On Monday, the AHL announced that the league will be cancelling the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season and 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs due to COVID-19.
The AHL is working hard to create a viable plan to play the 2020-21 season, but for this season at least, the Toronto Maple Leafs have already made plans to bring along a Toronto Marlies Taxi Squad with them for if/when the 2020 NHL Playoffs are set.
This is not a surprising development, as every year we get the famous “Black Aces” that travel with the Stanley Cup challenging teams once their AHL affiliates have concluded the season. The last few seasons for the Leafs this has been reversed as the Marlies have played longer into the spring than the big club has. The emphasis has been on providing call-ups the ability to go back down and help the Marlies in the AHL playoffs by papering them down to the AHL on deadline day. This season those spots were held by Pierre Engvall, Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren. Liljegren was later returned to the AHL and Calle Rosen was called up.
Marlies GM Laurence Gilman says exit interviews have already been conducted with the AHL players who won't get called up to the #leafs for their taxi squad. He didn't disclose how many guys are on hold for a potential NHL restart.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 11, 2020
So for the first time in a long while, we’re going to get a real Marlies Taxi Squad! There is no salary cap in the playoffs, so cost doesn’t matter when choosing a player. However, it’s clear, the Leafs have already compiled a very specific list of players — it’s not simply going to be everyone with an NHL contract.
Here are some of the factors I tried to weigh when making my list:
Are the Leafs trying to keep their list small, or do they believe it’s still safe to bring another half-roster? This is a question that is going to be answered by the team’s doctors and their Return to Play Consultant, Denver Manderson. It’ll also depend on where the team is practicing, and how they’re going to be housed during the playoffs.
Playoffs or Development?
Is this going to a group you want exclusively for injury replacements in the playoffs, or a place where the coaching and development staff that will be allowed to travel can practice with the prospects and help them improve down the line. Considering head coach Sheldon Keefe’s NHL practices have often involved skills development, it’s likely going to be a combination of the two.
And the question goes the other way for certain prospects as well. For example, do the Leafs need Timothy Liljegren for the playoffs? Or is he better suited for skills development time in Toronto? Or is he going to learn more practicing with the Leafs?
Marlies GM Laurence Gilman has already tried to hint at “something” with regards to Liljegren, potentially saying the team won’t be prioritizing AHL minutes for their young right-handed defenseman.
Marlies GM Laurence Gilman says Timothy Liljegren took another step this season: "I will be surprised if he doesn't play in the top seven or eight with the Toronto Maple Leafs next year."— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 11, 2020
How many players is useful?
The Leafs have 12 forwards (14 if you count Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev), nine defensemen, and two goalies on their current roster. Is it important for the team to be able to run scrimmages with two full 20-player teams, or some reduced version of that, or just ad-hoc? We haven’t seen a Sheldon Keefe training camp yet, but the old system did like having two versions of each line (two NHL and two AHL forward lines on each side).
There’s only so many players you can have on the ice at a time, and having more players dilutes the amount of time each player gets with their coaches. Striking that balance of players who are useful now, and those who need to be made useful later is important.
Here is my list, looking at only the players not on the Leafs 23-man roster according to CapFriendly. Injured players like Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev don’t need to be included in this math.
F: Nic Petan, Adam Brooks, Pontus Aberg, Kenny Agostino, Egor Korshkov, Nick Robertson
D: Timothy Liljegren, Kevin Gravel, Teemu Kivihalme
G: Joseph Woll, Kasimir Kaskisuo
I don’t think I’m reaching very far with any of these players. While a few of them didn’t get NHL minutes this season (Agostino, Robertson, Kivihalme, and Woll), only Robertson wasn’t on the Leafs roster for at least one day this season.
All five of those forwards were first or second line players for the Marlies, depending on call-ups and injuries. They all have NHL experience and have the ability to skate on the fourth line in a pinch.
I think I would get in more trouble if I didn’t have Nick Robertson on this list.
Liljegren is an NHL regular in my opinion, he’s better than anyone they have at 3RD right now.
You might not remember him, but Kevin Gravel played NHL games for the Leafs this season. He’s a solid vet who can play in a pinch, even though he’s 108th on the LD depth chart for the Leafs.
