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Mitchell Marner playing big game for Maple Leafs

Forward overcoming small stature to thrive in rookie season

by Arpon Basu @ArponBasu / Senior Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens managed to do something to Mitchell Marner on Saturday that hasn't happened very often during the Toronto Maple Leafs forward's rookie season.

Catch him.

One of the big questions for Marner entering the season was whether or not he would be able to survive the physical rigors of playing in the NHL. Listed at 6-foot and 170 pounds, perhaps generously, Marner has put those questions to rest with 16 points in his first 18 games.

The fact Marner has always had to overcome his slight stature is a big reason why he is thriving now, because he has spent his entire hockey playing life making bigger people miss.

He did it in minor hockey, he did it in junior and he's doing it now.

"It's not too different," Marner said Saturday when asked to compare his transition to the League to other stages in his hockey career. "It's just kind of been the same."

What is different is that now, Marner is making the best hockey players in the world wonder how they can hit him.

Video: VAN@TOR: Marner knocks home a perfect pass from Bozak

Entering the game against the Canadiens on Saturday, a 2-1 loss for the Maple Leafs, Marner had been on the receiving end of an official hit 16 times in 17 games, according to the NHL's play-by-play sheets. In seven of those games no one had an official hit on Marner, and he had come into the game in Montreal having been hit 11 times in his previous 14 games.

The Canadiens managed to officially register two hits on Marner, one by Charles Hudon and another by Brendan Gallagher, who also had a hit on Marner on Oct. 29 and thereby becoming the first player this season to hit him more than once.

"Always kind of being the smaller guy on the ice, you've got to find a way to maneuver around and get through spaces and be slippery on the ice," Marner said. "I think that's a big part of my game today, is trying to be slippery out there and hard to hit. It's helped a lot."

When Marner was asked prior to the game Saturday how many people told him over the course of his life that he was too small to make it in hockey, he chuckled.

"I don't know," he said. "It's a pretty high number."

Hear it often enough, and it can even have a beneficial effect on a young hockey player.

Video: NSH@TOR: Marner lights the lamp with top-shelf beauty

"When I was younger I didn't really get what they meant by that, so I didn't really know what to think. I just played hockey," Marner said. "But when you're growing up and you get told that, you get a little fire in your stomach. You know when you're playing against that team, or know when that person's watching you."

But Marner's parents, Paul and Bonnie, made sure their son didn't let that negativity have too big an impact on him.

"No matter who said that about me, my parents were always there behind me," he said. "My family always made me feel I was always the biggest person on the ice."

In many ways, no matter what height and weight he's listed at, Marner's other skills do make him seem like the biggest player on the ice.

"That stuff tends to be overrated, the size stuff, especially for him," Marner's linemate James van Riemsdyk said. "He's smart, he uses his edges, he's got good balance, he knows how to position himself on the ice to get that leverage and body position on guys. The strength thing comes into play maybe when it's two guys stopped, standing on the wall trying to push each other off the puck. But other than that, it's a moving game. You're trying to use your momentum and use your edges and try to get yourself in and out of certain positions. He's shown he's got a good knack for that already and that size becomes less of a factor."

A perfect example of that came against the Florida Panthers at Air Canada Centre on Thursday.

One of the 17 players this season who had an official hit on Marner was Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson at the 5:04 mark of the first period. Just under 12 minutes later, Matheson was riding Marner's back while he came in on Panthers goalie James Reimer, and scored a highlight-reel goal by displaying his tremendous edge work on his skates and his quick hands.

"It's not how big you are, it's how big you play and how competitive you are," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "Obviously the hockey sense goes a long way with that, edges, all those things. 

"He looks like a hockey player to me."

Video: Mitch Marner triple-deke's his way to a goal

The Maple Leafs are brimming with young talent, led by center Auston Matthews, but Marner has arguably been their most consistent rookie forward. Not only that, but his youthful enthusiasm has had an impact on his veteran teammates, whether it's celebrating goals or singing along to the arena music on the bench.

"He jumps a lot when he scores, even when other guys score," Marner's center Tyler Bozak said. "But it's contagious. It's fun to have and it really rubs off on the guys, so it's fun to see that excitement. 

"Hopefully, we can see a lot more of that."

If his first 18 NHL games are any indication, Marner will make sure of it. 

And he'll do it by playing big and slippery.

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