Category: Around the AHL

Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

May 12, 2020

AHL makes the correct call by cancelling remainder of 2019/20 season 

While everyone figured that the American Hockey League would ultimately throw in its towel and cancel the 2019/20 season, the league held its cards to their chest for a surprisingly lengthy amount of time – until Monday. Yesterday morning, the AHL confirmed the inevitable and ended its year via a press release from President and CEO David Andrews:

“After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions.

The League’s operational focus has turned toward actively preparing for the 2020-21 season.

We are very grateful to the National Hockey League and its teams for their support and leadership in navigating through the challenges faced over the past two months.

The AHL continues to place paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff and fans and all of their families, and we all look forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-21.”

The news comes several weeks after most lower-level leagues have made their announcements, but well ahead of any concrete steps have been announced by the National Hockey League about a resumption at the highest level. Given the immense risks that there still are in having a fully functioning society during this COVID-19 crisis, it was unlikely that the league would be able to come back in it’s full, in-person and in-market form any time soon.

Due to the broadcasting deals, merchandise sales, and other non-gate streams of revenue, combined with the greater average capital of the ownership groups, the NHL can afford to take a hit on the rest of the season to release itself in an altered form that sacrifices tradition and revenue for an attempt at continuity – this likely means an abbreviated season with an expanded playoff. AHL teams typically don’t carry the same value, don’t have as much financial support from their ownership groups, and their revenue is heavily dependant on home crowds on game day.

Simply put, there would be little to no chance that a non-NHL league would be able to finish their season without a notable operating loss, and while some teams could handle that, most can’t. Even the pause could end up doing enough financial damage to cause teams to suspend for the upcoming year or fold entirely – this decision to cancel the season and look forward to 2020/21 isn’t the final step in his battle.

Here in Toronto, the Marlies are one of the few teams who come away relatively unscathed by the news, as the team is officially part of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment umbrella and, while there isn’t a green light to burn through money, the team does operate with a residual benefit mindset rather than a purely profitable one. The team put out a statement yesterday morning to go with the league’s statement, offering a peek into the franchise’s plans and offering refunds to fans who still had remaining games on their ticket schedule:

As the American Hockey League’s Board of Governors voted to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 AHL regular season and the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, the Toronto Marlies management and coaching staff will now shift their planning and preparation towards a return to play for the 2020-21 season. Select Marlies players will join the Maple Leafs roster if permitted by the National Hockey League’s resumption of play protocol.

Fans who hold tickets to any of the unplayed games remaining on the 2019-20 schedule will be contacted by a representative from the Marlies ticketing team to receive a full refund or the option to move credit to the 2020-21 season. For more information, please visit or call 416-597-PUCK (7825).

The Marlies likely don’t have much to be stressed about in terms of “what ifs” for the rest of the year, given what has been one of their more disappointing regular seasons in recent history. The pipelining of young talent up to the NHL, along with coaching changes, chemistry issues, and a few disappointing additions to the lineups had led to a season that already looked destined to be Toronto’s first out of the playoff picture since 2010/11 – their 29-27-3-2 record wasn’t all that bad, but good for just 7th place in a deep North Division. A less pandemic-filled parallel universe would have required a dominant, near undefeated run to cap off the final 15 games – something that a 3-7 record in their final ten games indicated to be unlikely.

Besides the teams that are going to have to worry about finances from here, there are a few groups that one can’t help but feel let down for. Teams like the Milwaukee Admirals, Tuscon Roadrunners and Belleville Senators were in the midst of big leaps forward this season. The San Antonio Rampage are moving at the end of this year to the Henderson, Nevada area for 2020-21, and didn’t get to give their fans a proper goodbye after 18 seasons in town. Perhaps most notably around the league, Andrews sees his last season as President and CEO come to an unwelcome ending. Andrews, who has been at the helm since 1994, is one of the most respected league leaders in all of professional sport, and has been vital to the health of the AHL over the past few years. This year was announced early in this season to be his last, and instead of getting a victory lap, we get an abrupt end – hopefully the AHL finds a way to give him a proper send-off next season, even if he’ll have already moved on.

