The Marlies haven’t undergone a whole lot of turnover in terms of the volume of players who have left the roster, but they have had to watch two of the best in the league at their position — Kasperi Kapanen and Travis Dermott — graduate off the team and be replaced with players who have far less experience in the league. Not to mention that Miro Aaltonen remains out due to injury. The remaining players have needed to step up, and after a brief period where they stumbled, they eventually have.
Secondary scorers Ben Smith, Chris Mueller, and Colin Greening have had to become primary guys with the young players having to fill their roles.
“Goals have been hard to come by as of late.” said head coach Sheldon Keefe in a post-game presser after the Marlies 4-3 regulation win over the Providence Bruins on Saturday afternoon. A mere three hours later, with some help from a Laval loss, the Marlies officially clinched a spot in the 2018 Calder Cup tournament, the first team to do so this season.
Older prospects Dmytro Timashov and Trevor Moore have done admirable jobs in the top-6 this season, keeping the offensive burden away from defensively oriented players like Freddy Gauthier and Rich Clune.
With fewer vets in the lineup, the Marlies have started to ice a kid-line as their fourth line a lot more often. WHL graduate Adam Brooks centering OHL grads Mason Marchment and Jeremy Bracco have created a dynamic line that has been forced to learn on the fly together.
The trio, whose average age is 21, had one of their better games this season. They were strong on the power play with Dmytro Timashov and Timothy Liljegren, and they combined for the second goal for the Marlies on Saturday and had several great chances in the process. Overall, a good afternoon’s work.
The elite passing of Bracco combined with the two-way ability of Brooks and a pinch of a good puck-retrieving winger with hands has made this a line that works. I can’t help but see parallels to the Zach Hyman - William Nylander - Kapanen line that dominated the AHL in 2015 and the Hyman - Auston Matthews - Nylander line in the NHL today.
“I feel like they’re starting to gain some confidence,” said Keefe after the game. “They’ve been playing better now than they have earlier in the season partially because they’re getting more opportunity, partially because they’ve got more experience and [are] feeling better about themselves.” Opportunity out of necessity, but opportunity nonetheless.
As the only Leafs center prospect with real promise (Sorry Ryan McGregor and @Brigstew86), Adam Brooks’ development is vitally important to the Leafs’ future. His succcess or failure could lead to the Leafs being one of the better set-up teams up the middle in the league, or one that is so uncomfortable about their future at center that they panic at the Draft or in a trade.
Brooks had started at center most nights this season, but he would play with Colin Greening and quickly get pushed to the wing mid-game in certain situatioms. Now that he is with two clear wingers in Marchment and Bracco, that doesn’t happen as much.
“Is he a full-time center, I dont know. He’s a player we feel good about in terms of where he’s developing and how he’s coming along. In terms of our lineup, whether it’s guys that are injured or guys that have been joining us at different times, we’ll see how all that shakes out when we really settle in on our lineup. We’ve got a lot of different options. But what we’re seeing is progress and we’re happy with that.” - Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe
As I said in the Saturday Marlies recap, I would love to see how Brooks, Bracco, Marchment, Timashov, and Liljegren evolve in the coming years. They are together on the power play and will have to grow together through adversity in a Toronto Maple Leafs organization that has shifted its primary focus from developing talent to using that talent to win a Stanley Cup for the first time since before the Moon landings.
Something that Kyle Dubas, Mike Babcock, and the organization has stressed over the years has been creating a pipeline of talent coming into Leafs and Marlies. That sounds nice and with great scouting could work, but the more likely situation is that the Leafs will be picking in the high-20’s — or not until the second- or third-round — for the forseeable future. Top-end prospects like Auston, Willy, Mitch, and Timothy won’t be on the Marlies’ first line or first pair, insulating longer-term prospects like they’ve done for years.
The Leafs, and specifically the Marlies, have the raw dollars to buy a couple high-end AHLers like Smith, Mueller, Greening, LoVerde to fill out the top of the rosters every night, but they aren’t going to take every spot and they definitely won’t be there all season if the Leafs have injuries. Rookies like Brooks and Bracco will be given opportunities to play in difficult and uncomfortable positions.
Opportunity out of necessity, but opportunity nonetheless.