Cage Match: Mitch Marner vs Dylan Larkin

by Rick Roos on May 16, 2018

 

A dilemma in fantasy is whether it’s better to own a player producing well despite not having a strong supporting cast, or one doing so while playing alongside (and perhaps being partially propped up by) other fantasy stars. Today’s battle tackles this head-on, matching Dylan Larkin, who’s starring for the less talented Red Wings, against Mitch Marner, who’s putting up great numbers for a very deep Leafs squad. Who’s the better own at present and down the road? Let’s find out – Cage Match starts now!

 

Career Path and Contract Status

 

Larkin, 21, was selected 15th overall in 2014, then starred in one year of college hockey (47 points in only 35 games) and at the 2015 WJC (seven points in five games). Even still, many were surprised to see him stick with the Wings for 2015-16. And the surprises kept coming, as he emerged with 30 points in his first 44 NHL games, only to slump to 15 in his final 36 contests and then, even worse, to just 32 points in 80 games as a sophomore. But he righted his fantasy ship big time for 2017-18, nearly equaling the combined output from his first two seasons (63 points, versus 75) despite the Wings only managing 212 goals, fourth worst among NHL teams.

 

Marner, 20, was grabbed with the 4th overall pick in 2015 and, like Larkin, was an NHL regular only a year later, except in Marner’s case that came after he posted 116 points in 57 OHL games (third in league scoring). As an NHL rookie, Marner tallied 61 points, emerging with 32 in his first 39 games but hitting a wall with only 13 in his final 21 contests. This season saw Marner post nearly point-per-game second half numbers (39 points in 40 games) and have a strong playoff, igniting hopes he’ll soon be able to put things together for a full season.

 

Larkin’s ELC just expired, leaving him an RFA this summer, while Marner still has one season on his ELC. Therefore, Marner will likely count well less ($0.894M) against the cap for 2018-19 than Larkin but may end up being more costly in 2019-20 once he inks his own first RFA deal.

 

Ice Time

Season

Total Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game

(rank among team’s forwards)

2017-18

19:50 (D.L.) – 1st

16:23 (M.M.) – 6th

2:09 (D.L.) – 6th (tied)

2:11 (M.M.) – 2nd (tied)

1:59 (D.L.) – 4th

0:02 (M.M.) – 8th

2016-17

16:09 (D.L.) – 6th

16:48 (M.M.) – 3rd

1:52 (D.L.) – 8th

2:22 (M.M.) – 3rd (tied)

0:20 (D.L.) – 9th

0:07 (M.M.) – 9th

2015-16

16:32 (D.L.) – 3rd

2:02 (D.L.) – 7th

0:06 (D.L.) – 9th

 

What jumps out for both players – in a negative way – is their low 2017-18 PP Time, which was nearly even despite Marner ranking second among his team’s forwards versus Larkin’s sixth. The explanation lies in theirs being teams that don’t have a PP1 unit which gets the lion’s share of PP ice time. Instead, the gap between the #1 forward and #7 forward in PP Time on both teams is less than 30 seconds (24 in Toronto, 28 in Detroit). While this means unless things change (which is unlikely given coaching styles) neither are in danger of seeing his PP Time dry up, they also won’t stand to benefit on the PP in ways other top scorers do, and as such it could put a realistic ceiling on their scoring.

 

Also, while Larkin’s 2017-18 average overall ice time was 3:27 above Marner’s, more than half of that came in the form of newfound (and non-productive) SH duty. So although some credit should, of course, be given to Larkin perhaps organically becoming a better player due to age and experience, upon seeing his numbers I wonder if his 63 points from 2017-18 was an unsustainable overachievement – particularly for the goal-challenged Wings – rather than a stepping stone to even better output.