According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the expectation is that NHL teams that will be participating in the expanded playoffs will carry larger, 30+ player rosters that include many players on their affiliates. It’ll be very interesting to see which players each team chooses to bring with them. For example – will they prefer to call up veterans who could help in the event of injuries, or will they be focusing on giving their kids more time at the rink? Will they take into account travel, and allow some out-of-continent talent to stay home? A lot of this is still fluid and needs to be sorted out.

For now, though, the focus remains on next year, and that’s the right call. Frankly, I think that might be the best at all levels, though I can understand the eagerness for the top-level leagues to return and entertain the masses. As much as I am a passionate supporter of what the AHL does, though, it’s not big enough to carry a morale boost for returning early in an altered form, and the consequences of doing so would have been more harmful to the league’s health than helpful.

May 12, 2020 5 views 0


Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

April 6, 2020

Marlies restock prospect cupboards with four signings 

In a time where there is so much uncertainty around the very status of the sport, the Maple Leafs organization continues to navigate it’s depth chart like it’s business as usual. In a sense, it is – hockey will be there for us eventually, and when that happens, you want to be prepared, and you want the players you’re bringing in to have a feeling of security heading into wherever the future places us.

That all goes to say, the Toronto Marlies have restocked on prospects over the weekend. The Leafs’ AHL affiliate announced the signing of two NCAA captains in Bobby McMann and Gordie Green on Thursday, and Major Junior prospects Noel Hoefenmayer and Jeremy McKenna on Saturday. All four players were signed to two-year contracts.

McMann, a 23-year-old centre from Wainwright, Alberta, played his junior hockey in the AJHL (Junior A in the CJHL umbrella), putting up 129 points in 152 games with the Bonnyville Pontiacs and earning himself a commitment to Colgate University. In his final season with Bonnyville, he was named the MVP of the AJHL and won gold with Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge. At Colgate, he was named to the ECAC Third All-Star Team in 2018/19 and produced 92 points in 145 games, becoming an alternate captain in his junior year and wearing the C this season.

Elite Prospects’ in-profile description of him is as follows:

A big-bodied all-around forward that has good offensive instincts and excellent positional awareness during unfolding plays. Plays a power game and drives the net hard. Fluid skater that has room to improve near the top of his acceleration to become more explosive. His maturity, character, and willingness to do what it takes to win is embodied by his humility in taking the time to improve upon and learn all aspects of multiple roles. Explosive shot release and proficient puckhandling ability. Huge potential as an effective two-way forward with skill.

Green, who carries one of the most stereotypical Canadian hockey names you can think of, is actually from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and has spent his entire career up to this point in the American system, playing his youth hockey for the famous Compuware program before moving to the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL in his later teens, putting up 60 points in 121 games. His efforts earned him a commitment to the University of Miami (Ohio), where he’s been an even more efficient point-producer than McMann, scoring 115 points in 145 games, including two seasons in the point-per-game range. Green was named to the NCHC’s Second All-Star Team this season.

Both players have auditioned at the NHL level in the past. McMann has attended development camps with Buffalo, Columbus, and Calgary, and Green with Carolina. Green, a right-winger, ist he smaller of the two at 5’8, 172, while the slightly older McMann stands at 6’1, 203.

Toronto’s Saturday signings out of Major Junior are likely the most exciting out of the pile. McKenna a right-winger from Canmore, Alberta, stands at 5’10 and weighs in at 174 pounds, and turns 21 in two weeks. He’s spent the last four years playing for the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL, not showing much in his draft year with 26 points and a -38 rating in 66 games, but stepping up with 256 points in 195 games since, including 82 in 57 this season. I asked Friend of the Blog and EliteProspects editor-in-chief JD Burke how he felt about McKenna, and he had this to say:

I’m not as familiar with McKenna’s game as I am Hoefenmayer’s, but he’s hardly foreign to me as a player. He’s played a lot alongside Jakob Pelletier in Moncton, and done a lot of damage offensively in that position, too. Unlike Hoefenmayer, skating is one of McKenna’s strengths. I’m not as sold on his offensive instincts or creativity though. Granted, there’s no risk with this move, and again, it’s value added to the Leafs organization.

