TORONTO -- Mitchell Marner said he appreciated what Mike Babcock did as Toronto Maple Leafs coach to help him improve before Babcock was fired Nov. 20 and replaced by Sheldon Keefe.
"I texted him right after and said thanks for everything he did here," the forward said Tuesday. "He turned around this team and this franchise, so I just said, 'Good luck wherever it takes you next.' "
Babcock was critical of Marner at different times in his four-season NHL career; the forward was sometimes moved around the lineup, which was perceived by some outside the organization as punishment.
After Marner played the majority of his rookie season in 2016-17 on a line with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, Babcock demoted Marner to the fourth line early in his second season, alongside Matt Martin. But by the end of that season and into his third season in 2018-19, Marner became one of Babcock's most relied-upon forwards, used at even strength, on the power play and penalty kill.
"I didn't think the lines I was on were bad at all," Marner said. "My first year coming into the League, I got very lucky getting to play with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak. If you look at their resume, I was lucky to be with those two guys and then getting to play with Matt Martin for a little bit, and I really appreciated his game of opening up space for myself. The more situations I got put into, it made me evolve more and get better."
Marner's totals improved in his second and third seasons; he had 61 points (19 goals, 42 assists) as a rookie, 69 points (22 goals, 47 assists) in 2017-18 and 94 points (26 goals, 68 assists) last season. He has 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 18 games this season heading into Toronto's game at the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; SN1, SNE, SNO, FS-D, NHL.TV).
Video: TOR@PHI: Marner steals puck, nets wraparound
A report in the Toronto Sun over the weekend said during the 2016-17 season, Babcock asked a rookie to rank his teammates from hardest-working to least hard-working and that the coach, in turn, told the players ranked at the bottom of the list. That rookie was Marner.
"He did apologize after, and I think he knew he was mistaken," Marner said, "but for the three years I was here after that situation, especially my second and third years, he really trusted me out on the ice and I think you could see that.
"I felt that he had the trust in me to put me out there in situations he didn't in my first year. I had a pretty good relationship with him at the end of it."
Marner said Babcock's explanation at the time was he was simply trying to motivate him. Marner also said he was fortunate he could discuss the matter with the teammates involved with no ill will harbored.
"[Babcock] was just trying to show I should work harder, but it's over with now, it's out of my mind," Marner said. "In my case, I kind of forgot about it right away, I didn't really care too much later on. I was lucky enough the guys in the locker room understood the situation and didn't take it to heart and stuck by my side. … It's over with now."