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Inside the NHL: Marner works through slide to give Leafs another strong rookie option

TORONTO -- There's a palpable buzz in the Air Canada Centre these days and it's mostly about Auston Matthews. For good reason. The No. 1 overall pick has 16 goals and has made huge strides in his two-way game in just the first half of his rookie season. But if the Maple Leafs and other up-and-coming teams are going to get places, they have to build a team around their star.

One big reason the Sabres are failing is they spent the 2013-14 season tanking and ended up with Sam Reinhart as the No. 2 overall pick, a spot his play isn't coming remotely close to justifying. The hope of a Jack Eichel-Reinhart axis isn't working; Reinhart can't even play center in the NHL, the position he was drafted for.

You need that second player. It looks like the Leafs have it in Toronto-born right winger Mitch Marner, who was taken two picks after Eichel at No. 4 overall in 2015.

Marner has eight goals and a team-high 17 assists, with his 25 points one behind Matthews for the team lead. And that's even as he's already hit a huge rookie wall with an 11-game goal drought and a drop to the fourth line as part of his trip to coach Mike Babcock's doghouse. But Marner had two-assist games in the last week against Pittsburgh and Colorado and seems to be again generating offense while returning on a line with winger James van Riemsdyk and either Tyler Bozak or Nazem Kadri at center.

"You have to keep talking to your linemates," Marner told this corner last week prior to a game in the ACC. "Guys like JVR and Bozak have been there before, been in those spots. They're there to help. You have to focus on a strong defensive game at times, not on points. You especially try to contribute there when you're struggling."

"You know there will be ebbs and flows, even for the most talented guys," van Riemsdyk said. "You need to put yourself in the best position to have success every night and it seems like he's been working hard to do that."

Marner had just one goal in the first 10 games before scoring both goals in the Leafs' 2-1 win over the Sabres on Nov. 3 in KeyBank Center. That opened a run of six goals in seven games before he cooled off again. And that's when Babcock went to work with Marner, just as he did last month with Matthews.

"I’ve just been watching the games,” Babcock told Toronto reporters when asked about Marner's brief trip to the fourth line. "I think there has been a message going on for a bit. That’s just the process of growing up in the National Hockey League. It doesn’t go your way all the time, in practice, in games. You have to work hard every single day."

Babcock's video sessions with Marner were not just about offensive moves.

"He's shown me a lot of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg because those two were with him for a long time in Detroit," Marner said. "They learned his system well. Those are two guys a lot of kids grew up watching who are super with and away from the puck.

"You have to have the ability to look in all directions around you. A lot of guys can go hidden and kind of come out of nowhere on you. You really have to be aware."

The Leafs veterans' have been particularly impressed by the way young players have dealt with their inevitable adversity.

"They've been pretty resilient, great all year," said Kadri. "As they keep playing, there will be more scouting reports for other teams, more strategies to cover them. There will be more adversity to fight through.

"It's been a whirlwind. I've been here a long time and have seen a lot of things, good and bad. You can see the transition, that turnaround and see the future in bright. The fans in Toronto are very excited about it and they should be."

Marner spent last year once again tearing up the OHL with 39 goals and 116 points for Memorial Cup champion London. He could have been in the NHL but at 5-11 and 170 pounds, another year of junior helped him.

"It's been a lot of fun," Marner said. "The whole team has been re-energized. It's a whole new face for the Leafs that's really exciting for me. It's been pretty crazy in here, a very live building, and it's a lot of fun to play in."

Baffling choice for Team USA

The World Junior Championships start Monday in Toronto and Montreal, with Sabres draftees Alex Nylander and Rasmus Asplund playing for Sweden and Casey Fitzgerald suiting up for Team USA. The Americans made the biggest news heading into the tourney with the stunning decision to cut Erie Otters scoring star Alex DeBrincat from their roster.

DeBrincat, a second-round pick of Chicago last June, leads the Ontario Hockey League with 30 goals and has 60 points in just 28 games. And he's not good enough to make the team? It's shades of Phil Kessel not making the World Cup team and yet another example of how USA Hockey prefers college players to those who play junior hockey in Canadian-based leagues when making its international selections.

The Americans open the tournament against Latvia in Air Canada Centre. If they struggle to score, the wolves will howl at the team selections.

No more Marlene

It's time for the Sabres to step in and say no more to Marlene and to the New York State Department of Health. In a commercial that is played probably 10 times during every MSG telecast, Marlene is the 68-year-old who has needles put into her eyeball for the condition that she developed as an outgrowth of smoking. Regardless of the message it's trying to send, the commercial is flat-out disgusting and not suitable for children. There's no excuse for it to be played over and over again during every single game.

Do the Sabres and MSG have no sponsors at all for their telecasts? In terms of off-ice issues, this is one of the top two or three things I hear from fans and read about on social media every single game. The Sabres need to pay attention here. Marlene needs to be shelved. Immediately.

Around the boards

---The holiday roster freeze is lifted at 11:59 p.m. Monday and teams can resume trades, waivers and AHL demotions at that time. Think the Sabres have a decision or two or three to make? NHL GMs in general have been very conservative this season, with only four traders made since the season started. The cap is obviously a big issue and teams have to concern themselves with how a trade could impact for their setup for the June expansion draft as well.

---The Oilers' win Wednesday in Arizona ended one of the most dubious ongoing streaks in the NHL. Arizona had gained a point in 25 straight games against Edmonton (21-0-4) dating to March, 2011. That was the longest point streak by one NHL team against another since Philadelphia went unbeaten in 32 consecutive games against Los Angeles from October 1974 to February 1983 (27 wins and five ties).

---The NHL is branding the home of the Jan. 1 Detroit-Toronto Centennial Classic as "Exhibition Stadium." That's the name of the old Blue Jays/Argonauts stadium that's on the same site as the soccer stadium that will be hosting the game. That facility is known as BMO Field but the league is ignoring all references to BMO because Scotiabank is the game's title sponsor. Can't we all just get along?

---The Florida Panthers announced Friday they will host Jaromir Jagr Night on Jan. 6 vs. Nashville to honor Jagr for moving into second place on the NHL's all-time scoring list. Ticket offers will be themed around Jagr's 1,888th point and jersey number. Offers include an $18.88 upper goal zone offer and a $68 sideline offer.

---Former Sabres defenseman Chad Ruhwedel scored his first NHL goal Friday night in Pittsburgh's win over New Jersey. Ruhwedel, who played 33 games in Buffalo over the last four years, was called up to the Penguins when Kris Letang went on the injury list.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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