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NHL: MARSHALL – Mitchell Marner and how to define “Hockey Sense”

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 03: Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner (16) skates with the puck during the NHL Hockey match between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs on December 3rd, 2022 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire)

Mitchell Marner's 20 game point streak has officially etched his name in the annals of Maple Leaf greatness. Even more, if you glance at the list of the NHL's active players that have gone on a run of 20 games with a point, it's chalk full of pretty important, accolade-laden names: Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Paul Statsny, all elite talents that have carved out their place in the game.

Courtesy of his streak, Marner lives there now, too. But there's something he's doing during this point streak that is worth extracting and taking a closer look at. It's something that reinforces the idea to me that certain things we see in hockey are borderline supernatural and simply can't be taught. As games in this streak have come and gone and the points have continued to accumulate, Marner has cemented himself as one of the most elite playmakers in the game of hockey today.

Marner's puck distribution features a little bit of everything out of an elite playmakers toolbox. From his dogged forechecking that nets him extra possessions to his no-look playmaking, Marner has been the straw that stirs the drink in most of these instances. In fact, per Natural Stat Trick, Marner has registered a point on 89 percent of the goals scored while he's on the ice at even-strength this season, a testament to his consistent involvement in the play.

We people talk a lot about being a driver of play and individually helping a team create offense, but I wanted to show what I believe that means in a practical sense. In the below clip, Marner grabs the puck in the neutral zone and immediately skates the puck into the center of the Penguins neutral zone structure, where they attempt to collapse on him and generate a turnover.

That doesn't happen. Marner, courtesy of his skating ability and understanding of the game, has made this move in order to position himself in the optimal passing position. I freeze the video to show the number of puck distribution lanes he creates simply by attacking the core of the opponents structure and creating opportunities to set up a teammate via shot or pass off the pads of the goalie for a rebound.

You don't see many players in this league skate directly into the center of a team's neutral zone structure and walk out of it with a prime scoring chance. You see it a lot when you watch Marner, however. His approach to the game is relentless. He creates a lot of chances off of the blade of his stick by directly attacking the opposition and putting himself in a position to distribute the puck to a high danger area.

Here's another example of Marner driving play by his own actions. This is a situation against Dougie Hamilton and the New Jersey Devils where it's Marner against many and Marner still comes away with the puck. Marner's head is up in this clip while he's fending off Devils defenders and attempting to win the puck battle. That head's up approach enables him to find John Tavares in the slot. We can capture the moment Marner sees him on video.

One of the reasons Marner is so good at distributing the puck is that he has the puck a lot. One of the reasons he has the puck a lot is situations like the one we just saw. He's been forechecking at this level throughout his point streak and its enabled him to put the puck on his stick multiple times over the course of a shift.

We all hear the word "hockey sense" get thrown around a lot. It's become a bit of a catchall for describing things people can't quite put their finger on, things like on-ice premonitions that allow a player to get a to a scoring area before a puck does, the ability to close a lane before it opens fully for the other team, or in Marner's case, the ability to make tape-to-tape passes using nothing but your peripheral vision and your knowledge of where your teammates are supposed to be at a given time.

Much of what is driving Marner's point streak are the great unquantifiable intangibles that come with a great level of hockey sense. It's the ability to distribute pucks in way that cannot be taught to other people. You don't see players across the league doing this because they can't.

In the clip, pay close attention to how Marner attacks the middle of the ice. That is, as it was with the clip we saw above, the foundation of everything else that happens in this clip.

Marner can make this pass because of his comfort level with the power-play structure. He knows where the bodies are going to be when he makes his cut to the middle. He knows that he's going to see penalty-killers shift in response to his team's movement. This is hockey sense incarnate; a great example of what people mean when they say a player possesses it at a high-level.

Marner is executing these passes with a sense of speed that blows me away for how little of a view he has at the places he's sending these pucks. Part of dominating the game with innate hockey sense is being able to play at a step ahead of your peers and opponents. Marner has been doing a great job of moving pucks quickly and with the flow of play to keep the defense on its toes and guessing his next move.

In the next clip, consider how little time the puck stays on Marner's stick in each of these touches. He's just keeping things moving down the road smoothly. He's architecting the play without spending a lot of time with the puck on his stick. When we think about hockey sense as an attribute, this is a huge part of it.

This is attacking style hockey at its best: wave after wave of shot-attempts courtesy of quick passing and a thorough understanding of where your teammates are located.

Peripheral vision plays a huge role here and we've seen Marner use it to hide his next move from his opponents. It's a lot easier for defensemen to do their job when you aren't telegraphing your every move to them. In the next clip, consider how Marner is able to use both speed and deception to his benefit as he quickly moves this puck without letting anyone know where its headed.

If Marner picks his head up here and looks at Tavares before making the pass, he tips off the Canucks to his plan. They become aware that there's a passing option behind them because Marner is looking right at it. You can see the panic and confusion in the Canucks defense when they see this pass getting made, they almost realize what's happening as it's too late to do anything about it.

These are subtle things that all tie together into the idea of what hockey sense is and how it benefits a player. Marner has been leaning on this throughout his run of 20-straight games with a point. You don't produce these types of situations without having that almost Matrix-like understanding of how the game of hockey works.

That understanding enables Marner to move at a high rate of speed, execute difficult maneuvers with the puck, and all the while maintain a distinct view of where everyone else is around him without actually having to look at them. When you type it all out that way, it sounds absolutely ridiculous. Impossible, even. But it's happening on a regular basis. Consider the amount of things Marner has to handle and process in this next situation against the Carolina Hurricanes.

There's obviously a lot of ridiculous puck skill in that clip but consider the spacing with which Marner gives himself upon entering the offensive zone. He drives wide, making himself a primary option as a future puck recipient. It's that innate hockey sense to know where the best place to put himself is to optimize of his offensive outputs.

Again, this cannot be bottled and sold in stores. It is one of the things that makes Marner the unique player it is and enables him to find the scoresheet with the regularity he has this season.

These puck skills and hockey sense make Marner an extremely difficult player to mark. His point streak hasn't just been driven by his playmaking as he's scored plenty of goals as well, but the understanding of the game and ability to process it at a fast level is what has set him apart from his peers and enabled him to elevate his teammates at such a high level.