Earlier today, Toronto Marlies play-by-play voice Todd Crocker asked his followers on Twitter who they would put on an all-decade team for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate. It’s a very niche question, but one I was very excited to see asked, because it made me realize I was not alone in chasing this curious thought.
A few days prior, I had an idea for writing a post on the topic here, shelled out a rough mental list, but then decided there wouldn’t be enough interest. Crock (who obviously voices this game – no disrespect to John Bartlett and Jon Abbott before him) brought me back to the drawing board, and I’m pretty happy with the result.
With this team, I aimed to avoid a simple answer. The easy thing to do would have been to go with the 20 players who ended up having the most NHL pedigree, but that feels more like a top graduates list. I wanted a mixture of players who went on to do big things, and players who made their mark on the team while they were with them.
I also wanted to make sure that the whole decade got some love. I feel like this might be something I can do a little better than most, having covered the team in an unofficial capacity since 2009 and an official capacity since 2012. While you don’t need to have that experience to do the research and have a valid opinion, this at least mitigates some of the witness bias, as I can speak to having seen everyone in this group consistently, and in person. It was important to be able to get a blend of the three biggest peaks of the decade – the 2012 Western Conference Champions, the 2016 team that put up one of the best regular-season records in AHL history, and the 2018 team that won the Eastern Conference and the team’s first Calder Cup.
If we want to extend this to the box and the bench, Kyle Dubas is the team’s GM, as he spent the most time in that role and the shift to being a developmental powerhouse happened under his watch. Sheldon Keefe is the head coach, as the team was its most successful under him, but Dallas Eakins joins the bench in honour of the turnaround he led at the start of the decade, and Gord Dineen takes the other spot as a coach who was an assistant under both Keefe and Eakins (and Steve Spott, who is, unfortunately, the odd man out here), and even had Dubas’ first full year (2014-15) to himself.
But the players are the main event here. Let’s get to them!
LW: Andreas Johnsson (2016-2018) // 158 GP 62 G 69 A 131 PTS
C: William Nylander (2014-2016) // 94 GP 39 G 52 A 91 PTS
RW: Ben Smith (2016, 2017-2018) // 113 GP 40 G 50 A 90 PTS
We’ll start with three players who represent the biggest, most recent peaks of the franchise – I’ve done my best here to link players up from overlapping age pockets.
On the left side is Andreas Johnsson, who started his time with the Marlies in the scariest way possible – the victim of a dirty hit that restricted his basic functions for months following, nearly ending his North American dreams before they started.
But Johnsson rallied, playing all but one game the following season and picking up a very respectable 47 points. His point-per-game pace the following year was enough to make him the top candidate for a call up to the Leafs at the end of the year, and if it would have all ended there, he’d still have a good shot at this list. What catapults him up, though, was the unfinished business he took care of after the Leafs were eliminated in 2018. With NHL lessons learned, Johnsson went nuclear in his encore, scoring 10 goals and 14 assists in the playoffs to earn himself Calder Cup MVP honours en route to a championship.
At centre is William Nylander, who represents probably the best peak of a player the Marlies have seen. Nylander joined the team midway through 2014/15 amid concerns about the stability of his SHL team, and despite being only in his Draft+1 season, playing on a new continent, with new ice dimensions and new teammates, put up 32 points in 37 games to close out the year.
The next season was even better, scoring 45 points in 38 games – especially impressive when you consider that he missed time to go to the World Juniors, suffered a serious concussion just two shifts into the tournament, had appendicitis right afterwards, and then lost any chance at getting closer to a full year because, well, he caught back up and got called up to the Leafs. As the marquee prospect on the all-time best regular-season Marlies team, he gets the nod at centre – a position that he used to spend a lot of time playing.
On the right-wing is Ben Smith, who had two tours of duty with the team. His first was a late-season addition to the stacked 2015/16 team mentioned above, coming to the team as part of the James Reimer to San Jose trade. He picked up 15 points in 20 regular season and playoff games, before heading to the Avalanche in free agency.
