Mitch Marner of the London Knights (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Stacked up against high profiled draft prospects Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Noah Hanafin and countless other talented players with bright futures, London Knights forward Mitch Marner isn’t quite receiving the spotlight that his play has warranted. That is about to change for the Markham native as he's set to become the face of the Knights.

 

Mitch Marner of the London Knights (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Mitch Marner of the London Knights (Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Heading into his OHL draft season just a few seasons ago, Marner was a short 5-foot-7 forward playing for the Don Mills Flyers of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. Despite receiving a scholarship offer from the University of Michigan, a well-known hockey factory spearheaded by legendary coach Red Berenson, Marner opted for the OHL route after the London Knights drafted the small offensive dynamo with the 19th pick of the 2013 OHL Priority Selection Draft. Coming off an impressive 41 goal and 86 point season with the Flyers (55 games) to finish second in GTHL scoring, Marner slipped at the draft, in part because of size concerns about how his slight body would stand up to the rigors of OHL action.

Those size concerns are now in the past after Marner experienced an impressive growth spurt over the past few seasons that now has him entering his NHL draft season at 6-foot … and still growing. Size chatter aside, Marner’s physical stature isn’t what makes him such a special hockey talent but rather, it is his rare ability to manufacture offense and excel as an imaginative playmaker. On a Knights team loaded with veteran players (11 of which were drafted into the NHL prior to the 2013-14 season), it was a young fresh-faced and confident Marner who showed up on a nightly basis as arguably London’s most consistent forward. There were no guarantees of minutes played and on most game nights, Marner was playing third line duties (albeit with non-typical third line players) but it did not stop him from pushing the pace every single time he took the ice.

Immediately upon his arrival in London, Marner made the Knights’ scouting brass look shrewd with their selection because of his innate playmaking skills that routinely features outstanding vision, deft touches and elite hockey sense. He is a gifted passer who has an extraordinary sense of when to move the puck - an example of his impeccable timing. Dangerous in flight as he attacks one-on-one, he also possesses a gift for escaping pressure without being touched, always providing himself with exit routes. He’s the type of player defensemen know to get the puck to quickly as the play transitions up ice because he is one of the most efficient OHL players at gaining the zone and eluding coverage. His ability to generate speed and separate from checkers speaks to his swift acceleration gears. Marner excels at using quick agile cuts to keep defenders guessing, making it nearly impossible to maintain effective gap control which, in turn, opens up time and space for this talented playmaker. As one could expect, giving time and space to a player with elite abilities to dissect defenses is a bad strategy.

Speaking to his strengths is easy and while he’s certainly not a perfect prospect, Marner will have a full season with increased opportunities to improve upon his weaknesses. Look for Marner to continue to improve his strength to better handle battles in the gritty areas (a place he isn't shy to visiting) and he would benefit from escaping from his “pass-first” mentality occasionally as it would only add another dangerous element to his attack.  

It was a no-brainer for the London Knights to name Mitch Marner the franchise’s 2013-14 Rookie of the Year after he scorched the gamesheets for 13 goals and 59 points through 64 regular season contests, good enough for second in rookie scoring (behind OHL Rookie of the Year - Travis Konecny). The London Knights went through an up-and-down season and were under the microscope for most of it as hosts of the 2014 Memorial Cup but Mitch Marner rarely looked intimidated as a freshman. He eventually finished with an impressive plus-38 rating trailing only Chris Tierney’s plus-44 among all London forwards. As the season unfolded and Marner found his comfort zone, he rode the momentum into an impressive rookie playoff debut notching point-per-game numbers (9-3-6-9). Unfortunately, the Knights fell to Guelph Storm in Western Conference semi-final action ending their drive to become back-to-back OHL Champions. However, it is worth mentioning the individual success that Marner had against the Storm, a team who would eventually capture the 2014 OHL Championship. In the 11 games that Marner laced his skates up against the Guelph Storm he racked up five goals, 14 assists for 19 points. To be blunt, that is an outstanding and rare accomplishment against a team that was considered the best in the entire Canadian Hockey League.

With the potential departures of some big named forwards in London including Max Domi, Chris Tierney and Bo Horvat, the torch is expected to be passed to Mitch Marner to lead the next wave of talented forwards bringing their games to Budweiser Gardens. If his play at the recent Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament is indicative of his future, Marner will have no issues spearheading the Knights’ attack. As a member of Team Canada, Mitch Marner helped his nation to its seven consecutive gold medal after leading the team in tournament scoring with a pair of goals and seven points, including the championship winning goal during a three-point gold medal game effort. Marner isn’t shy to wearing his Canadian colours as he represented Team Ontario at the 2014 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last December as the squad’s second leading scorer (5-6-3-9)in a tournament that ended in disappointment after failing to earn a medal as 5th place finishers.  

Personal growth and individual success aside, Marner understands the importance that the London Knights place on winning and he’s determined to not only meet the lofty expectations placed on this annual contender but accepts the challenge in exceeding them. For a competitor as determined as Mitch Marner, stepping up and delivering eye-catching performances in the face of adversity has never been an issue. It has always been about playing to his abilities regardless of what his fiercest critics spit out.

We all know about Connor McDavid and his American rival Jack Eichel. OHL rookie standout Travis Konecny and Dylan Strome, brother of Islanders’ top prospect Ryan Strome, have both earned their share of attention as well. It’s time for the hockey world to make room for Mitch Marner as he is eager to make his name a mainstay in the 2015 NHL Draft Top 10 discussion and deservingly so.  

Marner is ready for his spotlight.

Follow @RossyYoungblood on twitter in his coverage of prospects and the 2015 NHL Draft.

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