NHL·Analysis

Mitch Marner is ready for the NHL

Despite questions about his size and age, hockey fans should expect Mitch Marner to suit up for the Toronto Maple Leafs next season. After leading the London Knights to a Memorial Cup victory, there’s simply nowhere else for the junior star to go.

Size, age can be overcome by talents of 19-year-old Leafs prospect

After dominating junior hockey, London Knights standout Mitch Marner is ready to try his hand at the pros. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Mitch Marner is quickly becoming a household name, especially among Toronto Maple Leafs fans.

The 19-year old forward from Thornhill, Ont., who was drafted fourth overall by the Leafs last year, dominated junior hockey this past season to the tune of 116 points in 57 games and shone even brighter in the playoffs, piling up 44 points in 18 contests.

After leading the London Knights to a Memorial Cup victory last week, on the heels of being named the CHL's player of the year, many are wondering where Marner will play next season.

There are two possible paths: Marner can be given a spot on the Leafs' roster for the 2016-17 season or go back to juniors. But with Marner having nothing left to prove in the CHL, remaining with the Knights could actually stunt his development, leaving him no more ready for the NHL than he is right now.

Sending Marner to the Toronto Marlies, the Leafs' minor-league affiliate, for professional seasoning is not an option. There's an agreement between the NHL and the CHL that restricts players who've been drafted out of a CHL team from playing in minor professional leagues like the AHL until their 20-year-old season. The agreement states that players must be 20 years old by Dec. 31 to be eligible to be sent to the minors, but Marner won't turn 20 until May 5 of next year.

Another player caught in this predicament who also put up big numbers in the CHL was Jonathan Drouin. The current Tampa Bay Lightning forward from Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., was ineligible to play for the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL in the 2013-14 season, so the Lightning chose instead to send him back down to the QMJHL for one final season before calling him up to the NHL the following year.

But with Marner looking too good for junior hockey, the only real option left is for him to suit up for the Toronto Maple Leafs next season.

The question then becomes, is he ready?

Talent can trump size

Critics have cited Marner's age and relatively slight build as obstacles to his immediate promotion to the NHL.

Measuring only five-foot-11 and about 170 pounds, Marner's ability to handle the physical demands of playing in the NHL has been called into question. But being small doesn't mean you can't score, and size doesn't always correlate with NHL success. Just ask Patrick Kane, Joe Pavelski or Sidney Crosby, all of whom entered the league at the same height as Marner.

Drouin was also criticized for his size following a final junior season in which, like Marner, he averaged two points per game. While Drouin's pro career has gone through some rough patches due to questions about his maturity, including stints with the Lightning's minor-league team in Syracuse, the five-foot-11 forward still managed to score 32 points in his rookie season with Tampa Bay in 2014-15 while averaging only 13 minutes per game. In this year's playoffs he played a key role in the Lightning's run to the Eastern Conference final, notching 14 points in 17 games.

Size also doesn't necessarily affect a player's susceptibility to injuries, and there are no statistics to suggest that smaller players suffer more injuries than larger players. In fact, some small, skilled forwards came into the NHL as teenagers this season and made solid names for themselves, including Robby Fabbri, William Nylander, and the 172-pound Nikolaj Ehlers.

If Marner's gaudy OHL stats give any indication of his readiness for the pros, Leafs fans can expect to see a performance that equals, or pehaps even surpasses, that of a good second liner.

Marner has done everything possible to prove he's NHL ready. Now it's time to see what he can do.

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