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Why don’t the Maple Leafs promote from within?

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It’s not sexy, but it might just pay off.

Mason Marchment standing in front of the net
Credit: Christian Bonin - TSGPhoto.com

When contending teams in the NHL are close to the salary cap, they need cheap depth that can fill holes around stars up and down the lineup. That depth can be anyone of a certain skill level, but teams tend to find younger players from within the system who are better for this role for a variety of reasons — including skating speed and the low cost of RFA contracts at the bottom of the spectrum. The Maple Leafs are currently in a cap predicament with some major holes to fill on defense and at forward.

Only Kyle Dubas knows what he has up his sleeves to help the Leafs get that top-pair right-handed defenseman and top-line left-winger to play in the top-six, but until those trades are announced (Kyle, I swear, don’t do anything before this article goes live), we’re just going to have to work with the status quo and see how we do. Internally, I think the Leafs have some great options to come up from within the organization and can make significant contributions now.

One thing I’ve like about the Leafs as an organization recently is their investment in size. They have a handful of big kids on the Marlies that have the speed, skill, and snarl that would be really helpful to the Leafs with Mason Marchment and Pierre Engvall at the front of the class in both categories.

Pierre Engvall

Engvall provided the headlines when he became a centre midway through the season, but his toolbelt was full long before he added a new position. Early in the season, I had a conversation with head coach Sheldon Keefe where he described the development program for Engvall. It went along the lines of the team wanting to play him in an offensive role given Engvall’s obvious shot and range in front of the net, but they were hindered because it would’ve affected Dmytro Timashov’s development on the second line. So while they “waited” Engvall got really good at being a transition player through the neutral zone with his great speed.

The move to centre when there were a hoard of injuries on the Marlies furthered that development as Engvall learned to facilitate the puck from the middle of the ice and he started to work a lot better with his defensemen on breakouts. The move to centre came at a time when Chris Mueller was injured so Engvall stepped up as the #2 centre and played really well with Timashov and a variety of wingers on his right side. Engvall has always had great speed, especially for his size, and in the playoffs he really showed that as the primary puck mover on his line with Timashov and Yegor Korshkov.

“I think [Engvall] will be a guy who will come in with an additional level of confidence, not thinking about taking on a bigger role with the Marlies, but rather making the Maple Leafs. I think that’s an important distinction for any young player to come in with that mindset. We’ve encouraged Pierre and a number of our other players to come in with the mindset that they want to be Maple Leafs and that should be their focus.” - Sheldon Keefe

Another thing that I think gets overlooked with Engvall is that he has a really nasty side. Because of his massive wingspan and his good hands in front of the net, Engvall’s game has shifted from the perimeter of the ice to along the boards and in front of the net on both ends of the ice. He’ll get in a scrum and be really aggressive with his stick and his body while fighting for the puck, and I have to say his chirping has come a long way. There was a famous night where he started a brawl against the Binghamton Devils and fought Michael McLeod. He had gotten McLeod so mad he just got attacked by him and another teammate and started a line brawl. Engvall looks lanky, but he’s pretty jacked, so I assume McLeod didn’t have much fun during the melee.

All things considered, Engvall had had a great rookie season in the middle six playing secondary special teams, becoming a really dependable player to eat up lots of tough minutes, and of course leading the Marlies in 5v5 goals with 17. Yep, he did all that. Over the summer, Engvall said he’s going to work on his game both at wing and centre, with an emphasis on winning faceoffs (something he was frankly very bad at this season).

Mason Marchment

You’ve probably heard the Marchment story before; an OHL overager that showed up in Leafs development camp and earned himself an NHL contract with his above-average shot and footspeed for someone his age. Marchment started his career with the Marlies as almost of a fighter, but he’s been able to calm that reckless physical part of his game that got him in trouble more often than not with a combination of trust that his coach appreciates his on-ice talents and confidence in his own abilities to score and be productive.

There are some nights where Marchment crosses the line and becomes a hindrance, but those days are coming fewer and farther between. When he is playing hockey, Marchment has a really great set of hands he uses in tight and a shot that can beat goalies from distance. He’s fast, aggressive, and he can both piss off opponents as well as stand up for his teammates in a pinch.

This quote from Trevor Moore is very descriptive in almost a Zach Hyman fashion:

“Mason creates a lot of space. He’s a pest out there and you can see that he gets under a lot of players’ skin. You just have to be thankful that he’s on your line and not the guy across from you. You could see it in every series we played in, guys were focused on him and he was drawing a lot of the attention. It’s nice to play with a guy like that.”

Marchment spent most of the year in the rehab room of Coca-Cola Coliseum after suffering a broken collarbone along with another undisclosed injury early in the season, but he came back at the tail end of the year and didn’t appear to lose a single step putting up four goals, seven points, and 20 shots in 13 playoff games. We’ll see what a long summer can do for him heading into training camp where there clear openings on the NHL roster. I might be a little optimistic here, but he would have a lot of fun with Nazem Kadri.

What do the Leafs need?

One of the bigger criticisms surrounding the Leafs this year (right or wrong) was the fact that they just weren’t nasty enough. Hyman and the fourth line definitely threw their collective weight around in the series against the Stanley Cup Finals losers in Boston, but it really felt like it lacked that special kind of snarl a player like Leo Komarov would bring. They were committing all these hits and getting in the way, but they weren’t really getting anything done.

In Marchment and Engvall, they have the physique to really make a dent in their opponents while also having all the skills and speed needed to play in a modern NHL. A few people have compared Marchment specifically to a player like Tom Wilson, and honestly, major suspensions aside, I would love to have a player like Wilson on my team (just not at his current price anymore).

Dubas has a reputation for liking small, skilled players up and down his lineup, but I’ve never believed that to be true. I think Dubas likes good hockey players who play with skill, speed, and passion regardless of what they look like. Keefe is a big fan of Marchment and Engvall. I’m sure Mike Babcock would come to love these players very soon (if he hasn’t already). They check a lot of boxes and a lot of major people in the organization see something here. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Now, after saying all that, I understand that none of these players have NHL experience and penciling them into the lineup is very risky because every prospect is the Sun and Moon until they actually hit the ice, but these two players have done everything short of having that one breakout season that puts them on the map. It would be ideal if the Leafs could see both Marchment and Engvall put up a point-per-game as the primary scorers on the power play and getting lots of quality zone starts, but they don’t quite have that luxury right now. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and show confidence and trust in some kids.