Kivihalme, in my opinion, was the third best Marlies defenseman last season, and wasn’t far off from Sandin and Liljegren. His progression to the NHL is going to be tough with Sandin, Mikko Lehtonen, Calle Rosen, and Martin Marincin ahead of him, but he’s going to be the 1LD for the Marlies next season and that’s not a bad player to have with you.
Woll and Kaskisuo are here because, well, you need goalies.
With this list, and the two left wingers back from injury, that gives the Leafs a group of 36 guys to work with. 20 forwards, 12 defensemen, and four goalies.
On the Bubble
F: Garrett Wilson, Kalle Kossila, Tyler Gaudet, Miikka Salomaki, Matt Lorito
D: Jesper Lindgren
Of the forwards on this list, only Gaudet got some days with an NHL salary. All five of these forward vets provide something, and most of them have NHL games under their belts, but they all played secondary roles to the players above them in this list this season. Kossila is signed to the Leafs for one more season, so there’s a chance they want him to spend more time with the organization after a season filled with injuries, but it’s not likely. Hence why he’s on the bubble.
Lindgren played all year with Kivihalme and he did great for an AHL rookie. I’m really high on him as a prospect, but after breaking his leg in the middle of the season and only just getting back before the cancellation, he might be better off having him get ready for next season. There’s a lot of potential for him to unlock next season.
“Have a Long Summer”
F: Jeremy Bracco, Max Veronneau, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev
D: Joseph Duszak, Mac Hollowell
G: Ian Scott
Bracco dealt with a lot this season. First, getting passed up for NHL minutes by a lot of his teammates. Then, 28 days away from the team for personal reasons. And just when he was coming back, a cancelled season. Considering how much the Marlies tried to get Bracco back up to speed and in AHL games before the season was cancelled, I could be convinced they’d want him on the ice with the Leafs so he doesn’t lose that muscle memory. But on the other hand, it just really feels like Bracco could use a Long Summer to reset and prepare for next year. And with waivers looming for him, it might not even be a season with the Leafs.
Veronneau is a NCAA project acquired by the Marlies in a trade deadline deal with the Ottawa Senators. He hasn’t had much time to get comfortable with the Marlies and their system, so a Long Summer with lots of instructions from the coaching and development staff is probably the way to go for him.
SDA has the opportunity to be on the Taxi Squad after a strong season in the OHL and the league having already cancelled their season, but with his rookie AHL season looming, they might want him to (say it with me) have a Long Summer.
I have a clear delineation between Lindgren and Duszak and Hollowell on the right side of the Marlies defense. It’s not because two of them played most of the season on the Growlers, it’s because I see a more evolved defensive game from Lindgren than I have yet seen from Duszak and Hollowell.
Lindgren played top-four all year for the Marlies and was trusted all over the ice. With Liljegren likely graduating to the Leafs full-time, Lindgren is all but certainly going to inherit top-pair duties.
Duszak is a strong offensive player who honed his skills in the NCAA, but he still has a way to go when defending offensive rushes and playing a sound defensive game. He isn’t especially skilled at taking the man or the puck, and his positioning isn’t always great. I can say the same things about Hollowell, except that his all-around game is obviously younger and more raw.
I feel like both are just a season behind Lindgren, with Duszak only needing a year to develop his defensive game before NHL conversations can start happening.
In net, Ian Scott is still recovering after surgery on his hip and wasn’t expected back until September anyway. Probably best to let him have a Long Summer as well.
F: Alexander Barabanov, Mikhail Abramov, Justin Brazeau, Tanner MacMaster, Scott Pooley, Hudson Elynuik, Matt Read, Rich Clune, Riley Woods
D: Mikko Lehtonen, Kristians Rubins, Filip Kral
G: Zachary Bouthillier, Parker Gahagen
I’ll keep this simple, none of these players had an NHL contract for the 2019-20 season.
Barabanov, Abramov, Lehtonen, Rubins, and Kral have their ELCs starting in 2020-21, so they are not allowed to play in the 2019-20 playoffs.
Bouthillier is yet unsigned and his draft rights are expiring June 1st, along with Riley Stotts.
The rest are on AHL contracts.