After months of breathless speculation this past summer about a potential lockout, the NHL locked out its players on September 15. And as the summer turned to fall, for the past month we have been treated to... well, more of the same. Frankly the fact that Don Cherry is now screaming at road signs is surely not a good sign for the collective psyche of the hockey universe.(On the plus side, there was no catastrophic news about the Leafs management this week, so hooray!)
Thankfully the American Hockey League begins this weekend, which means we can begin following the Toronto Marlies again, and with the news that Sportsnet and CBC will look to fill their programming void with AHL games, for the average fan this becomes an easier task. In advance of the season, and to bring you up to speed on some of the members of the club you may be less familiar with, we bring you a preview of everything you need to know about the Toronto Marlies for the upcoming season.
While the Maple Leafs season fell off the rails in February, the Marlies rolled along all season long, capping of their most successful regular season in franchise history with a North Division title, and in the first year of a playoff format aligned with the NHL's, earned the #2 seed. Led by a mix of AHL veterans (Mike Zigomanis, Ryan Hamilton), up and coming prospects (Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Joe Colborne) and sterling goaltending (Ben Scrivens), the Marlies would sweep their division rival Rochester Americans (Buffalo) 3-0 in the first round, before dispatching the Abbotsford Heat (Calgary) 4-1 in the second round and the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton) 4-1 to capture the West Division championship and a berth in the Calder Cup Finals, the first time a Maple Leafs affiliate has been to the finals since 1991-92.
Unfortunately a championship was not to be, as the Marlies, by this point beaten up and missing several key players due to injuries lost 4-0 to the Norfolk Admirals (Tampa Bay). The series was highlighted by the disheartening end to Game 3 where in overtime a centre-ice dump-in caromed off of the stanchion and into an empty net as Scrivens had gone behind the goal line to play it. It was an awful way to end what had been a tremendous game for the Marlies, made worse by the fact that the referees neglected to (correctly) call back the goal since Norfolk was offside.
With the lockout keeping certain young prospects in the AHL for a little while longer, holding back what would have likely been their graduation to the NHL, the Marlies currently have the opposite problem that plagued the Leafs last season. Where the Leafs, particularly on defence and in goal, didn't have enough quality players to distribute key ice time to, the Marlies are going to have issues finding enough ice time for everyone on their roster that deserves it. Let's look a little more in-depth at the Marlies roster;
This summer the Maple Leafs (and Marlies) ended their status as the primary affiliate for the Reading Royals in the East Coast Hockey League; this season the Leafs and Anaheim Ducks will share an affiliation with the Fort Wayne Komets. This is bad news for the three goaltenders under contract and assigned to the AHL, as Anaheim currently has seven goaltenders under professional contracts, five of which are expected to play in either the AHL or ECHL.
What that means is that at least until the lockout ends (if it ends), Ben Scrivens, Mark Owuya and Jussi Rynnas will all be on the Marlies roster. Three goalies who proven themselves to be capable is an unfamiliar problem for Leafs fans, but it comes with its own set of problems.
Ben Scrivens was a standout star for the Marlies last season, with a sparkling 2.04 GAA and .926 save percentage in 39 games. and even better 1.92 GAA and .936% numbers in 17 playoff games. Scrivens got into 12 games for the Leafs and was vying for the backup role to James Reimer, but the lockout has put those plans on hold.
Scrivens' return to the AHL comes at the cost of Mark Owuya's ascension to the AHL starter role. Owuya was also brilliant last season, with stellar play in the ECHL and a .929 save percentage in 19 games in the AHL in relief when Scrivens was recalled to the NHL. Owuya looked poised to claim the starter's job but now may find himself having to split that role with a player that should be in the NHL. The presence of two AHL starter calibre netminders means Jussi Rynnas' ability to solidify his spot as an AHL goalie will suffer.
The Leafs have invested heavily in the future of the team's blueline in recent years, and the first crops began to harvest last season, with the emergence of Jake Gardiner and the continued development of Korbinian Holzer. While the lockout continues Gardiner and Holzer will return to the Marlies, providing the team with an incredibly strong defence corps.
Midseason acquisition Mark Fraser formed a terrific shut-down pairing with Holzer down the stretch last season, and with both looking to earn spots in the NHL, and with the AHL currently flooded with dynamic young offensive stars (including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sven Baertschi, and Mikael Granlund to name three the Marlies will be seeing this winter), the pair could create a strong argument for their promotion by playing against these high-calibre players.
In addition to Gardiner, Jesse Blacker was a promising addition to the Leafs pro ranks last season, and will be expected to carry a greater load this season, including anchoring one of the Marlies power play units. This may come at the expense of Simon Gysbers in the short-term, a quality college free agent signing who has submitted two quality full seasons for the Marlies but finds himself trapped down the depth chart by the locked out NHLers.