As alluded to by Burke, Hoefenmayer appears to be the cream of this crop of four. Originally drafted by the Arizona Coyotes 108th overall in 2017, the 21-year-old defenceman was developed locally, playing his Minor Midget season with Nick Robertson’s brother Jason on the Don Mills Flyers and led the team in scoring. From there, he took a slow burn through the OHL, picking up just five points in his rookie year but upping the ante to 40 in his draft year, establishing himself as an offensive threat on the blue line at that level. Hoefenmayer finished his final season of junior eligibility this season with an absurd 82 points in 58 games from the blue line, including 58 goals and a +52 rating. Burke had this to say about him:

That Noel Hoefenmayer made it to CHL free agency at all was a bit of a surprise, never mind the fact that he signed an AHL contract. The Coyotes took him in the fourth-round back in 2017, and I thought he was a shoo-in for an entry-level contract. They passed, and so did the Carolina Hurricanes after bringing them to a development camp. The big knock on Hoefenmayer has always been his skating, and that’s doubtless the reason that he was available to the Leafs in the first place. Still, he brings a unique step-in slap shot with a lot of pop and is a sneaky good playmaker in the offensive zone. He’s grown to be a fairly reliable defender, too. His skating is probably at a below average level compared to most NHLers, but the Leafs have a strong track record of fixing that. Overall, I love this move for the Leafs organization.

At the end of the day, none of these signings are expected to be make-or-break for the Leafs organization, as shown by the fact that they’ve opted for AHL deals, rather than committing contract spots to hold their NHL rights. But there is a degree of upside here, and the Leafs felt the pains of being overloaded with bubble-aged talents at the development level this year, as the Marlies struggled to take their usual form this year. While having the right veterans isn’t a bad thing, you want to maintain a pipeline of youthful lottery tickets – both for your odds of developing an NHL player, and to promote buy-in and internal competition. It also allows for flexibility with the Newfoundland Growlers, as the Leafs continue to push the three-tier model in a way that no NHL organization has previously attempted.

Truly, these are all “we’ll see” bets, with Hoefenmayer being the most curious. The optimism comes out of respect for good process, which appears to be at play here.

April 6, 2020 9 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

December 30, 2019

The All-2010s Toronto Marlies Lineup 

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.

Split Teams

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

Ben Scrivens
Drew McIntyre

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

Garret Sparks
Antoine Bibeau

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!

December 30, 2019 10 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

October 17, 2019

Rasmus Sandin’s return to the Marlies comes with new responsibility, long-term partner 

Heading into Maple Leafs training camp, the assignment of Rasmus Sandin to the Toronto Marlies was all but a foregone conclusion. When it actually happened last week, though, many in Leaf-land were upset by the demotion. But why?

The answer is complicated. To Sandin’s credit, he showed up to training camp looking bigger and stronger than expected, and during camp, he played like someone who had no intentions of looking back. Mike Babcock put it best on opening night. “I tried him in the good games, then I tried him in the bad games,” said the Leafs head coach. “I tried playing him too much, so he’d be exhausted. I tried. I tried everything, it didn’t work, he just played good.”

To earn that respect from a coach who firmly believes in “tiebreaker goes to the veteran”, who had worthwhile veterans available to dress, is no short order. Further to the case of Sandin, he didn’t look bad in his first six NHL games. We saw his trademark puck-carrying ability, his quick decision making, and his willingness to learn from his mistakes.

But at the same time, there were a few looming issues.

