space for himself with his routes. If this fact doesn’t promise continued success for many years to come, I don’t know what does. As fans continue to debate (attack each other ruthlessly) about Marner’s monetary worth, questions concerning his ability to continue producing at an elite level are clearly insignificant. The kid is the real deal.