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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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TORONTO — Mitch Marner once had good reason to fear Nick Ritchie

The future Maple Leafs teammates first met as students at the prestigious Hill Academy, located just north of Toronto. Marner came in as an eighth grader, and Ritchie, who was two years ahead, cut a figure so intimidating that Marner can still recall it with a laugh.

“At that time, I was like, 5-foot-5 or 5-foot-6, so [Ritchie] was a monster,” Marner said on Friday of his 6-foot-2, 230-pound counterpart. “I tried to stay away from him on the ice as much as I could. But [outside of that], he’s a very kind guy, and he was very kind to all of us younger guys. He was always trying to help us out and talk to us.”

Fast forward a few years, and Marner will be looking to benefit from Ritchie’s threatening presence.

Through the first two days of Leafs’ training camp, Marner and Ritchie have been slotted together on a line with centre Adam Brooks. The goal is to have Auston Matthews - who is on injured reserve rehabbing a wrist injury - replace Brooks thereby Toronto’s first game on Oct. 13, and Marner thinks it could be a productive unit. 

“[It’s good] because [Ritchie's] a big boy and he's not afraid to throw that body around,” Marner said. “I know for me and [Matthews], there's not a lot of opportunity sometimes to skate the puck in, so we're going to be trying to lay it in for him to get some nice looks in on people and try to get the puck away from defencemen. Then me and Matts can swoop in and get that puck out of the corner and try to make our offensive plays out of it.”

Marner and Matthews are in the market for a new left winger since losing Zach Hyman to Edmonton in free agency. Ritchie wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer by the Boston Bruins, so he was free to sign a two-year, $5 million deal with the Leafs in July.

While Boston chose to pass on keeping Ritchie, he’s still coming off the most productive season of his career. The 25-year-old put up 15 goals and 26 points in 56 games last year, and that was enough for Leafs' coach Sheldon Keefe to give him first crack at a spot on Toronto’s top line. But it’s clear Ritchie will have to keep earning it.

“Ritchie is coming off of a good season where he scored a lot offensively, so you're expecting [him] to just come in and grab a hold of the opportunity,” Keefe said on Thursday. “But there’s a lot of competition for those spots. Each player, they've got great skill sets, they've had their own successes in the league. You expect [these guys] to take advantage of the opportunities they have.”

To that end, Ritchie is opting not to get ahead of himself. The winger said he’s just “excited to go wherever the coach wants me” while also admitting how a top-six perch with Marner and Matthews would be enticing.

“To get a chance to play with elite players like that [is amazing] and hopefully I can put myself in the position to play with those guys,” he said. “[Marner] is a pretty awesome athlete, obviously an amazing hockey player. He's looking really good so far. It's going to be a big year for everyone, and he looks like he's on the right track right now."

A focus for Marner in the off-season was improving his shot, which has become something of a yearly theme for him. Long known for his pass-first mentality, Marner has once again made it his mission to become more of a shooter. But habits like his - which have resulted in 255 assists and 358 points through 355 games to date - are hard to break.

“A majority of the time why [the shot is] an extra second behind is because for me, I'm trying to scan the ice to see what other play I can make,” Marner said. “Sometimes it's obviously the right play; sometimes it's probably better to just get pucks to the net. It's something I've been doing for a while, it's just something I'm trying to get out of my head, trying to be more of a surprise shooter and getting it towards the net instead of trying to be the perfect shot guy.”

Marner wasn’t able to capitalize on any chances to score during the Leafs’ doomed playoff run last season, tallying just four assists in seven games before Toronto was ousted in the first round by Montreal. The 24-year-old has tried to put the sting of those failures behind him and refuses to start doubting himself now. 

“l let my creative stuff do its [thing], I’m not going to change anything of that,” Marner said of his mentality. “If I think I can make a plan I'll try to, but my mindset is just trying to get the puck off my stick quicker when I have the opportunity and do good things [out there].”