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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — There was no saving the Maple Leafs’ miserable power play late last season, so it’s no surprise key changes are being made to the unit ahead of the upcoming season.

Under the direction of new assistant coach Spencer Carbery, winger Mitch Marner has been moved from the middle to the flank of the Leafs' top power-play unit. Never mind that Marner has never played there before; it’s a change Toronto believes can work. And after the way the team crashed and burned on the power play from March onward last season, the Leafs are willing to get creative.

“It's something we haven't tried,” coach Sheldon Keefe said on Monday of shifting Marner. “We feel like that's an area that's underutilized by us and getting the puck in Mitch's hands in that space, he's got as good an ability or better than anyone we have in terms of getting out of tight spaces and creating a play that you would otherwise think isn't there. And it gives us the ability to have two shooters on the flanks at the same time.”

The decision to slide Marner across ultimately fell to Carbery, who replaced fellow assistant Manny Malhotra as power play coach this season. Malhotra arrived with Toronto from Vancouver in September 2020 to lead the club’s power play, but the results last season were increasingly abysmal.

The Leafs started strong but deteriorated to finish their last 29 games 5-for-73 (6.9 per cent) on the power play, second-worst in the NHL.

Toronto can’t afford that outcome again. So, Keefe recruited Carbery, who was the American Hockey League’s reigning coach of the year with the Hershey Bears, to join the Leafs' ranks this summer. 

Keefe said it was “a tough conversation” with Malhotra when he assigned Carbery to the power play, but the shakeup was overdue. 

“[Carbery] is a fresh voice, and fresh eyes,” Keefe said. “Spencer's a great coach. He's got a good vision and a good plan and has that perspective as a head coach in terms of how things play out. [He's got] good ideas and it seems like a good fit for us given what we went through last season.”

Marner knows all too well the pain of a sputtering power play. He averaged the second-most time per game (3:08) on Toronto’s power play last season, and collected the most points (14), but failed to score a single goal and fired only 27 shots.

From his new address, Marner sees how that total can go up - and how he help more pucks go in. With Auston Matthews on injured reserve rehabbing a wrist injury, and John Tavares and William Nylander in a different group for training camp, Marner has been getting his power play reps with Morgan Rielly, Nick Ritchie (at the net front), Nikita Gusev or Ondrej Kase on the left side and Adam Brooks on the right. 

“You have a lot of options: You have a guy behind you in the [one-timer] spot, you have [Rielly] up top, and shooting-wise you don't really need to place it that much,” Marner said. “It’s just about getting it on net. With Ritchie or whoever is in front, it's usually a hard save for a goalie, so just getting it there and creating havoc is going to be my mindset.”

At the same time, Marner will be an outlet for others. 

“You’re trying to help guys out if they're under pressure and trying to be a spot that we can relieve pressure from and make the easy plays,” Marner said. “I’ll also try to be an option [where] I can get into a space and I can get shots off quick and that shot doesn’t have to be [perfect], it’s just getting it in there.”

Marner’s lack of experience in the middle hasn’t lessened his enthusiasm, and the 23-year-old is proving to be a quick study. Once Carbery told Marner of the adjustment, they immediately started scouting video of a player who both consider elite in the new role. 

“Brayden Point is a guy that does that really well,” Marner said. “That's what we talked about, [Carbery] just showed a lot of clips of [the Tampa Bay Lightning] and how they run off the middle and how [Point] gets open. I'm interested to try it tonight [in Montreal]. I'm always open to new things, so I’ll just try to get used to as quick as I can and try and make plays out of it.”

Rielly has spent long enough patrolling the ice with Marner to know his teammate’s skill set can translate. And in the process, it could also give Marner an individual boost after last season’s struggles.

“He's just so smart; he can play anywhere,” Rielly said. “I think he just wants to be productive, be helpful. He wants to be in the middle of the ice, he wants to get lots of puck touches and he's very good at that and he's going to get lots of action in there. He'll go wherever anybody tells him to go; he just wants to help the team.”