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Mark Hunter Is the Maple Leafs' Silent Assassin

Heading into arguably the most important draft in Leafs history, perhaps no man is more crucial to the team's success than Mark Hunter.

by Joshua Kloke
Jun 23 2016, 7:40pm

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Lou Lamoriello will likely be the man stepping to the podium and announcing the Toronto Maple Leafs' draft picks this weekend. But it's the man behind the scenes, not doing much talking in public, that will dictate how the draft shakes out for the Leafs.

Mark Hunter was named director of player personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs in October 2014. As the man in charge of the Leafs' professional and amateur scouting staff, he's among those tasked with putting together the pieces of the roster that could end Toronto's Stanley Cup drought.

Besides being known as half of the Hunter clan that bought the OHL's London Knights and turned them into the most consistent junior team of the last 15 seasons, Mark Hunter is not a public figure. Many recent front-office hires, including Lamoriello and Kyle Dubas, have spent time in front of the camera, sharing their vision for the club, while Hunter has not. Perhaps that time away from the camera has become his greatest asset.

READ MORE: How to Enjoy the NHL Draft When You Don't Care about the Draft

Since joining the Leafs, he's kept ties to the Knights: the Leafs hired former Knights scouts Lindsay Hofford and Tony Martino. And, of course, Mitch Marner, who was selected fourth overall by the Leafs in 2015 and eclipsed the 100-point mark for the Memorial Cup-winning Knights.

There could be worse teams to model a rebuild after than the London Knights, with three OHL championships in the past 11 seasons. And while Auston Matthews will be the franchise center the team has long coveted, Toronto's work toward a successful rebuild stretches far beyond. Anyone could make that choice.

Heading into arguably the most important draft in Leafs history, Hunter's past with the Knights reveals a lot about which direction the Maple Leafs are headed in.

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Monday mornings began the same way every week for Jim McKellar.

At 9 AM, the former Knights assistant general manager would gather with Hunter and members of the organization for a two-hour meeting that would involve every aspect of the Knights. There was no easing into the work week for McKellar, now a scout for the Chicago Blackhawks. Because with Hunter, there was no such thing as the easy way.

"It was extra work," McKellar told VICE Sports of Hunter's 24/7 approach with the Knights. "But that extra work made for results."

Mark Hunter (left) watches on behind the bench during a London Knights game in 2010. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Ask those closest to him and you'll hear the same thing over and over about Mark Hunter: he is unremitting in pursuits.

"There's not too many arenas you won't find him in on any day of the week," Jeff Perry—an assistant coach with the Knights from 2004-06—told VICE Sports. "He recruits and he goes after what he wants. And he won't take no for an answer."

Perry saw that work ethic firsthand in 2006 as the Knights were in hot pursuit of Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner, both of whom had spent their previous year playing in the United States.

Hunter demands a challenge and nabbing the two highly-touted prospects was no different. Perry and Hunter chased them around the city of London, trying to figure out where they were going for dinner, just so Mark could run into them again. Hunter's determination paid off, as Kane and Gagner would eventually play for the Knights and then go first and sixth overall, respectively, in the 2007 NHL draft.

Those two exemplified the type of player that Hunter was and is increasingly looking for. Skill before size became a priority of Hunter's in the OHL when he realized the league was getting rid of head shots. Gagner stands 5'11", as does the the diminutive but talented Kane, who scored an NHL-best 106 points this past season.

"We figured out the (OHL) was changing," Hunter told the Toronto Star last summer. "We needed skilled players. We switched then, and we went with skill. Those were our thoughts when we were drafting, and we didn't change."

Marner, also standing 5'11", was immediate proof that Hunter's preference for skill over size wasn't something he left behind in London, but rather a vision he would bring with him to the Leafs. Skill over size, as it were, has long been a notion refuted by the Leafs.

So much of what has plagued past rebuild efforts by the Leafs has been the need to create a rough-and-tumble team identity. In 2013-14, the Leafs were first in the league in fighting penalties. This season, Toronto finished second last in fighting majors.

"Skilled players have a better chance to get things done on the ice," Hunter told the Toronto Star. "You get a big, strong guy, it's hard to develop skill. Guys that do have skill, you can develop them physically. They can get stronger. That's how I look at it."