One of the obvious ones comes via the reality of a salary cap-driven hockey world – how valuable is that service year? Sandin’s technical status as a European-drafted prospect (facilitated by a loan from Rogle BK to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in his pre-draft years, rather than a full transfer) allowed for him to play with the Marlies last year without burning a contract year, and allows for that once more this year. Given the Leafs’ all-in bet on a top-heavy cap structure, the ability to have Sandin locked in at just $894,167 with no potential bonuses in his age 20, 21, and 22 seasons is an amazing option to have in their back pockets.

On the ice, an equally important factor to consider would be playing time and puck touches, especially if you expect Sandin’s NHL archetype to be one of a player who can control the game with his on-puck play. Sandin had averaged just 12 minutes a night with the Leafs, playing third pair minutes while largely going up against opposing bottom sixes – in other words, opponents who are probably better than top-line AHLers, but not by a significant enough margin to be worth the change in assignment.

It also came with no special teams time, something that Babcock acknowledged this week. “He can’t get on the powerplay in front of the guys we’ve got, and he can’t get on the penalty kill in front of the guys we’ve got”.

On the other hand, though, the Marlies can afford him that higher-quality, and higher-quantity ice time for the sake of his development, and the sake of their own success. Sandin’s impressive Age 18 production last season came in no small part from earning minutes on the top powerplay unit. Last night, in his first game back in the American Hockey League, he was immediately placed back on that top unit and took just ten seconds to get his first point of the year, finding Jeremy Bracco off the draw, who found Yegor Korshkov at the slot for an all-prospect opening goal.

He also found himself immediately placed on the top powerplay unit with fellow Swede and 2017 first-round pick Timothy Liljegren, who was his defensive partner for much of last year’s playoffs and is now his full-time partner on the top pair this season.

“I think we’re both dangerous threats offensively, and at the same time, we’ve developed a lot in the defensive zone,” Sandin said to reporters last night of his partner. “We know each other very well [off] the ice, and I think we bring that chemistry to the ice as well. We have similar types of games as well, so we can read where the other guy is going to go.”

While having that defensive chemistry is great, my biggest delight in a pair like theirs – one that will likely be a long-term relationship that spills into the NHL – lies in the former half of Sandin’s remark. The fact that both have the ability to carry, pass, and shoot the puck means that opponents can’t zero in on the primary puck-toucher while leaving the weaker partner to make low-risk plays.

This sounds like common sense, but as we’ve seen with the big club in the previous 2-3 seasons, it can be the death of teams when they don’t have two options on a pair (especially when all the good options play on the same side, making counter-strategy even easier). I asked Sandin about that element and it was something that he agreed with. “For the other team, I think they’re always going to have their head up to see where both of us are going. I think we’re both a threat.”

Head Coach Sheldon Keefe wasted no time in taking advantage of their skillset, leaning heavily on the two as his top pair last night. Liljegren led the team with approximately 27 minutes of ice time, while Sandin was just a few seconds behind him. By comparison, the Ben Harpur – Jordan Schmaltz pair earned about 18 to 20 minutes of ice time, while Jesper Lindgren and Teemu Kivehalme came in at about 12 to 13 minutes. It was also a lot more time than Sandin saw for much of last season – in the games I had tracked last year, Sandin played about 17 minutes a night in a secondary, though that number began to increase later in the season.

After playing in third pair, lower-risk minutes for the past few weeks, Sandin told me that it was a different getting back into the swing of heavy responsibility. “Obviously, it’s different,” Sandin said. “You have to sit on the bench a little bit more [with the Leafs], trying to be focused the whole time, and when you get your chance you just gotta be ready. Here, you sometimes barely get on the bench and sit down and then it’s your turn again, so you don’t really have the time to lose your focus. So it’s a little bit different, but it’s a big learning experience being up there and not playing as many minutes.”

Overall, Sheldon Keefe was happy with how the pair clicked, and how Sandin looked in his return. “He was good. He was just in control when he was out there,” the Marlies head coach said. “He and Liljegren both, I thought Liljegren had his best game today as well. That was a real nice pairing for us and it felt good when they were out there.”

