Like all NHL organizations, the Maple Leafs hope their young prospects thrive as they work on their craft at the amateur and minor professional levels. So you can imagine why Toronto management is thrilled by the performance of London Knights forward Mitch Marner this year. Just two days before his 19th birthday, Marner received the Ontario Hockey League’s highest individual honour when he won the Red Tilson Trophy as the league’s most outstanding player in 2015-16.
“Mitch has shown his great passion, determination and skill throughout this entire Ontario Hockey League season and is very deserving of this distinction,” Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said of Marner’s accomplishment. “The Maple Leafs organization is very proud of Mitch being named OHL Player of the Year and wish him, and the Knights, continued success in the playoffs.”
“We’re all very, very proud of Mitch,” added Knights GM Basil McRae. “(He’s not) only such an exciting player and fun to watch and so creative, but over the course of the last three years Mitch has really matured off the ice, in the locker room, become a captain, a leader.”
In his third OHL season, Marner finished third in league scoring with 77 assists and 116 points in 57 games. Playing on a powerhouse line with elite prospects Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk, the Markham, Ont., native continued to show the brilliant vision for the game that helped make him the fourth overall pick by Toronto in the 2015 NHL entry draft. Indeed, the Marner-Dvorak-Tkachuk trio combined for 11 goals and 344 points for London this year, and Marner was sure to thank them, as well as the Knights franchise, for the role they played in helping him win the award.
“It’s a pretty special time here,” Marner said in a conference call Tuesday. “Without the team I’m playing with this whole year and my two linemates, I don’t think this could’ve happened.”
Serving as Knights’ co-captain, Marner posted at least a point in all but five of his 57 games, had two or more points 31 times this season, and his 21-game point-streak (Oct. 17-Jan. 9) tied him for the OHL’s longest this year. He’s the second Leafs prospect to win the Tilson Trophy in the past three seasons – current Marlies winger Connor Brown claimed the award in 2014 – and joins an impressive list of elite OHL alumni (including present-day NHL superstars John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, and Connor McDavid) to receive the honour, first presented in 1945 and named for Albert "Red" Tilson, an Ontario Hockey Association scoring champion killed in action during World War II.
Marner’s development is the latest in an increasingly long list of positive harbingers for the Leafs’ future. Just this week, Toronto won the NHL’s draft lottery for the right to select first overall in the 2016 draft, and Marner watched the process play out Saturday while sitting home with his parents. And he had some simple advice for whomever Lamoriello and team brass decide to choose with the top pick.
“For whoever they pick, just make sure you’re ready to play,” Marner said. “It’s a big city, but they love their teams. There’s a lot of upside coming on in Toronto, and it’s going to be a fun time to play there. Whoever it is (that’s drafted first overall), they’re lucky they’re coming into a place that’s going to love them.”
While there’s no guarantee of where he’ll play next season – he could make the NHL roster under the right circumstances, or return to London for a fourth and final year – Marner is well on his way to being beloved by Leafs fans because of what he represents: a key component in a supremely-skilled and growing pool of talent that embraces and is committed to the challenge of eventually bringing a Stanley Cup championship to Toronto.
“I just had a dream to play in the NHL, and that’s what I’ve wanted to do,” Marner said. “I was lucky enough to be picked by such a great organization as London, and I knew that, if I worked hard enough, I’d come here and learn a lot, learn as a person on and off the ice. Since I came here, I just feel like I’ve grown a lot.”