 

When looking at Marner, however, we can’t assume he’ll only get better due to how low his average per game Ice Time was, since Toronto divvies out overall Ice Time like it does PP Time – very evenly. In fact, Toronto had an astonishing ten forwards play 60+ games while averaging 14:53+ of Ice Time per game, with only one forward averaging more than 17:21 per game (Auston Matthews – 18:07). To put that in perspective, only eight other teams had ten 60+ game forwards each average even 12:00+ per game overall, and the next highest total for the tenth ranking 60+ game forward on any team was 13:11, which, it turns out, was Detroit. Still, only five other teams (Vegas, Minnesota, Nashville, Rangers, Ottawa) had their top 60+ game forward average below 19:00 per game overall, and in each case, it was well more than Matthews’ 18:07.

 

In terms of my patented past player comparisons, since 2000-01 Marner is the only player to score 60+ points in separate seasons by age 20 despite playing under 1400 total minutes each season. And the six who even managed to do so even once by age 20 represent a who’s who of past (Marion Gaborik), present (Sidney Crosby), and future (Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, David Pastrnak, William Nylander) stars. As for Larkin, his 2017-18 stat line puts him in limited – but also promising – territory, as since 2000-01 only two other under age 23 forwards scored 63+ points while averaging less than 20 minutes per game and tallying ten or fewer PPPts: Jamie Benn in 2011-12 and Gabriel Landeskog in 2013-14. As usual, these comparisons are food for thought and not predictive data.

 

Secondary Categories

 

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2017-18

0.74 (D.L.)

0.31 (M.M.)

0.92 (D.L.)

0.38 (M.M.)

0.51 (D.L.)

0.30 (M.M.)

2.83 (D.L.)

2.36 (M.M.)

0.09 (D.L.)

0.33 (M.M.)

2016-17

0.47 (D.L.)

0.49 (M.M.)

0.81 (D.L.)

0.53 (M.M.)

0.25 (D.L.)

0.50 (M.M.)

2.24 (D.L.)

2.28 (M.M.)

0.08 (D.L.)

0.27 (M.M.)

2015-16

0.42 (D.L.)

0.81 (D.L.)

0.31 (D.L.)

2.76 (D.L.)

0.06 (D.L.)

 

These are encouraging numbers for both. In the case of Larkin, with two other seasons of data now in the books, his 2016-17 looks more like an aberration. Where concern lies, however, is in the fact that he’s yet to average – in any season – even one PPPt per ten games. While to some extent that can be blamed on him playing for a team without a lot of firepower and being relegated to PP2, if Larkin is to be an elite player he has to find a way to produce well despite less than ideal circumstances, so as to elevate his numbers and/or get himself a better PP role. Then again, Larkin’s lack of PP production leaves more room for organic points increases if/when he can produce more with the man advantage.

 

As for Marner, we see small year-over-year gains in SOG and PPP, which are good signs, particularly at his age and with all the other firepower Toronto has. Here too there’s concern in terms of PPPts, except for the opposite reason as Larkin. Among the 16 forwards who had more PPPts than Marner in 2017-18, only one (Taylor Hall) averaged under 3:00 per game, and Hall’s 2:54 per game was 25% above Marner’s average. Even still, Marner has put up excellent PPPt numbers for two straight seasons despite low PP Time per game in each, which goes a long way toward validating this production. What it doesn’t do, though, is guarantee he’d do even better with more PP Time, although that might be a red herring since, as noted above, chances are slim he’d receive more PP Time given the coach he plays for.

 

An area of concern that cannot be as easily disregarded, however, is although since 2013-14 there’ve been 103 instances of forwards scoring 70+ points, none of the 103 had either less overall or less PP Ice Time than Marner in 2017-18. In fact when looking at the last five seasons only one player (Patrick Laine this season) even managed 70 points (in his case, exactly 70) despite receiving less than 17:00 per game of Ice Time. It’s a reminder that talent can only get one so far in terms of production.

 

But at the same time, it’s not ground in stone that Marner is incapable of seeing gains in ice time. In other words, it’s better to perhaps have an ice time ceiling that might limit one’s scoring than getting the ice time and not producing, since even though coach Mike Babcock likely won’t greatly rethink his ice time philosophy, Marner’s stellar play could force the issue and earn himself more ice time if not in 2018-19 then in future campaigns. And let’s also not forget that he’ll only be 21 years old when next season starts, so there’s time for him to organically improve as a player as well.

