LONDON, Ont. - Mitch Marner dominated the Ontario Hockey League last season and became the fourth pick in the NHL draft, then starred at Canada's world junior summer camp.
A whirlwind tour brought him back to Budweiser Gardens for his first game in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform. Marner will likely be back with the London Knights next month, but first up is the Leafs' rookie tournament where he gets to show his stuff to the organization's coaches and executives in a familiar environment.
"I've grown up here the past two, three years always wearing the same green and white jersey, but right now it's blue and white," Marner said Friday. "It should be interesting this weekend."
Marner had 44 goals and 82 assists last season for the Knights, and those 126 points were good for second in the OHL behind only No. 3 pick Dylan Strome of the Erie Otters. Listed at six feet and 170 pounds, Marner looks like he could use another junior season before the Leafs even consider giving him a shot.
But the Markham, Ont., native has said repeatedly he'd like to make it difficult on the Leafs to send him back. It would probably take an over-the-top rookie tournament, training camp and pre-season to even get him an NHL game as an 18-year-old.
With that in mind, the weekend is a chance for Leafs brass to see what they have in Marner. Sheldon Keefe, who is coaching the rookies and will be behind the bench for the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies, is starting Marner at centre.
Marner can play either centre or wing and hopes to get his feet wet on the wing before making the transition at the pro level.
"I guess it's up to them to trust me with centre or keep me on the wing," he said Thursday in Toronto.
Keefe said Marner and 2014 first-round pick William Nylander each possess "world-class skill." This weekend is a chance to show it off.
"I just expect him to play," Keefe said. "It's another experience. He's a guy who's been through a lot: world junior camps and things like that this summer, the draft itself. He's been a prominent player in the OHL. Just go out, have fun and play the game."
Marner has his aspirations on the NHL, but he also knows that the Leafs want him to get more junior experience. He skated and worked out with Knights teammates recently and talks often with coach Dale Hunter.
"Obviously their goal is for me to try and make the NHL, too," Marner said Friday. "If I come back, they want me to try and lead this younger group of guys to hopefully a (Memorial Cup) championship."
Marner said his focus would be more to develop into a leader than top his 126 points from last season. He can also work on honing what the Leafs want out of him because former Knights GM Mark Hunter is Toronto's director of player personnel.
That connection makes the Knights almost like an OHL affiliate of the Leafs.
"If I get sent back here, there's so many connections to the Leafs that they'll always be talking to me and always helping me out," Marner said. "It's also good for me because I can't take a night off. That's the most important thing for me is to every night go out and show 100 per cent."
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