The team also added several new faces to the blueline; Mike Kostka, the man who scored that bizarre Game 3 OT goal to effectively end the Marlies season, was signed this offseason by the Leafs and becomes yet another potential offensive weapon from the back. The Marlies also signed journeyman defender Dylan Yeo, who will provide depth and has bounced all around the AHL and ECHL, playing 48 games last year for Oklahoma City.
But the real eye-opening signing was Paul Ranger, a former six-year pro of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who walked away from the NHL in 2009-10 and has now resurfaced after three years off to join the Marlies. The reasons for Ranger's departure are still not fully known, so waching to see he shakes off three years of rust is going to be an interesting storyline this season.
The Marlies have a strong mix of veteran players to stabilize the Marlies attack, and young prospects looking to continue their development towards the NHL.
Heading up the veteran contingent is returning captain Ryan Hamilton, coming off of a career high 26 goals and 51 points in the AHL, and Mike Zigomanis, aka the player you know Don Cherry will scream for his return the second the NHL returns, even though he's on an AHL contract at the moment. In addition the team added AHL legend Keith Aucoin, an immensely gifted playmaket who never caught on in the NHL due to size and below average skating, but simply destroyed the AHL at all times. (Aucoin led the AHL in assists and was tied for 4th in points last season, and played just 43 games).. Aucoin is there to put up points, and whomever is lucky enough to play on his wing could see a huge rise in their fortunes.
That player may just be one of the Leafs few legitimate prospects in Nazem Kadri. Body-fat issues aside, Kadri's done everything asked of him in two point-per-game seasons at the AHL level, and a ppg playoff was cut short due to a separated shoulder. Kadri supposedly had a great offseason and comes back ready to earn his place in the NHL once and for all.
Another player trying to score his way out of the AHL,but still on the mend, is Matt Frattin. Frattin struggled with offensive consistency in his rookie season at the NHL level, but was a lightning rod in the AHL, with 14 goals in 23 regular season games and 10 goals in 13 playoff games before an ACL injury ended his season.
Joe Colborne also returns, despite his best efforts to completely mangle his hands and wrists last season. The centrepiece of the Tomas Kaberle played through some gruesome finger and wrist injuries that could be the catalyst for his offensive swoon in the second half of the season. Colborne is fully healthy and ready to go, along with the other returning prospects such as Greg Scott, Nicolas Deschamps , Carter Ashton and Jerry D'Amigo that will be fighting for ice time in a crowded top six.
If you look back at head coach Dallas Eakins history with the club, rookies and other young players can often have a difficult time finding regular ice time. With the Marlies forward ranks so full at the moment, that will be especially true this season, as was already highlighted when sophomore pro Tyler Brenner, and rookie pros Sam Carrick and Andrew Crescenzi were assigned to Fort Wayne. For rookies Greg McKegg, Jamie Devane, Brad Ross, and Spencer Abbott, and sophomore Kenny Ryan, they may find themselves being frequently rotated in and out of the lineup as they adjust to the pro game.
One newcomer who might not face the same transition is Leo Komarov. The 25 year old was drafted back in 2006, and has finally ventured across the pond to play in the NHL. Komarov is known from his past in the KHL to be a bonafide agitator, and between him and Brad Ross they have the potential to drive opposing teams crazy this season.
I would have included sophomore forward Will Acton in the group of young players fighting for ice time, except for two reasons. The first is Acton established himself to be a perfectly capable bottom six AHL forward last season, eraning the trust of Eakins. He likely anchors the Marlies fourth line and contributes on the penalty kill. The other reason is that he's Keith Acton's son, the former coach that survived three regime changes and the world's most awful penalty kill as an assistant coach, so I'd expect he sticks around for a while.
It's hard to get a great read on how the AHL season is going to shake out, with the influx of ringers from various NHL clubs filtering down to the NHL. The longer the NHL remains locked out the more likely that a team such as Oklahoma City stacked with NHL talent becomes a heavy favourite.
Having said that, the Marlies aren't lacking in NHL calibre players and have top-to-bottom depth few teams will be able to match. The AHL's unbalanced schedule also works in their favour, as they'll get the opportunity to beat up on the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres affiliates roughly 42 times this season, even if they are in a division with Grand Rapids, the affiliate of the greatest drafting and development team, the Detroit Red Wings (AHL basement two years running).
The Marlies have stabilitiy with two strong goaltenders, a bevy of capable young D who will only get better, and a balanced scoring attack. Even if the lockout ends and the four to six players we'd expect to move on to the NHL leave, the core is in place to keep the Marlies a contender. Even though the effects of a championship calibre AHL team on their NHL affiliate are not known to be significant, the bottom line is there hasn't been a lot of winning hockey in Toronto the past few years, so Leaf fans should get down to Ricoh as often as they can to watch some great 'AAAA' hockey.