The AHL announced the members of their first and second All-Star Teams for the 2017-18 season today and, unsurprisingly, three Toronto Marlies players were included on the rosters.
It shouldn't be a surprise who they are. Garret Sparks’ league leading save percentage put him goalie for the first All-Star Team. High scoring forwards Ben Smith and Andreas Johnsson were voted on to the second All-Star Team.
The recognition given to these three players is well earned, but it’s interesting to see they all had quite varied career paths leading to this point, despite all three being selected in the sixth round or later in the NHL Draft.
Garret Sparks - Maple Leafs goalie in-waiting
Sparks is not at all a new face to Leafs fans. Drafted in the seventh round in 2011, Sparks has slowly worked his way up through the Maple Leafs system, including a large amount of playing time with the Orlando Solar Bears.
His AHL stats this season certainly lend themselves to the honour of being the first team goalie. Sparks is at the top of the AHL with the highest sv% at 0.936 and the lowest GAA at 1.81.
He made a memorable debut with the Maple Leafs on November 30, 2015.
Despite 17 games played that season, Sparks has not appeared in any further Maple Leafs games since Frederik Andersen became the undisputed King of the Maple Leafs net. Curtis McElhinney has surprised as an effective backup to Andersen, and he comes with a very low cost contract which still has one more season until expiration.
Sparks has another season on his contract as well. Turning 25 years old this June, he seems increasingly like a perpetual Maple Leafs goalie-in-waiting. When will his time to take the big net actually come?
Andreas Johnsson - the hot-shot new guy
He was really happy about this goal.
Johnsson is another seventh round pick by the Leafs, this time in the 2013 draft. The speedster from Sweden joined the Marlies full time last season and immediately impressed. He doubled down this season and racked up an impressive 54 points in 54 games before being called up to the Leafs where he has been getting some NHL experience under his belt on the fourth line.
Whether Johnsson is with the Leafs or the Marlies for their playoffs is to be determined. The Leafs wings are crowded. Even ignoring Josh Leivo sitting out there somewhere, there’s a lot of veterans on the roster, and not a lot of slots available. However, Johnsson has appeared to quickly earn Mike Babcock’s trust to play his role well, being called “effective each and every night” by the coach.
Ben Smith - the experienced veteran
Ben Smith is the highest selection at the draft of these three players, but still chosen all the way back in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. Turning 30 in the coming off-season, he is one of the Marlies players with the most NHL experience under his belt. His 237 regular season NHL games include time with the Leafs, Sharks, Avalanche, and most notably the Blackhawks where he played with them through to the Western Conference Final in 2014.
Smith is an integral part of the Marlies leadership group and has obviously embraced the role of mentor to his many younger teammates. Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe took some time to appoint a captain this season, saying he wanted to step back and “let things evolve and take place as it’s going to naturally” in the locker room. Smith was the one who naturally took those reins, and was named captain in January.
The importance of his scoring to the team this season shouldn’t be understated. He leads the Marlies with 27 goals in 70 games played. It’s a bit behind Johnsson on a goals per game basis, but still impressive and puts him near the top of the whole AHL.
For the record, ex-Marlies defenceman T.J. Brennan, now with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, also made the second team. That’s a lot of Marlies connections on a list of only twelve players considered best in their league. It’s a testament to how well stacked this team is off the ice as well as on it.