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Is the answer to the Leafs roster holes right there on the Marlies?

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The squeeze is on, and yet the NHL roster isn’t full yet. Meanwhile, the AHL roster is thinner than ever.

Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs are at that stage of development as a team where the roster shouldn’t change much year-to-year. For most teams entering a period of playoff quality for years to come, you don’t expect big trades or massive imports of AHL players every summer. The Leafs should be having a boring offseason just like the Lightning are, with no first-round pick, one big contract to sign and some minor peripheral decisions. The most exciting thing should be speculating on who Connor Brown gets traded for to ease the cap squeeze a little.

But with the chaos around the Leafs right now with Patrick Marleau moved at the cost of next year’s first and the rumours of big trades that didn’t quite happen, the Leafs have stopped being predictable. The end result might be a couple of minor moves leaving the roster what it is right now, or it might be a total overhaul. But one thing hasn’t been fixed, and that’s the thin list on defence. The Leafs might be in a situation where they have to add a player to just have enough defenders. And eyes will naturally turn to the Marlies.

Who’s Graduating off the Marlies?

Starting with the premise that Trevor Moore and Calle Rosen, who both returned to the AHL for the playoffs, are already on the Leafs roster, the most likely answer before the Zaitsev trade talk was nobody.

“Arrive when you’re ready; be good right away,” is the favourite saying of Mike Babcock, and it’s how all good teams behave. The Leafs roster should be hard to make from now on, or there’s something really wrong with the team management. That’s still true despite all the trade talk. Kyle Dubas told the media he’s told Zaitsev’s agent that they can’t just trade him without a similar defender in return. So who is graduating off the Marlies?

The Marlies Depth Chart

Toronto Marlies NHL and AHL players

C LW RW D - L D - R G
C LW RW D - L D - R G
Adam Brooks Mason Marchment Jeremy Bracco Andreas Borgman Timothy Liljegren Kasimir Kaskisuo
Pierre Engvall Michael Carcone Egor Korshkov Rasmus Sandin Jesper Lindgren Joseph Woll
Riley Woods Dmytro Timashov Justin Brazeau Teemu Kivihalme Mac Hollowell Ian Scott
Joe Duszak

There’s only two AHL-contracted players on this list so far, Justin Brazeau and Riley Woods, everyone else can be called up to the Leafs. Woods is a centre/winger, but on the Marlies lately any centre ability gets you slotted in because the centre problem is worse in the AHL than it is on the NHL fourth line. There are likely more AHL-contracted players who will be re-signed, but many of those are Growlers players. A very few of those Growlers could move up to the AHL full time. Look for Josh Kestner and Giorgio Estephan to be the first two to get a chance. My money is on Estephan.

It’s obvious the Marlies need to add forwards. This isn’t even a full team, so a mix of NHL and AHL level signings or re-signings numbering somewhere beginning at 10 seems about right. The AHL has no roster limits, and the Leafs have a lot of SPC space for players on NHL deals.

Defence Prospects

There are some unusual circumstances this season, beyond the possibility of a Zaitsev trade, with the injury to Travis Dermott, and that might mean someone other than Rosen gets added to the Leafs temporarily. That’s not going to be Rasmus Sandin, and if you watched the AHL playoffs, you know why. Many people believe he is the Leafs’ best prospect, but he’s still green as grass. Timothy Liljegren is also a bit emerald around the edges as well. But with Rosen out of their way, so to speak, those two will likely carry on as the Marlies’ top pair.

Joining them will be all the prospects listed above, including new free agent signing Teemu Kivihalme. No one seems to have a good handle on him. He played a role last season equivalent to Jesper Lindgren, and on a team about as good in the same league, so I’m not counting him on any NHL roster yet.

The Marlies might want to add someone to replace Vincent LoVerde, who is going to free agency, so that Kivihalme at 25, isn’t the oldest guy on defence, but they have enough players to graduate one to at least the press box for the Leafs, pending Dermott’s return.

Lest we forget, Justin Holl will already be in that press box. The Leafs could re-sign Martin Marincin as an extra, or they might make the fabled big deal for help on defence that seems like a necessary second part to moving out Zaitsev. A very low-probability solution to the short roster, if Dermott even misses any games, is to bring up Andreas Borgman. Borgman can play 22 NHL games before his waiver exemption wears out (per CapFriendly). Don’t be surprised if he gets bounced back to the AHL even if he’s on the NHL team out of training camp just before that exemption is used up.

Any depth additions to the Leafs on defence will be sitting in the press box, however, as the Marlies are now full up.