While the two weren’t dominant on the shot clock (Sandin’s Corsi at Even Strength was -2, while Liljegren was even), that’s a pretty solid result for a top pairing facing top lines while playing most of the game with the lead. Not to mention, each skated away with an assist, and they also had roughly a two-thirds share of the controlled zone entries and exits while they were on the ice, many of which were instigated by the two.

Needless to say, it’s a nice sign of things to come. Both seem to have moved their NHL probabilities to “not if, but when” over the past few months, and until then, they have an opportunity to be the AHL’s most used, most dominant, and yet youngest defensive pairing. It’s an exciting time for a Maple Leafs blue line that will likely need an injection either late in this season or next fall.

Until then, Sandin has a very succinct list of things to work on while he’s down here.

“Everything. I just want to be a better hockey player overall.”

That’s a good mindset to have, and one that fans, coaches, analysts, writers, and even the players themselves can forget about within the moment. After all, while Sandin was productive last year, he wasn’t one of the Marlies’ primary play drivers, and still had holes in his defensive game. A way I described it last season is that he looked very good for a teenage AHLer, but that wasn’t exactly the same as looking very good in general. His growth has come at light speed since, but there is still more for him to do, and he still has plenty to prove to himself, the coaches, and the organization. So long as he knows that, everyone is in good shape, and it seems like he does.

The Rest Of The Game

While Sandin’s return earned the lion’s share of the hype last night, the Marlies also lengthened their start-of-season winning streak to four games last night. The incredibly process-oriented team, however, wasn’t as excited after the game, with both Kenny Agostino and Sheldon Keefe pointing out that this was a game that they could have easily lost (Keefe going as far as saying that the team has really only earned one of their wins – I haven’t gone back to watch the Manitoba games from last weekend yet so I’ll take his word for it).

There were a couple of bright spots, though. Agostino was one of them, with a couple of points and a pass on the Korshkov goal that would make you wish they gave third assists. Adam Brooks looked fantastic, as he did in the home opener – maybe it’s the lack of having Trevor Moore (now a Leaf) and Mason Marchment (injured) to work with, but he’s taken matters into his own hands at 5-on-5 this year and we’re starting to see the confidence levels he carried within himself in Major Junior. Jeremy Bracco looked like a wizard on the powerplay, though he still is leaving a lot to be desired at evens. Kasimir Kaskisuo was excellent again in between the pipes – the final result of 27 saves on 30 shots doesn’t truly reflect how dangerous some of the efforts he turned aside were.

On the other side, I was shocked at how little the Bears used Axel Johnsson-Fjallby last night. The 21-year-old was easily their most visible player last night, and not just because of his eye-catching hair. He picked up two goals in dangerous areas, and controlled nearly 70% of the shot attempts while he was on the ice.

Toronto improves to 4-0-0 with the win, and play again at Coca-Cola Coliseum on Saturday against the Cleveland Monsters.

Enhanced Box Score

Something new that I’m going to try to do this season is to capture the numbers for both teams, building an even bigger sample of American Hockey League statistics than we had last year. I can’t guarantee this for every game (as proven by not having the first three available yet), but when possible, they’ll be included.

These single-game capsules, which reflect a small but key percentage of what I have captured (my single-game spit-outs are roughly 300 columns per player now), will be available to all readers. More detailed, full-season data will only be available to subscribers, with a new Marlies portal coming by the end of the month and a league-wide portal coming shortly thereafter. If you would like to support the many hours that get put into tracking this these games well beyond what the league makes available, please consider signing up for a monthly or annual membershipwhich also removes advertisements from the site, and gives you the ability to comment on articles, among other small features.

October 17, 2019 12 views 0
Jeff Veillette
Jeff Veillette@jeff

December 29, 2018

Why the Maple Leafs acquired Michael Hutchinson 

The Toronto Maple Leafs made a move today that has inspired panic in parts of the city, and relief in others, acquiring goaltender Michael Hutchinson from the Florida Panthers in exchange for a fifth-round draft pick in 2020.

