Necessity is the mother of invention as the Toronto Maple Leafs proceed through training camp.
Toronto is reportedly experimenting with trying Mitch Marner out as a defenseman. I’m sorry, what?!
It won’t be on a full-time basis, of course, but the All-Star playmaker will — at least for the time being — see a shift or two playing on the right side of the blueline, as the Maple Leafs are apparently trying anything and everything situationally as they enter a critical year of the Marner-Matthews era.
"The players themselves have to have a certain skill set and intelligence, speed and instinct," Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said via Sportsnet’s Luke Fox, using reigning Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar as an example. "Players move around now and forwards end up having to cover and play on defence far more frequently, probably, than in the history of our game."
At first glance, it may seem like a crazy concept, but using surplus forwards in empty-net scenarios is common enough already, and having an elite playmaker back there to survey the ice from the blue line when trailing late in a game isn’t the worst idea either. In a similar vein to NFL teams more aggressively attacking on fourth-and-short, this is a creative concept for the Maple Leafs to debut, especially given the potency of their top-six forwards that Marner can sling the puck up to. Marner can walk the blue line, and have Matthews or William Nylander flanking him. This could be extremely fun!
It’s a calculated gamble and Marner isn’t being selected arbitrarily for this role, as he's trusted as an elite penalty killer while consistently receiving down-ballot Selke Trophy votes. It’s always a good idea to find more minutes for your best players and Marner, who averaged just under 21 minutes per game last season, certainly wouldn’t balk at an additional few shifts.
“Whether we’re trying to score a goal, playing from behind or whatever the case might be that we might give him some opportunity there just to see what it looks like,” Keefe said. “It’s something we’ll continue to look at through the pre-season and make a determination from there on how we might use it.”
Disclosing this idea to use Marner as a situational rover may be intentional as well, as Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot also received a few minutes on the back-end in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Canadiens after injuries to Jordie Benn and Carl Dahlstrom.
Who knows where this goes, but what better time than the preseason to test out a new concept that could pay offensive dividends when the games get real?
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