 

Luck-Based Metrics

 

Season

Personal Shooting %

Team Shooting % (5×5)

Individual Points % (IPP)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)

Average Shot Distance

Secondary Assists %

2017-18

6.9% (D.L.)

11.3% (M.M.)

8.63% (D.L.)

8.48% (M.M.)

73.3% (D.L.)

75.8% (M.M.)

46.9% (D.L.)

54.2% (M.M.)

32.5 (D.L.)

31.0 (M.M.)

47% (D.L.)

42% (M.M.)

2016-17

9.0% (D.L.)

10.8% (M.M.)

6.42% (D.L.)

10.13% (M.M.)

64.6% (D.L.)

71.8% (M.M.)

51.5% (D.L.)

55.6% (M.M.)

30.3 (D.L.)

27.8 (M.M.)

53% (D.L.)

43% (M.M.)

2015-16

10.4% (D.L.)

8.72% (D.L.)

63.4% (D.L.)

60.6% (D.L.)

29.3 (D.L.)

27% (D.L.)

 

Once again this data from this season – both by itself and juxtaposed with 2015-16 – serves to underscore that Larkin’s dismal 2016-17 was likely an aberration, which we see was brought on largely by an unsustainably low team shooting percentage. What’s more, Larkin’s scoring gains in 2017-18 came despite a much lower OZ% than his two prior seasons, and a likewise lower team shooting percentage. Moreover, Larkin’s growing season-by-season IPP shows he’s improving as a player in a way that seems more organic and thus at least sustainable if not capable of further improvement. Even still, there’s likely only so much he can do on a poor scoring team, so although his trajectory suggests 70+ points is within reach if not in 2018-19 then soon, it’d be an added challenge to see that happen on Detroit. Of course, we could’ve said much the same things about Nathan MacKinnon last season, and we all know what happened there (and at the same age Larkin will be in 2018-19).

 

The data is similarly encouraging for Marner, whose IPP – already over the important 70% threshold as a rookie – rose even further in his second season, all despite playing with talented linemates on a very deep Toronto team. And his points increase came despite a lower OZ% and a decrease in secondary assists percentage. This leaves little doubt that Marner’s 69 points were for real, and that there’s room for organic scoring gains, although as noted above there might be other factors standing in the way of those occurring.

 

Who Wins?

 

There’s a lot to like about both players. But both come with caveats due to their teams/situation, and that has to be taken into account. In the end, Marner gets the narrow win because although his PP scoring seems unsustainable in view of his PP Time, he’s put up elite man advantage numbers for two seasons, which goes a long way towards proving legitimacy. Couple that with what he’s done in limited ice time and he has to get the nod.

 

That all having been said, Larkin doesn’t so much lose this match as fall just short of winning. In his case, he’s shown his 2016-17 was a clear aberration and scored well this season despite a poor PP output and being on a low scoring team. But his three straight seasons of subpar PP output is bordering on a trend, and can’t be ignored, nor can the likelihood that Detroit’s offense continues to struggle for at least the next few seasons.

 

I see Marner as a hold if you own him, but not a player to acquire if you don’t, since chances are just as good that he finishes with 65-70 points again in 2018-19 as they are he improves to 70-75; yet to acquire him, you’d have to pay a price that would factor in a scoring uptick I just don’t see coming. With Larkin, the pessimism surrounding Detroit and the fact that his 63 points were fairly quiet in terms of the fantasy ripple effects, might result in him being obtainable for a reasonable price, so don’t be afraid to kick the tires on him, as a jump to 65+ points is more likely than a drop to 60 or below.

 

Note also that although I gave Marner the narrow win, in certain one-year points leagues the guy to draft might just be Larkin. That’s because PPPts don’t factor in, plus Marner’s added “name” value due to playing for the Leafs and being a young phenom on the rise, versus Larkin still giving poolies lingering doubts due to his 2016-17 output, might make Larkin a better cost vs. value bargain.