When the Marlies converged on Ricoh Coliseum for their lock room clean out day and end-of-year meetings with head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas, it was the end of the line for this year’s group of players.
In the American Hockey League, more than in the NHL, everything has a shelf life. For this year’s Marlies, that’s more true after a second round exit to the Syracuse Crunch than it was a year earlier. Last season, when the Marlies closed out their record-setting campaign, the team was broken up if only by its large graduating class. Those who left the team, predominantly, did so because they were staying in the organization to join the Leafs.
This year, that wasn’t the case. This was the end for the vast majority of these players.
There are still a handful of players who will surely be back, but for the rest all that looms is uncertainty.
Kasperi Kapanen finished a hugely “positive year” and he’s likely bound for the NHL.
“I’m excited to see what I can do next year,” he said, standing outside the Marlies locker room. “I feel more experienced and I feel like I’m an older guy but I’m pretty young on the team. This is a big summer for me.”
For Kapanen, it was a transformative year, one where Keefe tasked him to become a more well-rounded player. By year’s end, he was a regular on the team’s penalty kill. And that says something.
“I’d never killed a penalty in my life (before this year),” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know what to think of it this year but I got the hang of it and started liking it. But any time you put me on the ice, whether it’s a 5-on-3 (for the other team) I’m still trying to score.”
Andreas Johnsson, one of the Keefe’s favourites in the back half of the season, will also be back with the Marlies next season if he doesn’t graduate to the NHL. But he didn’t know where he stood at the start of the season after a concussion ended his brief run with the Marlies last May.
“It was nice to have a lot of time to work and not be thinking too much about having an injury,” Johnsson said, adding that he worked hard to develop his two-way game so that he could play in the NHL next season. “I was struggling before in the defensive zone a lot. It was small rink and my timing was pretty bad. I finally feel like I got in touch with that and I feel much better.”
Carl Grundstrom, too, after getting a taste of the AHL in a brief stint in the playoffs, is feeling comfortable and looking forward to being back next season.
“The system is very clear, crystal clear, so it was easy for me to come in here and learn it quickly,” he said.
There are only so many Kapanens and Johnssons and Grundstroms though.
Brendan Leipsic, arguably the Marlies’ best player, doesn’t even know where he stands in the organization (he’s a restricted free agent now that the year is done). He could be back with the Marlies. He could earn a job full-time with the Leafs. He could be in Vegas, if he’s plucked in the expansion draft.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t read some of the stuff on Twitter (about the expansion draft). It’s going to be an interesting summer. There’s going to be a lot that happens, a lot of movement. There’s 12 more forward jobs for everybody,” he said. “I feel like I’m close (to being ready for the NHL). I feel like I made some strides with my two-way game.”
Kerby Rychel has one year left on his contract. He started the year slow but finished the second half of the season playing at a nearly point per game pace, which should make him another option for a team like Vegas.
“Everyone believes they can be (in the NHL) but you can’t predict the future. Next year is a big year for myself and a couple of other guys on the team. You’re not trying to think about [expansion] too much during the season but it’s the offseason now and a lot of things can happen,” Rychel said.
A few months ago, Kasimir Kaskisuo was sitting on an ECHL bus after they hit a deer. When he was called up to the Marlies near the end of the season, he expected it to be for just one game. He played 17. By the time the season was over, he was the team’s starting goalie.
“It was a roller coaster season for me,” Kaskisuo, who took a step up the ladder and surpassed Antoine Bibeau down the stretch, said. “It probably wasn’t what I wanted when the season started.”
It’s not easy, playing in the ECHL. In Orlando, Kaskisuo didn’t even have a goalie coach. Piero Greco, the Marlies’ goalie coach, would only visit once a month. It wasn’t until he worked with him full time with the Marlies that he felt his game come together — he understands his sub-.900 save percentage with the Solar Bears wasn’t strong.
“There was no one else there. With goaltending, you don’t want a guy to be around if he doesn’t know what he’s doing because he might pull you in the wrong direction,” Kaskisuo said. “You kind of see all aspects of hockey down there. It’s not always the best circumstances. There’s a lot of travel. A lot is being thrown at you. Sometimes the games can get out of hand. There’s a lot that can happen in that league. We’re treated like kings up here with the Marlies.”
But a year from now, Kaskisuo may be in limbo too. Garret Sparks took the same path, the one through the Orlando Solar Bears. Now he’s a restricted free agent for the second time in his young career.
Sparks, hailed as the team’s regular season MVP by Keefe, was forced out of the Marlies playoff run after a string of injuries.
“He (Keefe) also said that ‘you can be as good as you want but if you’re not healthy you’re no good to your team’ and that impacted me a lot,” Sparks said. “When you have your coach say that you’re the most valuable part of the team, there’s 20 other guys and an organization that relies on you. I wouldn’t put this as a crowning jewel season. I’ve been here four years. It’s all I know. I’m not one to rock the boat. I love being here. I don’t know what’s going to happen, I haven’t talked to anybody.”
The Marlies’ two most prominent veteran leaders, captain Andrew Campbell and Rich Clune, could also be at the end of their path with the Leafs organization. The pair are unrestricted free agents.
“Things didn’t go my way at the beginning. The veteran problem kind of lingered all season. But I’m happy with the way I progressed. Whatever happens, I just roll with it. I don’t make excuses,” Clune said.
He’ll try to “get outside of my head” by doing some service work and finishing up a mental health short film he’s producing (Clune studies film in his spare time) before getting back to training two or three times a day before camp next season. He wants to be back, but he knows this season may have been his last with the Leafs organization.
“This environment they’ve created here, and Kyle Dubas has spearheaded it, I love coming to work every day. I’m a Toronto boy. I have a work ethic as good as anybody’s. I feel great. I just turned 30 and I literally feel better than I did when I was 25,” he said.
When Campbell was named captain, he knew his path to the Leafs wasn’t his focus anymore. But now his path with the Marlies is murky too.
“I would for sure (like to be back). I grew up a huge fan of the organization and it’s close to home and definitely at the top of my list for sure,” Campbell said. “I know what my role is. I’m an older player in this league and I’ve been around for a while. A large part of my responsibility is to help those (young) guys develop and be a mentor for them and that’s something I take a lot of pride in doing and it’s something I enjoy doing.”
Some of them will be back. Some of them won’t. Others will graduate. Either way, the Marlies’ current core won’t be intact next fall.