You can see it in the way Mitch Marner skates, in how he interacts with his teammates on the ice, especially at practice, where his energy sometimes overflows.
“I’m always like that,” he says. “Ask anyone around this team. I’m the Energizer Bunny. I’m trying to bring it every single day. I try to be the guy that keeps it light and fun.”
That probably has been Marner’s most notable calling card — aside from his statistics — from the time he joined the Maple Leafs. He has been out there playing a game and having fun.
“A big part of his game is his personality and the energy that he brings,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe says. “That’s how he plays. When he’s loose and he’s confident, he’s playing well and is helping the team and giving the team fuel and energy. And then obviously his ability on the ice, that in itself gives us energy.”
Things seemed different at the start of this season, though. Marner wore the first-round playoff loss to Montreal rather heavily, maybe more than most with a fan base finally liking what they saw in William Nylander and turning on Marner, whose post-season statistics pale in comparison to what he does in the regular season.
There was a slow start. There was a shoulder injury from an in-practice run-in with Jake Muzzin where the two exchanged words. There was COVID. There was his inability to score on the power play for almost two calendar years.
There were a lot of reasons to drain the fun. But since returning from COVID, Marner has been himself again, in practice and in games. The weight of the world no longer seems to be on his shoulders.
Keefe noticed it right away when Marner joined the team in Arizona for a practice in the middle of what already felt like a long trip.
“We had played games in three different time zones, and every game was played a different time of night,” Keefe says. “That trip was starting to drag a little bit. But with Mitch’s arrival, you could just feel the energy of our group, and he was fresh and (he) brought it on the ice.”
Marner has been back for three games, getting a goal and an assist in each one, including a lucky goal in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the New York Islanders when he lost control of the puck on the rush and it still slid by Semyon Varlamov.
“I meant for that to happen,” says Marner, who obviously never lost his sense of humour. “Tried to go backhand and quickly back to forehand and lost it. Sometimes when you don’t know what you’re doing on a breakaway, it goes in, and that was the case in that scenario. I’m pretty lucky.”
He had been unlucky with the man advantage until last week against the Rangers, when he scored his first power-play goal since Feb. 1, 2020, an absurd length of time even considering Marner is more passer than shooter. Given how much he plays on the first power-play unit, something should have gone in for him. He said he had not been worrying about it.
“You guys have all those stats,” Marner says. “Honestly, I don’t see them anymore. I just leave them alone. I just want to try to make sure I’m contributing.”
Like a rising tide, Marner raises all ships. His teammates love having him around.
“Mitch is a kind of guy that is talking all the time,” linemate Michael Bunting says. “He’s always in the mix with everybody. And he definitely brings a lot of energy into the into the locker room every single day. So he’s a fun guy to be around off the ice and he’s a fun guy to play with on the ice. The energy he brings on the ice is pretty much the energy he brings off the ice.”
And that, from a team-building standpoint, can’t be overstated.
“He’s a very popular teammate in our room, a guy who is extremely passionate about his job,” defenceman Morgan Rielly says. “He’s always talking, always working, always in the gym. He’s around a lot. Guys get used to that. He’s a voice that you hear a lot.
“When he’s feeling good, it’s extremely contagious ... It’s great having him back around the team and obviously playing well.”
“It does help when you’re producing and helping team helping your team win,” the self-described Energizer Bunny says, “but I try and do that throughout the year, regardless of what I’m going through points-wise.”
Kevin McGran is a Star sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @kevin_mcgran