In 2020-2021, there were AHL games, but no real playoffs. The schedule was short, with huge challenges, and the purpose became just getting in some games for the players left in North America. Many of the career AHL stars left for Europe, a trend that has continued.
The top three players by points on the Marlies last year were: Kalle Kossila, who is now with Jokerit in the KHL; Tyler Gaudet, who is with Grizzlys Wolfsburg in the DEL; and Kenny Agostino, who is with Torpedo in the KHL.
The AHL in general has gotten younger over the years, and the Marlies have, for years, embraced the philosophy that the team is for development, not a parking garage for veteran call-ups. As the Maple Leafs have looked to younger and younger callup options, they’ve discovered the downside is that if they don’t ever call them up, they leave like Agostino did.
This year, the Maple Leafs and the Marlies have worked hard to find free agent junior graduates to add to the team instead of focusing just on NHL-ready players. They have a young team, and while not every young player is an NHL prospect, the focus for those players is maximizing their own career potential, and that might mean a move to the KHL at some point. While they are in Toronto, they have things to achieve both personally and as a team, which is one reason why the AHL is more exciting than ever. Toronto is not the only team that uses this philosophy.
This isn’t a new Marlies system, it’s the old one from before the pandemic but after the NHL prospect ranks had dwindled. This year’s team might just be one of the best we’ve ever seen that didn’t have William Nylander on it. The team is going to look like it’s overstuffed, but in the AHL, that problem sorts itself out quickly with players moving to the ECHL and the sometimes punishing road schedule requiring games off.
The Marlies almost had a goaltending disaster before the season began, but when Michael Hutchinson (free agent) cleared waivers, it was suddenly a lot less of a problem that both Joe Woll (3rd round, 2016) and Ian Scott (4th round, 2017) are still injured and on the NHL roster.
One of the biggest areas of tension in the AHL between development and winning is that often the young developing goalie isn’t very good. Hutchinson, who has been labelled “bad” in the binary way goalies are evaluated in the NHL is, like most players, of variable effect depending on the league he’s in. His career AHL save percentage is .920 over 174 games. He has been an AHL starter to NHL backup for years, showing a decent level of consistency in the AHL. At 31, he’s hardly old, and he should be a good veteran to hold the fort until someone else is healthy enough to play more. Of course this depends on the NHL goalies staying healthy, which seems like it might be difficult this year.
Joining him will be Erik Källgren (free agent), an SHL goalie who hasn’t shown the kinds of results anyone should be mistaking for NHL-level. Källgren is 25, and has a very small amount of North American experience from 2019. Like a lot of goalies his age, he hasn’t played much as he’d moved from league to league as a backup. He hasn’t topped 25 appearances since his last year in the Allsvenskan at 22. To offset these workload concerns, expect to see a lot of goalies move through the team, including the ECHL-bound Keith Petruzzelli (AHL contract) and the eventually healthy Woll.
The Growlers signed Evan Cormier to an ECHL deal, so he would need an upgrade to come up, but if Woll’s injury is long term, or Hutchinson has to spend serious time on the Leafs, something has to be done.
Timothy Liljegren (1st round, 2017) will likely play in both the NHL and the AHL this season, and when he’s on the Marlies, he’s the uncontested number one defender. When he’s not there, that mantle falls to Alex Biega (free agent), who might also fill in on the Leafs occasionally. At 33, he’s one of the oldest players on the team, and should look too good for the AHL.
Carl Dahlström (free agent), Teemu Kivihalme (free agent) and Brennan Menell (trade for rights) make up a middle rank of experienced defenders in their mid-twenties, they should be the backbone of the defence who move up and down as needed. Kristians Rubins (free agent), who is only 23, likely fits in this category too. He will be gone for the Olympic break, however.
The mass of younger prospects will be contesting for that top pairing job when Liljegren and/or Biega are absent. And they’ve got their work cut out for them. Some of them might see time in the ECHL just to get in game action They are:
- Joe Duszak (free agent)
- Filip Král (5th round, 2018)
- Mac Hollowell (4th round, 2018)
Most of the large handful of defenders on AHL deals will head for the Growlers, but there will be recalls.
While the defence is solid and experienced, with the youth wing not that young anymore, the forwards are where the hot prospects and the fun will be found on this team. The top six should be so littered with skill, some of the best players will be playing on lower lines:
- Nick Robertson (2nd round, 2019)
- Mikhail Abramov (4th round, 2019)
- Semyon Der-Arguchintsev (3rd round, 2018)
- Pavel Gogolev (free agent)
- Alex Steeves (free agent) - currently injured and on the NHL roster
Additional experience comes from:
- Josh Ho-Sang (AHL)
- Joey Anderson (trade)
- Brett Seney (free agent)
- Antti Suomela (AHL)
Some additional oomph can come from Kirill Semyonov (free agent), who will likely play some NHL, and Michael Amadio (free agent), who may not play the entire season with the Leafs.
If that’s not enough, this team now has Rich Clune (Marlies institution and captain once again) and Kurtis Gabriel (free agent), two former NHL tough guys, who both have an AHL game that’s valuable in a depth role.
Then there’s the players on AHL deals who look AHL-ready, not ECHLers:
- Curtis Douglas
- Marc Michaelis
- Jack Kopacka
A lot of the better AHL forwards will end up in Newfoundland because of a numbers game, and if that team gets good goaltending, they have to be a favourite for a return to the top of the ECHL after a year off. Some of those players may see recalls when injuries hit.
And if all of that is still not enough for you, the door is open for players like Pontus Holmberg (6th round, 2018), Mikko Kokkonen (3rd round, 2019), Braeden Kressler (undrafted free agent) and Ty Voit (5th round 2021) to join the Marlies in the spring.
This forward group is so drenched in talent that can compete at the highest level in the AHL, it really doesn’t matter how you arrange them. The defence is lacking a star if Liljegren is in the NHL, but it’s quality all the way down. The only weakness might be in net, but that is — in the AHL — a very fixable problem.
The reality is, however, that this is an AHL star lineup. There is not a great deal of NHL potential here, although there is some. This might be a team that wins like that team did in 2015-2016, but it isn’t going to graduate all those NHLers. This is a different sort of quality, the kind a financially sound team that values its minor leagues can create even if there’s not a first-round pick in the bunch.
The Marlies begin play on Saturday afternoon during the AHL Live free weekend, and tickets are usually available for games at good prices.