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Marlies Mailbag Part 1: why are things so bad?

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Taking a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Leafs farm teams

January 5th, 2019 - TORONTO ONTARIO CANADA - The Toronto Marlies, AHL affiliate of the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs, take on the LeHigh Valley Phantoms at the Coca-Cola Centre in Toronto, Ontario.
Photo credit: Christian Bonin/TSGphoto.com

As a York University student living in Mississauga, I have to take the GO bus to and from campus every day. That’s approximately over an hour of commute time depending on how fast I decide to walk. Usually during that hour as the bus hums down the 407, I get on Twitter and ask a couple questions and see how afternoon Twitter is feeling.

One such day I started asking about the Toronto Marlies — they had just stunk up the sleeping area the previous weekend, and I was starting to get really tired of the low quality recaps I was producing. So my verbal diarrhea of a tweet turned into asking if anyone wanted me to do a mailbag.

Over the course of half the week I got some really good questions and below I’m going to answer them. Well, half of them. I rambled way too long about the first two questions and forced myself to cut the mailbag in half (like a book) instead of making people read a Fulemin-style epic.

This mailbag will focus on the roster as a whole, the next one will be me talking about players in specific. If you want to read about players now, check this post I made on Tuesday:

Here is the first mailbag of the season... starting right at the halfway point. Don’t worry, I think I’m going to do these regularly because they’re a lot of fun and Katya says content is good.

Coach Greg Moore

Asked by Nanda and Jo-Wo

The specific question I got regarding the Marlies transition from Sheldon Keefe to Greg Moore was this from Nanda: “What’s going on rn? Since the new guy took over things don’t seem to be going well. Is it just the transition?”

To answer this, I’m going to start at the beginning of Sheldon Keefe’s tenure with the Leafs. Assistant Coach AJ MacLean was in charge for the most part, moving in a direction to keep the status quo until the new coach would join the team. Greg Moore spent his first month with the organization as an observer with the Leafs.

On December 21st, he joined the Marlies right before their Holiday break. It wasn’t the best time of the season as the team had very few practice days and a half-week long vacation all right at the same time. It took about five games for Moore to really get some practice days. During all that time, the Marlies were downright stale. They didn’t have much motivation or cohesiveness to their team.

It’s the Forwards

I think they are still trying to get out of their lethargy from the past month where the entire roster almost looked like they were coasting — especially the forwards. There was no effort from them, no chemistry, no consistency. When up to half the players on the ice at a time aren’t doing what they need to do at any one time, the team on the whole is going to struggle.

Lapses in judgement at one end of the ice not only dried up the already depleted offense, it caused massive headaches at the other end. The Marlies held the puck less, they forced their opponents out of scrambles less, and overall made it really easy to get beaten every night. This is why the entire Marlies community on Twitter is so down on this team, it’s been depressing watching them play like crap.

I hope Moore can turn things around for the team, but I think the problems are more the players than the coach trying to motivate them. The entire generation of the 2014-2016 draft picks have either been called up to the Leafs, have been or will soon be lost to waivers, traded, or have failed to pan out. The ones that have been left behind have had a couple weeks of practices, which will help everyone moving forward, but considering where the Marlies are in their development cycle (ie. at the end where all their good prospects are aging out of the system), it seems high time for a fresh coat of paint.

How do things look in the three-league system?

Asked by Mike

In terms of personnel, having three tiers of teams all running such that players at the tops and bottoms of each roster can be fairly interchangeable is a very good thing that Kyle Dubas created. It has allowed the Leafs to mix and mingle with the fourth line, and it should (emphasis on should) give the Marlies a chance to bring in some fresh legs into the AHL from the Newfoundland Growlers.

The Growlers have been really good this season. This is a product of the Growlers wanting to keep a winning team and the Leafs wanting to keep them happy. As a result, they’ve invested and kept a lot of really skilled players on The Rock for the majority of the season. Hudson Elynuik and Scott Pooley have been purged from the team, as well as a defenseman or two jumping up and down throughout the year, but I really think it’s time for them to trust in the depth of the organization and make some moves.

Diamonds in the Rough

There are guys like Aaron Luchuk, Giorgio Estephan, and Brady Ferguson who could all play in the AHL right now. It doesn’t hurt to take a flier on them, especially now when the team in Toronto is so stale. I haven’t seen much of Justin Brazeau, but he’s going to be a prospect they develop slowly over the course of a couple years like Mason Marchment. I think to answer Jo-Wo’s question, these are the diamonds in the rough that might rise to the top as we get into PTO season.

