On Monday afternoon, Frank Corrado played his second game of the season at the Air Canada Centre.
It wasn’t with the Leafs though.
After suiting up just once on home ice for Toronto this season, against the New York Rangers on January 19, Corrado was back at the ACC taking on a leading role with the Marlies.
If you’d told him at the beginning of the season when he made the Leafs out of camp that he’d have to wait until the end of February to play his second game that mattered at the ACC, it wouldn’t have been how he envisioned his year playing out.
“I’m just trying to take it day by day, play my game and get back to the way I feel like I’m at my best,” Corrado said of his play after the layoff. “I feel like I’ve been playing well and getting some ice time. It’s nice to play.”
Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe doesn’t think it took Corrado long to adjust to game action.
“He’s getting comfortable in his surroundings and everything like that,” Keefe said. “We’re happy to have him.”
Last summer, Corrado signed a one-year, one-way deal to stay with the Leafs. After spending considerable time in the press box during the 2015-16 season, Corrado felt he was ready to make the jump and become a full-time NHL defenceman this year.
And after a strong performance in training camp, he was confident he’d done enough. But he hadn’t — at least according to Mike Babcock — and he wouldn’t be given another opportunity.
“It sucked not playing. Obviously it’s nice to play now,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s my job. I’m a hockey player. It’s nice to play in games.”
With 11 points in 15 games and top duty on both special teams units, Corrado has settled in as the Marlies top defenceman, mentoring rookie partner Andrew Nielsen.
He credits Nielsen for standing out in the AHL as quickly as he has.
“He’s a great skater, he moves the puck pretty good,” Corrado said. “I think we’re an offensive threat and we can obviously compliment each other out there.”
But Keefe calls Nielsen “a work in progress defensively” as a young player who has some “growing pains.” His usage with Corrado is by design, meant to shelter the rookie with the team’s best defenceman.
On Monday, Corrado’s impact was evident from his first shift. Just 40 seconds in, he side-stepped an oncoming check to send a cross-blueline pass to Nielsen ahead of Toronto’s early 1-0 goal. While Corrado didn’t pick up the secondary assist after both Brett Findlay and Andreas Johnsson got pieces of Nielsen’s shot, it was he who created the play.
From there, while playing heavy minutes, Corrado helped the Marlies limit the Binghamton Senators to just eight shots through the game’s first two periods. In the second period, he and Nielsen took nearly every other shift.
Offensively, Corrado has dictated. Only a handful of AHL defencemen have generated more than Corrado’s 2.5 shots per game. That he has scored just a lone goal is the product of bad luck, shooting just 2.6 per cent (seventh among Marlies defencemen). Among AHL defencemen with as many games played or more than Corrado’s 15, he ranks 11th in points per game (0.73).
He thinks he can be a mentor, and use his experience and the challenges he’s faced to his advantage with the Marlies.
“I feel like I’ve been around a little bit and I’ve seen what the NHL is like and what it takes to get there and to stay there so I feel like I can help out the young guys as much as possible,” Corrado added.
In his return to the ACC, Corrado led the team in shots, with four, while posting a plus-2 rating (the only defencemen to do so on Monday).
As the Marlies battle serious injury trouble, and Frederik Gauthier and Andrew Campbell take time away from the team for personal reasons, Corrado has provided a stabilizing presence. Keefe has turned to him for big minutes in Rinat Valiev’s absence, and will continue to do so after the team recently dealt Viktor Loov for Sergey Kalinin.
“We use him a lot all of the time. He’s a very useful player for us,” Keefe said after the Marlies’ 4-2 win, their third in a row. “He can kill penalties for us, he can help us on the power play and even-strength and we got him at a time when we lost some guys.
His arrival was nice for us, it gives us another right shot and he’s had success and got points.”
Corrado is a star, already. And while he may not be in Babcock’s plans at the NHL level, his future as a defenceman at the next level has not yet been extinguished.
“He’s just a very useful player for us,” Keefe finished.