February 28, 2017 By Paul Gackle

Sharks’ Tierney Isn’t ‘Surprised’ By Former-Teammate, Marner’s Success With Maple Leafs

SAN JOSE — Mitch Marner looked his age when he showed up at the London Knights training camp as a scrawny 16-year-old kid in the summer of 2013.

But his exceptional skill and the maturity of his game reminded Chris Tierney, who would become the team’s captain, of another Knights legend, convincing him that the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie forward would eventually do big things in the NHL.

“He was still a kid. He was really, really small. He was a couple inches shorter. He was definitely 15, 20 pounds lighter when he came in, so physically, he definitely wasn’t mature. But his game was mature, the way he handled himself on the ice,” Tierney said.

“It’s the same thing as when Patrick Kane went into London. He was probably exactly Marner’s height and weight, and he still put up (145) points. Guys like that always find ways to score.”

Although he’s just 19-years old, Marner is already finding ways to score in the NHL, collecting 48 points (15g, 33a) in his first 56 games while playing a key role in the Maple Leafs emergence as a legitimate playoff contender in the Atlantic Division.

After missing the Maple Leafs (28-20-13) last five games with a right-shoulder injury, Marner is expected to rejoin his team’s lineup on Tuesday to square off against his former-teammate, Tierney, and the rest of the Sharks (36-18-7) at the SAP Center.

While Tierney isn’t surprised by Marner’s quick splash, he and teammate Austin Matthews are leaving quite an impression on Sharks coach Peter DeBoer with the imprint they’re leaving on the NHL as teenaged rookies this season.

“I can’t remember in my time in the league, which is getting close to the last decade, young guys coming in and making this type of impact,” DeBoer said. “You can’t treat them like young players, they’re effective, and a lot of nights, they’re their best players.”

Marner is finding success as a 19-year-old rookie, in large part, because his game is a perfect fit for the modern NHL. In past generations, a player like Marner, who’s listed at 6-feet-0, 170 pounds, would have needed to have beefed up in the AHL before joining the NHL, where his skills would have been muted by the clutching, grabbing and shoving of older, bigger players.

But in today’s wide-open game, Marner’s skill has been able to shine through, despite his relative lack of size and strength, which is why Tierney says he isn’t surprised by the rookie’s success.

“You could see that already when he was 16,” Tierney said. “It’s pretty rare. It always seemed like he could create open ice for himself. He was the kind of player who liked to have the puck on his stick, and make plays, and find open ice, and find open guys.”

Marner picked up 59 points (13g, 46a) in 64 games in his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League, and he eventually landed a spot on the Knights top line, skating with Tierney and Arizona Coyotes forward Max Domi.

“Obviously, I was an older player in the league and I tried to communicate with him the best I could, give him pointers,” Tierney said. “But he already had his own game. He did his own things where he could open up with the puck and create plays, and find open ice.”

After the Knights got bounced in the Memorial Cup that year, Tierney graduated to the NHL, where he landed a spot on the Sharks out of training camp. Marner, on the other hand, returned to the OHL where he built off an impressive rookie season by notching 126 points (44g, 82a) in 63 games as a 17-year-old sophomore, finishing second in the league in scoring behind Dylan Strome of the Arizona Coyotes.

The breakthrough campaign inspired the Maple Leafs to draft Marner with the fourth-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

Marner continued to melt the ice in his final season of junior hockey last year, leading the Knights to a Memorial Cup title. He also won the Red Tilson Trophy, awarded to the OHL’s most outstanding player, the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award, given to the league’s playoff MVP and the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy, provided to the Memorial Cup’s top player.

“Watching the Knights on TV, and seeing what kind of points he put up in the OHL made me think he could do what he’s doing this year,” Tierney said. “He’s probably surprised a lot of people, but a bunch of guys back in London knew he had that ability.”