Playoffs are back in Toronto! Just in time to console us all for the loss of Leafs games to watch. The Toronto Marlies play their first home playoff game of the season Wednesday night. To get you caught up, I’m going to look at who this team is now, and how they’ve done so far in the playoffs.
Marlies Regular Season
The Marlies finished the regular season in second place in the North division, narrowly missing first place in the last few days of play. This is an impressive feat considering they were out of a playoff position mid-way through the season and seemed to be unable to score enough goals to win enough games.
Lack of scoring was a new problem for coach Sheldon Keefe. He had a very offensively gifted team in his first year as coach in 2015-2016. That Marlies squad had William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, Josh Leivo and two former members of the organization who contributed a lot of points—T.J. Brennan and Mark Arcobello.
The current version of the Marlies is younger, less experienced, and took some time to find their game. There were a lot of roster changes in the second half of the season that contributed to the Marlies success, in ways both positive and negative.
2016-2017 Marlies Regular Season Top 15 in Points
|Cal O'Reilly (total) +||C||TOR||62||9||41||50||10||2||0.81|
|Mike Sislo (total) +||RW||TOR||72||14||23||37||26||9||0.51|
The first thing you might notice is who isn’t there. Three multi-million dollar contracts acquired in last year’s trades were buried in the AHL all season. Only Colin Greening made the Marlies roster as a regular player all season.
Milan Michalek played a handful of games decently well, but not exceptionally, and he has been listed as injured lately. Brooks Laich had elbow surgery recently and has gone back to California.
Some AHL veteran signings didn’t quite work out either. Marc-André Cliche has been injured frequently and hasn’t played much, and Rich Clune has been in only 37 games.
Also not on this list is Tobias Lindberg, who has had a very disappointing season after a good finish last year after the trade from Ottawa. He has only 16 points in 44 games. He also missed some time due to injury.
Frederik Gauthier has only 13 points in 46 games, and he missed some time while on the Leafs roster.
Rinat Valiev has only 13 points in his injury-interrupted season of 47 games, the lowest point total of any regular defender except Viktor Loov.
Loov was traded to the Devils for forward Sergey Kalinin, who struggled to score in the regular season.
The successful Marlies this year are the new guys, both young and old, plus a few familiar names.
Topping the list is Kerby Rychel, but some of that is due to his number of games played over his teammates, so resorting the list to Points per Game reveals a different hierarchy with Seth Griffith at the top.
Griffith is an AHL scoring machine, and he’s been fairly consistent on the Marlies after the early part of the season where he bounced from NHL team to NHL team. Once the Leafs could get him on the Marlies—by reclaiming him off of waivers, they didn’t have to waive him again—he dominated the team offence for a time.
Brendan Leipsic sits second, and he’s been rock solid on offence all year. His power play work is not quite as impressive as Andreas Johnsson’s but he’s very close.
Kasperi Kapanen is almost at Leipsic’s points rate. We know where Kappy’s been for a few weeks, and he’s back in action with the Marlies now for the playoffs. His return to the lineup will bring a lot of power play punch, penalty kill skill, and it’s odd to say it, but as one of the youngest players on the team, he’s got some of the most important playoff experience.
Cal O’Reilly and Byron Froese have poetically tied points per game numbers on the season, and they come next on the list. Froese, who leads the Marlies in goals even though he left at the deadline, was essentially replaced by O’Reilly, acquired on loan from the Buffalo Sabres. After a settling in period, O’Reilly has been the solid and dependable centre that the team was missing with the loss of Arcobello and then Froese.
Rychel and Brett Findlay come next, and Rychel has the edge on this tie because he’s been consistently producing for a whole season. Findlay, however, who spent most of this year and last in the ECHL, has been a pleasant addition late in the season. He doesn’t draw in every game and may not have won over Keefe all the way yet, but he’s been a good depth centre and winger both.