Forward Prospects

Suddenly the Leafs are short of wingers with the trade for Marleau, and the likely trade of Brown, they are looking at all hands on deck and no extra forward in the press box, Nic Petan has to play wing, and they still come up one short until you assume Ilya Mikheyev makes the team. It’s time to promote the best AHL winger. It worked great for Trevor Moore and Andreas Johnsson. It also worked great for Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and William Nylander before them, so it’s just like a conveyor belt, and the Leafs take the next man up.

Next up is Jeremy Bracco, and everybody loves Bracco. What’s that you say? He has become a controversial figure with Leafs fans? Well, he’s controversial just within my own mind, so I understand this. His skills are undeniable, but they are also undeniably narrow. He is an offensive playmaker, and not much else. He wasn’t tasked with a lot of playing without the puck this season on the Marlies, and so it’s a bit too hasty to claim he has no defensive ability, however. Bracco has progressed like this:

  • Rookie year spent with hand-holder centres on the fourth line, scratched in the playoffs
  • Sophomore year on a scoring line with heavy offensive-zone usage, counted on to drive the offence in the playoffs
  • ....?

“Move right to the NHL,” is not the answer.

I don’t think Bracco’s going to get the Kasperi Kapanen or Pierre Engvall treatment of playing the third line on the Marlies amid expectations he become defensively-focused and responsible. But I think the expectation is that his game has to grow. At the moment, he’s a lightweight winger who relies on speed and who needs a net-front sniper to finish for him. He shoots at a very low rate and shows signs of inability to gain the zone against tougher AHL competition. A rebuilding team with a thin roster might be able to slot him in on a top line with a veteran centre and get away with it, but the Kings already tried that with Brendan Leipsic, and they didn’t issue him a qualifying offer.

If any prospect looks like his path to the NHL will go through some other team, however, Bracco is it. Trevor Moore was actually the next man off the conveyor belt, he just jumped off a bit early, and the decline in quality from Nylander through to Moore is exactly what you should expect on a team travelling the path the Leafs are on. But if you pretend that decline isn’t there and just pick the best player on the Marlies and assume he’s great, you’re going to be angry when Babcock just won’t play him in the NHL. Are there any outside chances, though? Prospects who might make it just because there’s no other choice?

Pierre Engvall is an interesting player who has all the aspects to his game that Bracco doesn’t, but he isn’t really a top-end offensive talent. He looks like a project for the Marlies’ clever development staff. They started playing him at centre out of desperation, and it’s working. If that sticks, they might be able to project him to be a Frederik Gauthier plus sort of player who has a chance to make the Leafs fourth line. He needs more time to get there, though.

Mason Marchment is a tough call. He’s a fan favourite, and I like him a lot for that tantalizing mix of power forward shading to grinder/fighter. He has some offensive talent, and on the Marlies, he gets to use that a lot more than guys like him do on some other teams. But he’s also a line-crosser who is often injured himself. He looks like a traditional sort of fourth liner who Boston fans would gush over, but who is sneakily Blue and White on the inside. He’s also 24, and if he’s going to make it, now is sort of last minute for him. He is waivers exempt for 60 NHL games played, which would make him an ideal call-up for the road trips when someone is injured, but I don’t think he’s going to make the team out of training camp.

Egor Korshkov will spend the year in the minors. So all-in-all, it really looks like the graduating class this year might be empty.

Filling the Hole

Let’s assume that Zaitsev and Brown are both traded and Mikheyev is on the team. That makes 12 forwards by my count. With Rosen and Holl on the roster, there are only five defenders. Whatever is received in return for Brown and Zaitsev will be added to that, of course, but I can’t imagine that gets you much beyond another depth defender and a 13th forward.

The Leafs can look around for cheap depth options on July 1, and they might find them, but they’re not plentiful. A lot of teams overspend on depth, and the Leafs aren’t looking to drop millions on an eight-minute player when improving the Kadri line is what will actually make the team better. I think the Leafs need to go begging to Tyler Ennis and see how little he’ll take to stay on a team he really likes.

Bob McKenzie, on his podcast, thought Ron Hainsey would be re-signed before the Zaitsev trade request, and I think it’s nearly a lock now if he doesn’t price himself off the team. Kivihalme was the attempt to get more depth-defender insurance, and there’s not a lot of other options in that vein beyond a return of Martin Marincin. But more depth defenders is not the whole answer, and it never has been, even as the Leafs have accumulated an impressive pile of them.

Arvind covered the difficulity of solving this problem when there are very few assets around to be spent on new players.

I confess that I don’t see the way out of this conundrum that gets me Dougie Hamilton, or even just returns an improved team. Over to you, Kyle Dubas, surprise me, because I’m stumped at how to do anything but put the Leafs in a holding pattern for a season.