A pretty uneventful run, but Smith rejoined the Marlies two years later. The route was unconventional – the Leafs claimed him on waivers just a month into his tenure with the Avalanche in search for a right-handed depth faceoff taker and then re-signed him at the end of the year because he helped them meet an expansion draft requirement.
This ended up being a blessing in disguise, as Smith ended up reporting to the Marlies for that contract year, won over the room as their captain, picked up 59 points in 73 games, and continued that pace into the post-season, leading the team to a championship.
LW: Ryan Hamilton (2010-2013) // 196 GP 74 G 61 A 135 PTS
C: Mike Zigomanis (2010-2013) // 219 GP 46 G 102 A 158 PTS
RW: Matt Frattin (2011-2013, 2014-2016) // 193 GP 75 G 61 A 136 PTS
Time to fire up the time machine! If Smith was the captain who pushed the team over the top for the first time, Ryan Hamilton was the one who brought them who first brought them to the edge. Hamilton joined the team in what seemed like a very minor trade in 2009 – and from an NHL sense it was, as neither he or Robbie Earl, who went to Minnesota, reached the 50 game mark.
But he did bring a noticeable jump in his step to a relatively slower (at the time) Marlies team, and he had a knack for getting to the net that he showed in his later years with the team. Hamilton replaced Alex Foster as Captain to start the 2011/12 season, and had his best year to date, scoring 25 goals and adding 26 assists in the regular season. The team went on to the Calder Cup Final, where they got swept by the historically good, future NHLer-filled Norfolk Admirals.
Hamilton stuck around for one more year – scoring 30 goals in 56 games in 2012/13, before following Eakins to the Oilers organization with Edmonton, Oklahoma City, and Bakersfield.
Mike Zigomanis’ Marlies tenure was nearly only a month long. In search of a place to play for the 2009/10 season, Zigomanis signed a PTO with the team, and while he didn’t pick up a goal in his seven games, had an insane 13 assists, enough to earn him interest in Sweden.
That was that until the next year, where Toronto was more willing to put money upfront, offering him an NHL two-way contract, that came with an AHL salary well above $200,000 – a common thing for the Marlies to do with veterans, but relatively unprecedented league-wide at the time. Toronto-born, Zigomanis was a fan favourite for the next three seasons, leading the team in points in both 2011 and 2012.
Last on this line is Matt Frattin, another player with two tours of duty with the franchise. His first came with insane promise – despite being yo-o’d up and down between the Leafs and Marlies rosters in 2011/12, he put up over half a goal per game with the AHL club in the games he did play in the regular season, potting 14 and adding 4 assists for 18 points in 23 games. The playoffs, however, were his true coming-out party, burying 10 tallies in the first three rounds (13 games) of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending knee injury after colliding with an empty net while scoring the last-dagger goal of the Western Conference Final – an injury that appeared to take a gear away from him moving forward.
All the same, his high-end shot and impressive offensive positioning electrified fans, he had one of the best playoff runs in franchise history, and even his second lap in 2014/15 and 2015/16 saw him bring solid middle-six depth – and hilariously, saw him continue to play with the team even after his contract was traded to the Senators. If that doesn’t win over your heart, nothing will.
LW: Jerry D’Amigo (2010-2014) // 280 GP 72 G 82 A 154 PTS
C: Byron Froese (2014-2017) // 103 GP 46 G 42 A 88 PTS
RW: Greg Scott (2010-2013) // 225 GP 54 G 66 A 120 PTS
In some alternate universe, Jerry “The Beard” D’Amigo is the captain of the Marlies for several years, solidifying himself into franchise lore beyond it’s longest-term fans. Such an outcome seemed like all but a guarantee after Hamilton left the team in 2013, as the then 22-year-old was the face of the team to its regular fans, and a respected member of the group within it.
The organization shied away from the move in our universe, and the logic makes sense – giving an AHL C to a prospect is often a death sentence, and it makes more sense to give the role to a player you expect to stay with the team for the long haul. However, D’Amigo has gone on to play just 31 NHL games, and now seems like he’ll be in Europe for the long haul. (Hilariously, the captain they did appoint, Trevor Smith, was almost immediately called up and played a total of just 46 games for the Marlies).