Andreas Johnsson took some time to get sorted out in the AHL after the Albany Devils ruined his debut last season, but once he did, he starting piling up goals, particularly on the power play, and his five-on-five play has developed as well. Between him and Rychel, their power play scoring is the difference between this team winning and losing on a lot of nights.
Trevor Moore and Dmytro Timashov play about the same role for the same minutes and same number of games, but it’s Moore who is succeeding more. He’s got a dogged style on the puck, and while Timashov shoots more and likely has better goal-scoring skill, Moore has the edge in overall play so far. Timashov is almost two years younger, however.
Colin Smith has moved on to San Antonio, and was replaced by Mike Sislo, who has had a rough year. He’s come on a lot on the Marlies and is returning to his usual, dependable form. The occasional line of Sislo, O’Rielly and Johnsson is very good.
Colin Greening just makes the list as a depth centre and occasional winger, and it was Greening Keefe chose to watch over Pierre Engvall in his debut in the second game of the playoffs.
Nikita Soshnikov played most of the season on the Leafs, and he is eligible to return for the playoffs, but isn’t healthy enough yet.
Andrew Nielsen and Travis Dermott are the defenders who can put up points on this team, and while they are both young and make rookie mistakes, they have a lot of offensive upside. Their defensive skills are lagging, particularly for Nielsen, but at least they are showing that offensive upside, unlike the older defenders on the team.
The Marlies had a goalie situation early in the year as they were housing some failed Leafs’ backups and potential replacements. They settled down to a tandem of Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks for most of the season until Kasimir Kaskisuo was called up from the ECHL.
Kaskisuo has supplanted Bibeau almost entirely of late, and Keefe has been playing Sparks as his main goalie with Kaskisuo getting the occasional late regular season start as well as dressing as backup for the playoffs.
Bibeau’s last start was March 18, when the Marlies were tuned up by Binghamton, one of the worst teams in the league, 8-4 while being outshot 34-27. He dressed as backup a few times after that, but hasn’t seen game action at all.
The game tonight is game three of a best of five series. Only the first round is best of five, the subsequent rounds are all best of seven.
The first two games were played in Albany—and if Albany doesn’t win this series, those will have been the last games ever played there, as the the Devils are moving to Binghamton next season. The games were split with a win apiece and the remaining three are all in Toronto.
Toronto dropped the first one 3-0 in a game where, eventually, they outshot the Devils by a small margin. They filled up the second period with penalties, normal in the AHL, and only the Devils converted on the power play.
The second game was sweet revenge for the Marlies, who bravely put in Swedish rookie Engvall on the fourth line for his first game. The Marlies took that game 6-2 on the strength of some goals from unexpected sources like Kalinin and Gauthier as well as some poor goaltending from the Devils.
The Marlies pulled Garret Sparks after some contact with a Devils’ player and Kaskisuo played the third period. Sparks is believed to be fine, however.
UPDATED: Sparks is out for Wednesday’s game and Kaskisuo is the starter.
KK Day for Marlies. Kasperi Kapanen in for tonite vs Albany. Kasimir Kaskisuo replaces injured G Garret Sparks (lower body).— Lance Hornby (@sunhornby) April 26, 2017
Two wins out of the three remaining games wins the series.
The Albany Devils also have a fairly young team, led in scoring by John Quenneville and Blake Coleman, as well as last year’s standout player: Nick Lappin.
If they have a weakness it’s in net, where they are relying on two rookies: Mackenzie Blackwood and Ken Appleby.
They are a tough team physically to play against, and in the New Jersey tradition, they can slow teams down in the neutral zone and stymie zone entries fairly well. Their defensive system has worked in the past up to a point. Heavy offensive pressure will break through to their occasionally weak netminders.
Last year, the Marlies needed a last minute heroic goal from Rich Clune to beat the Devils and advance. This year, they need to play to their best as a team and hopefully they won’t need all three games in Toronto to get the job done.