The contrast between the stunning skill and alarming lack of size possessed by top draft prospect Mitchell Marner creates perhaps the most intriguing storyline of the upcoming 2015 NHL draft.
For the Carolina Hurricanes, picking fifth and right in the projected selection range for Marner, Marner's two-sided resume will test general manager Ron Francis' willingness to take a risk on the draft's biggest "hit or miss" player.
It's highly likely that Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Dylan Strome and Noah Hanifin will go to Edmonton, Buffalo, Arizona and Toronto in some order during the top four picks. (Marner is on the record that he'd "love" for the Leafs to pick him, but his desires hardly matter in reality.)
That would leave the 'Canes with a diverse cast of forwards—small and large, North American and international—from which to choose.
The instant and certain franchise-changing players (McDavid and Eichel) will not be options, but Marner could also be franchise-changing. It won't be instant or certain, but Francis may be willing to take that risk regardless.
|Mitchell Marner Prospect Profile|
|2014-15 Team||London Knights (OHL)|
|2014-15 Stat Line||44G, 82A, 126P|
|CSS Ranking (N.A. Skaters)||6th|
Marner is an elite scorer and playmaker capable of challenging for the NHL scoring title every season.
After all, his 126 points (44 goals, 82 assists) with the London Knights this year was the third-highest total in the OHL since 2006-07, far higher than now-superstars like John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner.
Scouts rave about the center's shooting, passing, puck-handling, offensive vision and intelligence and essentially every single skill-based trait he has. Reports David Burstyn of McKeen's Hockey:
A highly skilled and intuitive offensive player whose game reading ability is off the charts—able to dance all over the ice. Elusive in his approach as he spins off guys and simply anticipates the game better than his peers. Great stamina levels as he readily retreats back behind his own goal to make a heady defensive play only to dart up ice in the same sequence. Sky high potential as his game marries traits of both Jordan Eberle and even more, Claude Giroux.
Scouts rave about the the top projected picks every year across the board, but Marner's praise has the numbers to back it up. Unlike, for example, projected top-15 pick Mikko Rantanen, who scored just 28 points in 56 games in the Finnish Elite League, Marner is already comfortable with translating his skill into prolific scoring.
|Marner Stat Sheet|
|2012-13||AAA Minor Midgets||55||86|
Marner grew significantly as a player during the course of the 2014-15 season, overcoming a slow start (by his standards) to nearly capture the OHL scoring title.
Working under the leadership of former NHL coach and current London Knights coach Dale Hunter, Marner also noted improvements in his confidence and patience and attributed them to Hunter's guidance.
On a 'Canes team that struggled offensively this season and lacks the flashy puck-handlers of foes like Chicago and Tampa Bay, Marner would represent a higher-caliber version of current OHL prospect Sergey Tolchinsky (who led the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds with 95 points this season).
Carolina has drafted just one forward in the top 37 overall picks of the last four NHL drafts—Elias Lindholm at No. 5 in 2013—and sports an alarmingly sparse cast of promising forwards under the age of 22. Marner would be the most offensively dynamic 'Canes selection since Eric Staal in 2003.
It's hard to remember a top draft prospect in recent history with more negative attention paid to his size than in the case of Marner.
He's officially listed at 5'11" and 160 pounds, although other sources range between 155 and 165 pounds. Nathan Gerbe, by comparison, is 178 pounds.
Despite the NHL's recent trend away from big, muscular enforcers to smaller, slicker playmakers and the mirroring decrease in the perceived importance of size, it remains a very noteworthy attribute for any player in the league. Twenty of the top 25 scorers league-wide this season weighed at or above 200 pounds.
Marner undoubtedly needs to bulk up a lot to survive at the professional level. Regardless of the changing role of size, that is a must.
But it's also reasonable to expect such significant growth from Marner in the years ahead. He's not the kind of top-10 prospect who would immediately jump to the NHL (unlike Jeff Skinner in 2010), and any team that picks him—including possibly the 'Canes—would do so while committing to keep Marner in juniors and/or the AHL for another two years or so.
At age 19 with Boston College, the aforementioned Gerbe was listed at 165 lbs. He's added on 13 more in the eight years since onto his 5'6" frame, five inches shorter than Marner and therefore with five inches less body structure on which to add weight.
The second overall pick in 2010, Tyler Seguin, stood at 6'1" and 172 pounds at the time of his selection. He's substantially stronger today, having grown to a solid 200 pounds in the half-decade since.
It's common for flashy forwards to add 20 or 25 pounds in the years after being drafted as they conclude their physical maturation and develop their game for the NHL level.
Marner is also confident about his small stature. Said Marner to NHL.com's Mike Morreale in March:
The NHL right now is at a point where size doesn't matter; it's all about the skill and passion. I think if you go out there and show that you're willing to go every shift, willing to prove a point and prove that you can hold your own, that skills are more important than the size.
Whether those bold statements are interpreted as a representation of impressive confidence or a selling pitch to cover up a known weakness is up for personal interpretation.
Marner also needs improvement on his long-distance skating speed and explosive stride (he's a quick but not particularly powerful skater), as well as in the physical and checking aspects once he adds a few more pounds.
The exciting upside of Marner is well-known.
So is his lack of size.
Whether or not the Ontario is squirming into a red and white sweater on June 26 will depend solely on, first, his availability at the No. 5 slot and, secondly, Ron Francis' gutsiness when announcing the team's selection at the podium moments before.
Marner could be either one of the NHL's next big stars, the Hurricanes' biggest first-round disappointment since Philippe Paradis or another team's risky venture carrying the same two potential outcomes.