D’Amigo played more games for the Marlies than any forward in this decade, despite his last one coming in 2014. He was also one of team’s best-ever playoff performers, never topping 41 points in the regular season but contributing 36 points in 40 playoff games over three postseasons.
Byron Froese comes in closer to the lower end of Games Played for this list but makes up for that in both his ability on the ice and the fact that he represents the change of guard and mindset extremely well. Froese was one of the first additions to the team in the Kyle Dubas era – a gamble that he had familiarity with as his former agent, but still a gamble. To that point, Froese was written off as an offensive presence in the AHL, used in defensive roles by previous clubs despite strong point totals in junior and in the ECHL.
Toronto was in need of a kickstart, so Dubas looked to Froese’s hot start with Cincinnati (ECHL) and gave him a tryout deal. Things immediately clicked, to the tune of a near point-per-game season with the team, who catapulted from the bottom of the standings to a division title in no small part because of his contributions. This earned him an AHL deal midway through his tryout, and an NHL contract the following summer. Froese spent most of the next year with the Leafs, and returned to the Marlies for another productive year before being traded to Tampa in the Brian Boyle trade of 2017.
Froese’s biggest impacts come in turning a season around, and in setting a new precedent for “project players” – misfit toys from around the hockey world who had potential to be reinvented and re-presented. Froese went from a player who’s professional future was at risk to someone who accrued over 100 NHL games in the back half of the decade, and a AAAA asset in the AHL.
Possibly the deepest cut in this list is Greg Scott, who most of you will remember as, well, nothing at all. He wasn’t drafted by the Leafs, and never got a call up to the big club. His last game for the Marlies was in 2013. So why him?
For starters, he played a lot of hockey for the Marlies at the start of the decade – his 225 games played rank him 5th in the decade among forwards, and 3rd among forwards who were around before the Dubas-era overhaul of the team.
He was also a very unique player in his own right. Speedy, defensively sound, and yet not against taking off on his own, Scott was a very modern-era penalty killer before such forwards became more commonplace, teaming up with D’Amigo to create arguably the best counter-attack PK duo in the minors at the time. He was one of their most productive players in the 2013 playoffs, and peaked with a very solid 21-goal season on the 2011/12 team that went to the final. I felt it was a bit of a necessity to have at least one player on this team who was a Marlie through and through, and Scott was probably the most impactful of those who never even got a cup of coffee.
LW: Rich Clune (2015-Present) // 176 GP 19 G 27 A 46 PTS
C: Chris Mueller (2017-2019) // 166 GP 61 G 82 A 143 PTS
RW: Jeremy Bracco (2017-Present) // 173 GP 36 G 118 A 154 PTS
Rich Clune makes this list for a myriad of reasons, and they don’t all necessarily have to do with his on-ice performance. In fact, he has the weakest numbers on this list, and I can provide tons of players who have put up better boxcars in this decade.
The reality, though, is that Clune has been the heart and soul of this team since joining the organization on an AHL deal in the summer of 2015. It was a great arrangement for both sides. Clune, a few years fresh off of a new lease on life, got to be close to home and his family, and within the scenes he needed to be as he set roots for whatever came after hockey. The Leafs organization, on the other hand, were getting a player with the experience and intimidation of a grizzled veteran, but an actual age that didn’t veer too far away from the kids. They got a player who could teach not just hockey lessons, but lessons in the gym and in the real world as well. To top it all off, they got a player who could provide all this without a care in the world about what letter he wore, how many minutes he played, or how often he was in the lineup.
Make no mistake, though. They still thought there was a hockey player in there as well, and he confirmed their suspicions. Clune played well enough in 2015/16 to get an NHL deal to follow some of the kids up during their taste of the show, and when he was playing with the Marlies that year, averaged over half a point a game on a heavy, play driving line with Frederik Gauthier. In the playoffs, he scored the series winner against Albany, which remains one of the biggest goals in franchise history. Even this year, he scored goals in back to back games earlier this month, displaying immediate energy and awareness despite having drawn in fewer than 25 times in the past two seasons. He’s one of the last of the heavyweights out there, but he displays elements in his game that never leave him “out of place”. Even if he’s not the “best” Marlie of this decade, he might be the most revered.
