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Maple Leafs keeping eyes on Mitchell Marner

GM Lou Lamoriello, coach Mike Babcock watch forward compete for Canada

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- They stood on the concourse, leaning against a railing, watching. Every time Mitchell Marner forced a turnover or threaded a pass or took a shot, the general manager and the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs had their eyes on him.

Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock didn't read much into Canada's game against Sweden at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp at USA Hockey Arena on Friday. Marner did not have a point. Canada lost 5-1. The calendar read Aug. 5.

"Summertime is difficult for all the players," Lamoriello said.

But it was another data point among the many Lamoriello and Babcock will use when they decide whether Marner will make their team in October.

Marner is so skilled that the Maple Leafs selected him No. 4 in the 2015 NHL Draft, and he had an epic 2015-16 season with London of the Ontario Hockey League. He had 116 points in 57 games. He helped London to the OHL and Memorial Cup championships. He won several individual awards, including Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year.

Asked if Marner would make the Maple Leafs roster and if he would play if he did, Babcock replied: "Why wouldn't he? He looks like a good player to me."

Then Babcock added: "We're going to see. I'm going to watch him here, and then I'm going to watch him at camp, and then I'm going to keep watching. The ball's in his court obviously, if he works at it. But with his skill set, to me he should have an opportunity. Now, only time will tell, because there's no sense making promises I can't keep.

"In saying all that, we fully expect him to really challenge for a job, and I think just because of his skill set."

The dilemma is that Marner is 19 and ineligible for the American Hockey League. What's best for his development? To return to junior, where he could dominate but has nothing left to prove? To play nine games or fewer in the NHL and return to junior without burning a season of his entry-level contract? Or to play in the NHL the entire season? How much ice time would he get? In what situations?

If he were a shoo-in to spend the entire season the Maple Leafs, he wouldn't be at this camp, used to evaluate players for the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. Auston Matthews, who was selected No. 1 by Toronto in the 2016 draft, is 18 and not skating for the United States this week.

"You have to make a decision: Will it be worse for him to go back or worse for him to stay?" Lamoriello said. "Or I'll go the other side: Will it be better for him to stay, which is the most important thing? I'll just have to see. When there's time, you use it. He'll determine that. We won't. He'll determine that."

Much is made of Marner's size. He is listed at 5-foot-11, 160 pounds. He has said his target weight is 170 pounds. Even if he hits 170, can he survive against big, mean men in the NHL, let alone thrive?

In the long term, the Maple Leafs are confident he will excel against NHL opponents. They wouldn't have drafted him so high otherwise. Patrick Kane, who was selected No. 1 by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2007 draft and plays right wing like Marner does, handles himself all right at 5-11, 177, doesn't he?

In the short term, they are worried about his strength, not his weight.

"I don't worry about weight," Lamoriello said. "I never have. We've never in my years said, 'You have to put on weight.' I think that's the worst thing in the world.

"Everything has to be natural. If you eat right and you sleep right and you drink right and you do the right exercise, your body will determine what you will weigh or what you shouldn't weigh, and then you allow your abilities to take over."

Marner has spent the summer in Toronto working with the Maple Leafs staff at their training facility.

"He's working on his strength," Lamoriello said. "He's working on his nutrition. He's working on everything. That's something which we've all been very impressed with. He's taken it upon himself independently. He's a great kid, and he loves the game, and he wants to be as good as he can be. He's making the sacrifice. His maturity over the last year has been incredible."

The Maple Leafs want Marner to be himself. After all, he "does great stick-handling through the trees," as Babcock put it.

"He's never going to be 220 pounds and 6-foot-4," Babcock said. "Who cares? Just be the best player you can be. Make sure you're eating right and living right and training right and doing everything you can to get stronger. If you do that, you're going to have success."

Marner said he was focused on Canada this week, not the Maple Leafs. But Lamoriello and Babcock will keep watching, and he knows it.

"It starts at these camps," Marner said at Maple Leafs development camp in June. "I've got to come in and be ready to play and make sure that throughout the summer I'm working hard and making myself ready to be able to play. All I can do is work as hard as I can this summer and make sure I'm getting the most out of these weeks and take it to main camp and see what happens."

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