Earlier this week, the Toronto Maple Leafs traded Josh Leivo to the Vancouver Canucks for Michael Carcone. Part of this was in fairness to the player, part of this likely war-room politicking, but the most direct reasoning for it was because the return of William Nylander put the Leafs above the 23-man roster size limit.
In the American Hockey League, that limit does not exist. As such, the trade – and the subsequent butterfly effect of Leivo pushing Sam Gagner back down to his unique AHL loan, means that the Toronto Marlies now have 28 players on their roster – or nearly half a team scratched every night.
This is pretty normal in the final stretch of the season, as struggling NHL teams send back their kids for the Calder Cup playoffs and prospects make their way from completed junior seasons via Amateur Tryouts. But in December? Seventeen forwards, eight defencemen, and three goalies isn’t a normal group to carry. It’s even less normal when there aren’t very many clear “shouldn’t be here” guys that can be chopped down.
|Adam Brooks||Emerson Clark||Morgan Klimchuk|
|Adam Cracknell||Griffen Molino||Pierre Engvall|
|Carl Grundstrom||Jeremy Bracco||Richard Clune|
|Chris Mueller||Josh Jooris||Sam Gagner|
|Colin Greening||Mason Marchment||Trevor Moore|
|Dmytro Timashov||Michael Carcone|
|Andreas Borgman||Jordan Subban||Timothy Liljegren|
|Calle Rosen||Rasmus Sandin||Vincent LoVerde|
|Frank Corrado||Sam Jardine|
|Eamon McAdam||Kasimir Kaskisuo||Jeff Glass|
Some temporary relief comes to this group in less-than-ideal circumstances in the form of injury; Adam Cracknell has been out for the past few games (though is expected to return very shortly), and Timothy Liljegren was hurt on Saturday (with no firm timeline on his return as of yet). That still leaves you with six or seven healthy scratches, though, so where do you go from there?
The first place to look is likely at your AHL deals; players that you aren’t necessarily keeping around for NHL aspirations. In Toronto’s case, this covers six players – Emerson Clark, Frank Corrado, Griffen Molino, Jeff Glass, Rich Clune, and Sam Jardine. Clune is the easiest one to sort out here; as a de-facto player/coach who didn’t draw in until mid-November to begin with, his lineup spot appears to be his cherry on top rather than a priority. You also expect that Frank Corrado has earned his roster spot, given Sheldon Keefe’s usage of him on a nightly basis over the past few weeks, including on the penalty kill and in protective minutes.
After that, though, it gets muddy. Jardine, Molino, Clark, and Glass aren’t going to make the every-day roster, so you can just send them to the Growlers, right? Not every player wants that though, given how the ECHL is seen as a bit of a reputational death sentence still – something the Leafs organization wants to change via Newfoundland, but a present issue nonetheless. Molino has never played there, Glass hasn’t played there since 2006, and Clark is at the age where he probably doesn’t want that part-season tag attached to him. Jardine would probably take the demotion the easiest – he’s been a regular down there throughout this career to date and has been healthy scratched in 18 of Toronto’s 21 games.
There is also the issue of Glass working to rehab his game back to decency, after coming out of the gate with a career-worst 0.849 save percentage in 10 games. Should he do that and get back up to speed, that makes things a bit easier, as Eamon McAdam would head down to his initially expected spot with the Growlers.
Perhaps a route to look at with Clark and/or Molino is an AHL trade. The Marlies don’t really need an aggressor like Clark with players like Clune and Mason Marchment around (Toronto is dead last in the league in fighting majors – their only scrap comes from Clark), while Molino’s role as a smooth-skating two-way forward that can kill penalties was upgraded upon with the Andrew Nielsen for Morgan Klimchuk deal. A deal that works may be hard to come by though; none of the league’s well-performing goaltenders are on AHL-only deals, and that’s the only area of immediate need. These could just be loans or future considerations deals that you make as a solid to the players and to alleviate some crunch.
Another option would be to make an NHL deal, perhaps cashing out players that you don’t think will eclipse their current value. One guy I wonder about here is Jeremy Bracco; his point production looks solid (15 in 21 games), but rank behind seven regular skaters in per-60 rates, his 53.8% Corsi-For is solid on the surface but 3% below what the team posts with him off the ice, most of his frequent linemates have had better luck driving play away from him than with him, and does all this with the highest ratio of offensive zone starts on the team. Beyond all that, I just wonder if there are too many similarly young wingers ahead of him in the depth chart, especially given how fast the Leafs have become and his lack of a top gear. A team that sees his counting numbers, his age, and his prior pedigree might be willing to see him as a decent chip still. Dmytro Timashov could also fall into this bracket at some point.
Jordan Subban might be another one to keep an eye on here – I think he’s been excellent for the Marlies in sheltered situations and gives life to their inconsistent powerplay with his love for shooting the puck, but the coaching staff don’t appear to have much trust in him, which unfortunately for the undersized 23-year-old has been par for the course. His saving grace comes with the World Juniors; Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin will soon be heading to BC for a few weeks of international hockey, which should give him time to show what he’s capable of.
The last pathway comes with resting veterans, which I’m not quite sure the team is comfortable with doing right now. Colin Greening and Vincent LoVerde are the team’s de-facto co-captains and play heavy penalty kill and lead protection minutes, with LoVerde also being tasked with helping groom Sandin’s game. Truth be told, though, neither has had a great year; almost every line with Greening on it has been shelled (he’s a worst-among-regulars 45.6% CF, -13% Rel, with just 7 points to match), and LoVerde has been a similar drag on possession, remaining in the green (52.6%) but conceding shots at a higher rate than any other defenceman, while not contributing much offensively. I really wonder if the lineup could be made more talented by having them on the list of players that get rotated in and out, but don’t expect to be able to find out.
The good news, though, is that these are all good problems. For an American League team to have 28 players that they mostly feel comfortable with playing, including players who would be on some teams’ NHL bubbles on their fourth line and third pair, is certainly an impressive feat. It’s a testament to why the team has been able to score so many goals and control the flow of games, really only being held back by their 30th-ranked 0.867 save percentage. Once that sorts out and they figure out who their most regular group of 20 is, they’ll be in solid shape.