What does the word playmaker mean to you?
It’s not a trick question. I suppose if you ask 10 people, you will get 10 different answers. But broadly speaking, I’ve always classified it as an individual who is responsible for the initiation of offensive sequences.
In hockey terms, the league’s most iconic playmakers – think Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, as one example – tend to have world-class vision and passing abilities in the offensive zone. They create lanes, break down the structure of opposition defences and open up scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates.
That brings us to Mitch Marner, who signed a huge deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday afternoon. His six-year, $65-million contract made him the second-highest paid winger in the league behind Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers. With the hefty price tag come incredibly high expectations, and Toronto – considering their salary cap situation – will need him to continue his rise to stardom.
There is already plenty of debate as to whether or not Marner can meet the expectations of his contract. Wingers often get squeezed on contracts, relative to their centre counterparts, unless they are phenomenal goal scorers. But in Marner’s first three years of his NHL career, he’s averaged 0.94 goals per 60 minutes across all situations – 114th in the league amongst qualified forwards, trailing players like Jordan Eberle, Kevin Hayes, Brock Nelson, and even the recently departed Patrick Marleau.
But Marner is a bit of an oddball, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. He hasn’t manifested into a high-end goal scorer quite yet, but he has dominated the assist category like few others. His primary assist rate (1.45 per-\ 60 minutes) over the same interval is fifth in the entire league, and the names ahead of him – Connor McDavid, Blake Wheeler, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov – are of the superstar variety.
It’s an important point, because the biggest argument in favour of signing Marner to such an expensive deal is that he elevates the goal-scoring abilities of his teammates. One of the most fascinating data points on this front is how his teammates tend to see big shooting percentage spikes when playing on lines with Marner – the reasonable inference being that Marner continuously opens up premium shooting lanes for his teammates through spacing and passing.
Consider the eight forwards who have played at least 100 minutes with Marner at 5-on-5 over the last three seasons. Below, you can see each player’s shooting percentage with Marner, and each player’s shooting percentage without Marner:
The majority of Marner’s teammates – notably Tavares, his most common linemate during the 2018-19 regular season – saw substantial shooting percentage boosts playing with Marner. At aggregate, the group was about two percentage points better when skating with Marner. That’s not insignificant, and it’s one of the reasons Marner has carried lofty assist totals throughout his career. That’s true whether you are looking at just primary assists or total assists in the given period.
Living up to the expectations of such a lucrative contract would be a challenge for anyone, let alone a winger who doesn’t regularly fill up the goal column. But Marner’s playmaking abilities are hugely valuable to the Maple Leafs organization, and it’s one of the biggest reasons the team was ready to commit to him with such significant money and term.
It will create cap challenges, undoubtedly. No team will have more pressure to regularly deliver productive depth forwards and defencemen than the Maple Leafs, who simply will not be able to afford to spend at the margins for the next few years.But with their core group in place, Toronto is going to remain a force for a considerable amount of time. And Marner will play a big role in determining just how successful this franchise will be for the foreseeable future.