I wrestled a bit with this spot, because there are so many ways you can go with the final centre role. Nazem Kadri being the first high-end forward prospect to play for the team regularly. Colin Greening playing out the end of his career here despite initially just arriving as a brief cap dump. Frederik Gauthier and Sam Carrick’s grinds towards being legitimate, NHL-worthy players.
I ended up, however, at Chris Mueller, for two monstrous runs of point production – one leading to a championship in 2017/18, and another leading to him scoring more goals than any Marlies forward since 2006. He was used as the high-leverage faceoff man for both years, and while I’m not a big “seek out the specialist” guy, having a reliable near-60% at the draw is huge (though he’d split duties with Zigomanis on this team).
This is a case of going for a peak rather than a total legacy, as Mueller’s two years were among the best runs of any player to put the sweater on. Combine that with a ring, and he gets to punch the ticket.
Finally, we have Jeremy Bracco on right wing. Now, a few of you might be surprised with this; I’m lower-than-the-curve on Bracco’s NHL upside, and I’ve passed over some great players here that I’m notably higher on.
But this isn’t about NHL upside, this is about what they’ve done with the Marlies, and it would be insane to not include Bracco on this list. He had the highest point, assist, and primary point seasons for a Marlies player in this decade last year. He’s lethal on the powerplay. He’s made many plays that, while they’d most likely be stopped by top-end NHLers, absolutely shred competition here.
He’s got twenty more primary assists than any Marlies player in this decade, and he joined the team in 2017/18. It’s bonkers. We’ll see where his future lies and what he can transfer to the league above if he ever gets the chance, but for now, he’s a no-brainer in terms of dynamic threats on this team over the past decade.
LD: TJ Brennan (2013-2016) // 198 GP 67 G 119 A 186 PTS
RD: Justin Holl (2015-2018) // 238 GP 24 G 60 A 84 PTS
You never knew on a given night whether TJ Brennan was going to be the best player on the ice, or the worst player on the ice. You knew that he was going to have direct responsibility for five goals on any given night, and there was no promises that four of those wouldn’t be goals against. He shot at approximately a zillion miles per hour, and he took as big of a share of the team’s shots on goal as Alex Ovechkin does on the Capitals.
Did I mention he was a defenceman? Did I mention that the Leafs acquired him on two non-consecutive occasions, but strung them together enough to have him on the Marlies for parts of three consecutive years? Did I mention that in the two years that he played mostly-full seasons, he won the Eddie Shore Award (the AHL Norris)?
Brennan was the ultimate risk-reward defenceman. Incredible offensive vision, not a ton of defensive awareness, an unbelievable shot, and below-average feet. To this day, I’m still not sure how much better he made the Marlies, but he made them more fun, was 4th in team goals in the decade (!!) and led the franchise in points in the 2010s (!!!). He’s a lock.
Also a lock is a player that Leafs Nation has finally had the opportunity to fall in love with, in Justin Holl. If Froese was the Beta Test for Dubas’ reclamation project machine, Holl was cleaned up, ready-to-launch retail product.
Holl, a 2010 second-round pick by Chicago, had four unexciting years in the NCAA, which led the Blackhawks only signing him to a one-year AHL deal, rather than an entry-level contract. Holl spent that year mostly playing for the Indy Fuel of the ECHL, where he averaged half a point per game. The Marlies scooped him up on an AHL deal the following summer.
While some claim Holl’s development of NHL capability to be recent (or else he would’ve played sooner), he showed promise nearly immediately, making himself a regular on the historically-good 2015/16 roster in pretty short order. By 2016/17, he was hovering at the top of the pile in a deep Toronto defensive corps, though the Leafs didn’t see room for him. By 2017/18, he was foundational – a relied upon force all the way to the final championship buzzer. Holl’s game, while not overly productive on the scoresheet, constantly helped high flying Marlies teams get the puck back up the ice and away from the net – which is all you should ask for out of a defenceman, right?