As I said in the previous question, I think this (Marlies) team needs a fresh coat of paint, but there is hope. The defense, thanks to some amazing scouting in Europe and college, seems evergreen, there’s not much to worry about there, even if Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren do graduate. They have a plethora of young talent starting with the trio of Jesper Lindgren, Joseph Duszak, and Mac Hollowell. Teemu Kivihalme will hopefully be a force next season, following in the footsteps of his Swedish predecessor Calle Rosen, and there are always options to have NHL-ready vets interspersed throughout the group.

For the forwards, we are likely to get Semyon Der-Arguchintsev into the AHL next season. He’s been a lot of fun on the Peterborough Petes. Riley Stotts will be a very interesting project. He seems to be buried under some players on the Calgary Hitmen, but I’ve liked what I’ve from him during the Leafs camp games. It’s never too late on a prospect like him. Perhaps we even see a Pontus Holmberg show up from Europe. He’s been excellent. Long story short, there’s a lot of new blood coming for this team, it’s just a matter of time for them to show up on the Marlies.

Reinforcements are coming, especially if the Leafs prioritize forwards early in the draft this year like they did with Nick Robertson last year. In three years or so when some contracts expire we’re going to need a lot of middle-six options at forward, the time to develop them is now.

Next Holl, Hyman, Engvall?

Asked by Liam, and Arjun

Both Liam and Arjun asked me about who’s looking like they’re going to be “the next [insert player here]” to come up and wow us on the Leafs. We’ve surprisingly had a long list of these characters. Zach Hyman was the first one, mostly because he was the first of the non-stars to come up and show that development works, even if he did a lot of it in college. I think Travis Dermott wow’d us yet again when he showed us what a home-grown prospect can do with the development staff; his skating was night and day.

Next was Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. One was a lesson in patience while the other was a shocker. Wow! A seventh round pick from nowhere! Hang on, Kyle Dubas did us one better with undrafted Trevor Moore in the playoffs. He was the fourth liner Leafs fans have dreamed of all their lives (no joke, this is how it actually is).

Now step forward to this season and we got the rise of Pierre Engvall and the RISE of Justin Holl. Again, two nobodies from nowhere coming into the Marlies, kicking ass, and then coming to the Leafs and kicking ass again under the coach they had “growing up.” We had a lot more of those later picks come up, like Dmytro Timashov and Adam Brooks, but they’ve just been on the lower end of fine for fourth liners. If we’re looking for the next wow-factor prospect from nowhere, there are a few candidates.

Mason Marchment

First, Mason Marchment. I think he’s the biggest boom/bust guy the Leafs have right now. Sure, he could probably play a fourth line shift on this team (he already has), but I feel like if he gets that confidence in the NHL, there won’t be much holding him back from getting to be something of what Jason Spezza has been on the Leafs this season from the wing. A shooter that can play with some good play drivers and is mean and nasty when he wants to be. I like the qualities Marchment brings and I think they’ll be perfectly suited for a third line role if he can make it work. It’s in his hands now.

Tanner MacMaster

Another guy I think the Marlies really want to invest in (and have been for a year and a half) is Tanner MacMaster. He’s bounced around the Marlies lineup all season, playing wing and centre on all four lines. He sounds a little like a Connor Brown-type, and I think that’s what his ceiling could be if developed properly.

I don’t think MacMaster is the most skilled player in the world, and I think Marlies fans scoff at his credentials and the fact that he came from Laurence Gilman’s old stomping grounds in Utica, but I think the Marlies have a fiesty winger here who will go to the dirty areas and work hard in all three zones.

He needs to work on his puck skill and shooting a little bit, but that’s literally what the Marlies development staff has been known to cure. Or maybe he’s 24 (January baby) and the window has passed him by. Who’s to say. Holl got his big break at the tender age of 27.

Teemu Kivihalme

Looking optimistically here, Teemu Kivihalme could be the next Justin Holl but with Calle Rosen’s story. Born and raised in Minnesota, including three years at Colorado College, Kivihalme has found his way to Toronto after two years playing with Jesper Lindgren on Karpat of the Finnish Liiga.

At 24 years old, Kivihalme is a fully-formed, dynamic, and smart defenseman already in the AHL. For the most part, he’s been a very consistent player for the Marlies on the first or second pair (depending on if Sandin or Martin Marincin are on the roster), showing off his talented ability to jump into the play and get everywhere he needs to be on the ice in a flash. I especially like when he beats his forwards up on a rush and drives hard to the net with his stick on the ice like a big power forward, even though he’s a lying 6’0” defenseman.

I think Kivihalme fits the Leafs style of defense perfectly — give up the shot, push to stop the rebound, and get the puck up the ice as fast as possible — and it’s hopefully only a matter of time before we see him on the Leafs. However, considering his annoying tendency of being left-handed, he might struggle with the numbers game if the current depth chart that is four guys deep stays the way it is.