As the Maple Leafs bear down for the final third of the regular season and focus on securing a playoff berth, they'll need the entire roster - including their large group of youngsters - contributing on the scoresheet and in the areas that don't appear there. And if the first two-thirds of the year have been any indication, winger Mitch Marner will be one of those youngsters helping to lead the way.
Marner did not have a point in Toronto's 2-1 loss to St. Louis Thursday at Air Canada Centre - snapping a five-game point streak that saw him accumulate three goals and seven points in that span - but the 19-year-old has been the Leafs' best point producer with 32 assists and 46 points in 53 games, and he's impressed head coach Mike Babcock with his ability to dictate the pace of the game via his speed and puck savvy.
"Obviously, Mitch is a real driver," Babcock told Leafs TV after practice Friday. "He's got the ability to take over the game for sure, and he likes hockey. We're fortunate - all our young guys are really commited and like hockey, and the more you love it and the more you like being on the ice, the better chance you have to get good. (Patrick) Kane in Chicago is the same way - they can drive a line without a dominant centre, and that's probably because they carry the puck so much and have the puck so much…in Mitch's case, he's one of those guys that has that rare ability, and especially as a young kid, he's been able to do it already."
Fellow rookie Auston Matthews, who counts Marner as one of his best friends on the team, understands and appreciates Marner's variety of skills and go-go-go personality that allow him to make an impact on offence and defence.
"He's really upbeat," Matthews said of Marner. "On-ice, off the ice, he's always dancing or doing something, he's a pretty energetic guy for sure. You can see on the ice, he plays with a lot of passion out there. He's always flying around, backchecking, forechecking. He's an unbelievable player and he kind of does everything out there."
The Leafs' schedule is more or less relentless from this point on, leaving Babcock with precious little time to get the team on the ice for practice. Moreover, 12 of their remaining 29 games are against Atlantic Division rivals, and with the post-season race so tight, every game - including Saturday night's showdown with the Buffalo Sabres at the ACC - is crucial to Toronto's chances to secure a playoff berth. And they'e going to need Matthews, Marner and their teammates to be at their best to accomplish that feat.
"These are important points for us," Matthews said of the tilt with Buffalo.
"They (have) a real good power play and they have high end skill, so they can sting you," Babcock added in regard to the Sabres. "It's a big game for them, big game for us."