LD: Calle Rosen (2017-2019) // 139 GP 17 G 63 A 80 PTS
RD: Vincent LoVerde (2017-2019) // 164 GP 12 G 30 A 42 PTS
If someone besides Brennan was going to win an Eddie Shore for the Marlies in this decade, it was going to be Rosen last year. After a 2017/18 season where we saw the Swedish signing blossom from a player not as close to the NHL as expected into the team’s top defenceman in the Calder Cup Final, Rosen’s encore was a 46 point in 54 game effort that saw him contribute to the score sheet while still being one of the team’s most relied-upon players in the defensive zone, and one of their most fleet-of-foot when it was time to switch zones.
In an all-around sense, it was probably the best all-around season a Marlies defenceman has ever had and showed the immense value in the team’s recent emphasis on individual skill training. I’d say his calendar year of 2018 would be the A+ on a grading curve for player development stories with instant impacts.
Rosen did have some help along the way, though. His partner in crime for that 2018 run was a defenceman who had seen a few things in his AHL career, having played the previous five years in the Los Angeles Kings organization, including three years as a captain in Manchester and Ontario. He had found his game as a not-quite NHLer, but higher-end two-way defenceman in this league, with obvious leadership capabilities.
That sounded good to the Marlies, who saw a right-shot defenceman that they could use in any zone or situation should they need to, and a good add to their leadership group. They perhaps weren’t sure at the time who he’d take under his wing, but he ended up as the steading defensive presence and tutor for two young Swedish partners – Rosen, mentioned above, and Rasmus Sandin in the year that followed.
While he was only here for two years, and started to decline as his second progressed, he was a key piece of the Calder Cup-winning team and made a noticeable impact on two positively-developed partners. That gets him in for me.
LD: Jake Gardiner (2011-2013) // 74 GP 12 G 35 A 47 PTS
RD: Korbinian Holzer (2010-2015) // 302 GP 13 G 69 A 82 PTS
I felt like this d-corps needed a short-lived star, much like the forwards have Nylander. If I wasn’t accounting for handedness, I may have gone for Mike Kostka, as he both lives in Marlies infamy (the stanchion goal for Norfolk), and fame (signing with them and putting up 34 points in 34 games in 2013).
But no, let’s go with Jake Gardiner. Gardiner is a weirder case of a high-end prospect being on the team than, say, Nylander and Kadri along their way up the ranks, or Morgan Rielly’s run after his junior season ended. Gardiner’s trajectory was different.
First, he was in for a taste – after the Leafs signed him in 2011, he played 10 games with the Marlies, who’s season was much less off-a-cliff than their parent club’s was. The next season, he spent nearly entirely with the Leafs, before joining the club as a mercenary for the 2012 playoff run.
Then, the lockout came about, giving him a few more months of AHL reps. But that would be it, right? Not exactly – a slow start and injuries meant that he didn’t stick with the Leafs for the full year, getting sent back for a few more weeks to figure himself out before re-joining them ahead of the playoffs. That was it, though – from 2013/14 on he was an NHLer, but left behind some strong point totals and a good playoff run with the Marlies.
On the other side is a player who I’m convinced would have been a much bigger deal, had he been born about 10 or 15 years earlier. Korbinian Holzer was drafted by the Leafs in 2006 out of Germany, and was a big, bruising right-handed defenceman who always made you aware of his presence when you were in his zone.
After three more years in the German system, Holzer flew over and joined the Marlies. None of us had much of an idea of what to expect, but he drew in for all but three games in his rookie year, got a two-game taste with the Leafs, and left everyone cautiously optimistic that Toronto may have found themselves a stay at home defenceman.
Over his sophomore year, Holzer established himself as the Marlies’ go-to right-handed defenceman – particularly after the Leafs acquired Mark Fraser to play with him. At that point, they became the absolute shutdown pair down the stretch, leading the team to their first Calder Cup Final.
Now, how good were they really? Honestly, I don’t know, and if I had to guess with hindsight, the answer is probably “not very” – both Fraser and Holzer were in and around prime age at the time, and the NHL results that have followed for them are pretty terrible analytically. But this was at a time where we were still starting to grasp the data, and the majority of the hockey community saw stay-at-home defencemen and pairs as necessities and game-breakers at that moment.
