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Mitch Marner not feeling pressure to make Maple Leafs

Forward prospect knows landing in NHL this season will be challenge

by Mike Brophy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- If Mitch Marner fails to make the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, he'd be pleased to return to the Ontario Hockey League.

Unlike Auston Matthews, who played professionally in Switzerland last season leading up to his selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft by Toronto in June, Marner said returning to London of the OHL is fine with him and he doesn't think he would consider playing professional hockey in Europe.

"I don't think that is up to me," Marner, a 19-year-old forward, said Monday at the Maple Leafs development camp. "I love it in London. It has been a great place and I have developed a lot there. It turned me into the player that I am because of that place. If anything happens, that is definitely a place I would look forward to going back to. It has a great team again next year and they are going to be a key part of the league again. It's going to be fun watching them or playing with them."

Marner is coming off a season most kids can only dream about. Selected by the Maple Leafs with the fourth pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Marner had 39 goals and 116 points in 57 regular-season games with the Knights this past season and led the OHL in playoff scoring with 16 goals and 44 points in 18 games, winning the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award. In four games at the Memorial Cup, Marner led all scorers with two goals and 14 points and had four goals and six points for Canada at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland.

Video: Mitch Marner speaks at Development Camp

But even after leading the Knights to the Memorial Cup championship, being named most valuable player in the OHL and winning MVP of the Memorial Cup tournament, Marner knows there is no guarantee he'll play with the Maple Leafs this season. He said his goal for 2016-17 is to make the NHL, but he understands it will be a difficult challenge.

"Obviously I'd like to make the team," Marner said. "But it starts with these camps here. I have to make sure my mind is here and try to get as much out of this as I can. If I do that then I'm going to feel confident going into the main camps and not as nervous as I was last year."

The Maple Leafs had a tough decision to make in 2015 when they picked Marner fourth. In addition to Marner, defenseman Noah Hanifin, who went fifth to the Carolina Hurricanes, was also available. Toronto opted for Marner's skill over the 6-foot-3, 206-pound Hanifin's size. Hanifin made the Hurricanes last season and scored four goals and 22 points in 79 games

Nobody doubts Marner's skill. The question is, at 5-foot-11 and 163 pounds, is he strong enough to compete for a job with the Maple Leafs? Toronto has indicated it would like him to be closer to 170 pounds for the start of training camp.

Marner started training a few weeks ago, not long after helping the Knights win the Memorial Cup.

"I'm trying to get heavier and stronger every day," Marner said. "I want to make sure I feel comfortable enough to go out against men and play hard and play my game. I want to make sure I can go out there and do things I like to do. My main goal this summer is putting on weight and making sure I'm getting the strength."

Jeremy Bracco, selected by Toronto in the second round (No. 61) of the 2015 draft, played for Kitchener of the OHL last season, and saw plenty of Marner up close.

"I think he swept the MVP race so that pretty much says it all," Bracco said. "He's a great player. Going fourth overall is impressive and for him to do what he did last year, especially in the playoffs, is pretty special. You don't see that every year so it was pretty impressive.

Marner said he is not concerned about spending a fourth season in junior.

"You can always get better," Marner said. "No matter where I play next year, I'm going to be learning and getting better. I look forward to it."

Marner is pleased with his development in the past 12 months and knows there is plenty of hard work ahead before he reaches his potential.

"I think I have grown in a lot of ways," Marner said. "Off the ice I think I have grown as a leader in terms of helping people out. On the ice I'm just trying to get better as much as possible; skating, stick-handling, shooting. There's always situations you can get better at."

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