The reason for panic? The move comes at the same time as the Maple Leafs called up Marlies goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo on an emergency basis, listing Frederik Andersen as out of the lineup with a day-to-day groin injury. As such, there is some concern that Andersen’s injury is significant, and that Hutchinson has been brought in with the NHL in mind. Others have pondered whether it’s performative insurance, given the debate that forever rages about Garret Sparks’ performance.

I don’t see the Maple Leafs being in serious consideration for this move. Reading the tea leaves would lead one to believe that Andersen’s injury isn’t too substantial; he was in good enough shape to dress as the backup goaltender last night, after all, which allowed Kaskisuo to dress as the backup for the Marlies in their Friday evening game against the Rochester Americans. With the Marlies not playing until Monday and the Leafs off until Thursday after tonight, this was more likely a way to give Andersen some precautionary rest while not making the Marlies scramble.

As for Sparks, his 0.910 save percentage and 0.813 record (6-1-1) aren’t as good as Toronto’s relief from Curtis McElhinney’s standout efforts last season, but the 25-year-old is still delivering above-average results – I doubt nine games of good enough (if occasionally shaky-looking) goaltending would shift their plan there.

(via the Marlies tracking project)

The likely reasoning for this acquisition comes in the Toronto Marlies’ performance. Despite being one of the league’s top-scoring teams, and despite encouraging underlying numbers (~57.5% Corsi through 32 games), the team is experiencing some of the worst team goaltending seen in the AHL’s modern era, after getting some of the best team goaltending in the modern era just a year prior. Toronto has followed up a 0.929 season between the pipes with a save percentage of just 0.877, unsurprisingly a league-low.

Jeff Glass was shipped out a few weeks ago after a ten-game showing that was beyond anyone’s worst expectations. Kaskisuo hasn’t looked the same since his early-season injury. Eamon McAdam has shown flashes of quality, but still appears to max out as an ECHL goaltender, and is likely overdue to return to the Newfoundland Growlers as originally planned. Michael Garteig was good in his single game with the team and has been a very pleasant surprise for the Growlers in McAdam’s absence, but it seems unrealistic to put the hands of a defending Calder Cup champion in a 27-year-old with no real track record of success.

Hutchinson, despite a down start to his current season, has been one of the AHL’s best goaltenders over the course of his up-and-down career. His 0.920 career save percentage in the league is 7th highest among goalies to play 100+ games in the Cap Era, and his 0.935 last season was second-best in the league (Sparks, coincidentally, sits atop the leaderboard in both stats). The 0.906 SV% he’s posted in eight games with Springfield this season is his worst since his rookie season, but even if he doesn’t trend back upward, that number is still above AHL league average and would have netted the Marlies 25 fewer goals against so far this year.

The one knock on an acquisition like this is the idea of giving up an asset for a 28-year-old AHL goaltender, with whom you likely see no opportunity for in the NHL outside of an emergency scenario (like Kaskisuo tonight). That’s not unfair, and I think that plays a big part in why it took so long to make this move; Toronto would have definitely preferred to re-claim McElhinney or Calvin Pickard off waivers on their second laps, but with the former establishing himself in Carolina and the latter being picked off by Arizona a few weeks ago, that dream had died.

Would it have been worth it just to hold steady? I don’t think so – there is a value in having your team’s AHL season last longer that goes beyond just “winning pedigree” and whatever other cliches might get spit out. Longer runs mean more game, more touches, more gym days, and more practices. It’s more opportunity to work with your amateur prospects when their season ends and they join the farm team. If you’re an organization that has a well-structured, comprehensive development program like Toronto’s, you’d probably prefer your players to stay involved in it for as long as possible.

Hutchinson should give them sufficient enough goaltending to turn some of these games back into wins and get the Marlies back into the playoff picture. Who know’s if that’s worth a fifth-round pick, but it’s probably worth something.

December 29, 2018 10 views 0
Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
Submit post
Cancel and clear content
Follow us on Social Media