So that’s the thing with Holzer. If his 21-year-old clone joins the organization now, I don’t know that he makes the Growlers. But he snuck in at just the right time, did what we all thought was the right thing to do at the time, and we loved him for it. Eakins loved him enough to secure him a future in the Ducks organization when he moved in that direction. Now Holzer will probably cross 200 games this year. Good for him.
Starter: Garret Sparks (2013-2018) // 148 GP, 97-36-5, 18 SO 0.925 SV%
Backup: Ben Scrivens (2010-2013) // 111 GP, 53-40-0, 11 SO 0.925 SV%
Lastly, we have the goaltenders. Honestly, this was the easiest part of building this team. Who were the three starters for the three peaks? Oh, it was only two guys? Perfect! Who leads the team in X stat? Oh, those two? Wonderful!
Garret Sparks gets the start here. His journey was one of the wackiest of anyone to play for the team – up and down between the Marlies, Solar Bears (ECHL), and Leafs in spurts throughout his first three seasons (four if you include his ATO year) of his time with the team. One day he was effectively separated from the organization in Orlando. The next he was making Leafs history. The next he was the Marlies backup, and then the starter, and then there were a bunch of injuries mixed in.
Sparks seemed to find his groove in 2016/17, splitting time with Antoine Bibeau and playing all 31 of his games with one team, along with proving his 0.928 save percentage the year prior wasn’t a fluke by putting up a still-elite 0.922. But the season that followed was what really changed things for him. While backup Calvin Pickard initially appeared to be an incoming threat to his minutes, the two ended up bonding and the results especially helped Sparks, who posted a historically good 0.936 SV% in the regular season and was the backbone of their Calder Cup run, culminating in a dominant Game 7 performance that video review critics will still argue should’ve been a shutout.
Backing him up is the other super-starter in Ben Scrivens. Originally set to start for the Reading Royals in 2011, James Reimer’s thrust to the NHL spotlight left a spot open with the Marlies, and Scrivens inched from 1B to 1A over the course of a stellar rookie season, where he posted a 13-12-5 record with two shutouts and a 0.924 save percentage. Suddenly, the “free wallet” signing out of Cornell from a year prior was looking pretty good.
Scrivens followed a great rookie year up with an even better sophomore year, playing over half of Toronto’s games and bringing two shutouts to four, and a 0.924 save percentage up to a 0.926. If Sparks’ 2017/18 was the best regular-season performance for a Marlies goalie, Scrivens’ 2011/12 was the peak for a goaltender, even if it didn’t lead to the prize at the end. Scrivens finished the playoffs with an 11-6-0 record (including getting swept in the finals), three shutouts and a 0.935 save percentage, and was the sole reason why Toronto was able to keep Games 1 and 3 close.
Scrivens would play 22 more games for the Marlies in the lockout-shortened 2012/13 season, keeping his averages high, but ultimately heading to the NHL loop for the next few years to follow.
As part of my process for picking these teams, I split the selection process into two groups – a 2010-2014/15 group, and a 2015/16-Present Group. Here they are, without explanation, if you’d like to see them too. Eventually, I picked half and half from each team for the final product.
Up To 2014/15
Ryan Hamilton – Mike Zigomanis – Matt Frattin
Jerry D’Amigo – Byron Froese – Greg Scott
Greg McKegg – Nazem Kadri – Spencer Abbott
Josh Leivo – Joe Colborne – Sam Carrick
TJ Brennan – Korbinian Holzer
Stuart Percy – Simon Gysbers
Jake Gardiner – Mike Kostka
2015/16 And Beyond
Andreas Johnsson – William Nylander – Ben Smith
Trevor Moore – Adam Brooks – Mason Marchment
Colin Greening – Chris Mueller – Jeremy Bracco
Rich Clune – Frederik Gauthier – Nikita Soshnikov
Travis Dermott – Justin Holl
Calle Rosen – Vincent LoVerde
Rasmus Sandin – Timothy Liljegren
What Do You Think?
That’s my list – what’s yours? If you want to respond to Todd’s original tweet, you can do so here. Tag me (@jeffveillette or @faceoffcircleca) as well so I can have a chance to see what you’ve got!