Hunter at the 2015 draft with everyone's favourite commissioner Gary Bettman lurking on the right. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

But rebuilding the Leafs is a challenge so monumental that it's beaten many men. The turnover in the OHL doesn't compare to the NHL. Hunter has said in the past that one of the biggest differences between building a winner in the OHL and the NHL is the need to be patient, develop and draft properly. Those beliefs will be of the utmost importance in the coming years when the Leafs attempt to complete their rebuild and put together a contending roster, as nothing attracts NHL players more than a winning lineup.

Perhaps no one in Canada understands the importance of building winning hockey teams more than Misha Donskov. Donskov was head-hunted and had a position specifically created for him when he was hired last summer as the manager of hockey operations, analytics and video for Hockey Canada. Donskov, who largely credits Hunter for his success, was an assistant coach before becoming an assistant GM with the Knights from 2009-12. He says Hunter had a profound impact on him, both personally and professionally.

"I got my master's degree in hockey through the Hunters," he jokes.

There's a no-nonsense approach Hunter took with the Knights that many chalk up to a "farm-boy mentality." Raised on a farm in Southern Ontario, that tireless approach was also focused on learning more about the game and staying ahead of the trends.

As head coach with the Knights, Hunter was in the office at 6 AM; along with Donskov, they'd watch countless hours of video, including two recorded NHL games per day, before deciding what was important to show players.

"In the years I was there they were really focused on the analytical component of the game. We scientifically broke down scoring chances for and against," Donskov says, which determined the effectiveness of different players.

This came years before the recent analytics revolution, when NHL teams got onboard with using data for predictive and qualitative means on a wide scale.

Donskov says Hunter was always open to hearing ideas on new ways to improve. For a team that has been plagued by complacency, Hunter's ability to learn and stay ahead of the trends may be a long-term benefit to the Leafs.

"We were always bouncing ideas around," Donskov says. "What's new in the marketplace? What works and what doesn't? What's the best way to communicate this to a player?"

READ MORE: Watching Auston Matthews and the Leafs Will Be Fun, Even If They're Bad

In a game that is still rife with traditionalists, shifting your understanding is not an easy thing to do.

"We implemented our defence into our scoring," says Pat Curcio, assistant coach with the Knights from 2007-09. "It was always a five-man unit and you look now how many teams have their defencemen jumping into the rush and having them be offensively involved.

"That's something we pioneered."

Offensive-minded Maple Leafs defencemen such as Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner spring to mind. Leafs fans could begin to see more defencemen of their ilk, if Hunter plans on providing players for a Leafs roster much like the way he did in London.

"They were like a fourth forward on every shift and it became very tough for other teams to defend against us," says Curcio. "With that comes puck possession."

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Todd Bidner started playing hockey with Mark Hunter when he was six. He now runs an analytics-based app called Innovative Sports Development that provides hockey parents an analytical understanding of their child's skating stride. He was an assistant coach with the Knights during the 2006-07 season and knows the type of players Hunter can identify.

"There's a lot of skilled guys who won't go into those dirty areas to score a goal when they could've dug in for five, six or ten more goals a year. Will they go in front of the net and get hacked and whacked or will they go into the corners to make a play?" Bidner told VICE Sports, mentioning smaller, skilled players who also play with an edge like Johnny Gaudreau, Tyler Johnson and Marner.

"Mark was a genius in finding players who would do that."

Marner, seen here playing for the London Knights, is a huge piece of the Leafs' future. Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images

Keep asking the questions and verbatim, people will say the same things about Mark Hunter, whom team president Brendan Shanahan describes as an "information guy." People will unequivocally say that Hunter is ruthless in his pursuit of the best players in the game. A farm boy at heart who is committed to learning about the game and being open to change. A man who could walk the paper-thin line between the old-school, Brian Burke-era Leafs and the analytics-heavy approach that the Leafs are moving in. And walking that tightrope is something Hunter is well-versed in.

Hunter spoke to the London Free Press about balancing two opposing hockey mindsets ahead of last year's NHL draft.

"Do we listen to everything (assistant GM Kyle Dubas' division) wants? No," Hunter said, "but do we listen to them? Yes, we do, because they're part of the scouting staff."

Hunter, according to McKellar, valued two things more than anything during his time with the Knights: skill and character—two rare qualities on recent Leafs teams. But the Shana-plan seems to be on the right track, with names like Matthews, Marner and William Nylander likely to be on the Leafs roster next season. Long-term success, however, will require more than just a few high-profile names.

The questions surrounding the Maple Leafs may be quiet, for now. But as the draft nears and the 50th anniversary of the team's Stanley Cup drought approaches, the questions will get louder. And the Leafs believe Mark Hunter can answer those questions.