Most of you will no doubt remember that two years ago (2009-’10) the Maple Leafs made a late-season move that was subtle but one that I thought (and posted about such at the time) sent a great message to the fan base—and more importantly, the organization’s players.
They called up Tim Brent (when there was no real compelling need) for the last game of the regular-season.
Brent had had a somewhat peripatetic career as a professional up to that point. He was one of those guys that had been selected back in like 2001 in the second round of the NHL summer entry draft, but did not sign with Anaheim (the team that chose him). When he went back into the draft in 2003 (I believe that was the year) he was chosen by Anaheim again—but lower than he originally had been. He never quite broke into the Anaheim line-up.
He played ever so briefly with the Ducks and later the Penguins and Blackhawks, but primarily was toiling in the American Hockey League. Brent had been a fine players with the St. Michael’s Majors in junior hockey, and he represented Canada at the World Juniors. He was a skill guy, sure, but at the NHL level, was destined to be a hard-working, meat and potatoes kind of player. He never got—or maybe never quite earned—a full-time gig in Anaheim or Pittsburgh (or Chicago). His NHL experience totaled 18 games in five professional seasons.
Then came his move, at the age of 25, to the Leafs. He signed with Toronto in the summer of 2009 but it was clear he was headed to the AHL—again. Still, he worked hard that winter, and the Marlies missed him, as I recall, when he was injured part-way through that season. When he continued to play well upon his return, the Leafs made a point of calling him up for the NHL season finale. It was absolutely an acknowledgement from the organization that he had been a loyal “team” guy, a hard-working role player with the Marlies who had done everything the Leafs had asked him to do.
By promoting him, even for that one game, they were signaling an organizational consistency around their philosophy and their vision—that the big club was always watching, and if someone with the Marlies was going above and beyond, they would be noticed and the Leafs would make room for them. It was only one game, yes, but to me, the message reverberated. And the message was clear: if you play the way we ask—hard, determined, smart—even if you aren’t the most skilled guy around, you’ll get a chance.
The next September (fall of 2010), no one expected Brent to have any shot, really, of making the Leafs. Yet he stayed after each “cut”, and actually started the season with the big club. He played so hard in the early going that he ended up staying stayed all season. He proved that the "meaningless" call-up at the end of the previous season wasn't meaningless at all. In fact, his contributions—a bit of offense, some useful penalty-killing, diligence in his own zone, face-off duty and (maybe most importantly) the willingness to sacrifice to block shots, make him a mini folk-hero here. In fact, I wrote a piece at the end of last season, suggesting Brent deserved the old-time J.P. Bickell Award, which was awarded on occasion to a special Maple Leaf player or employee who exhibited the kind of (if I remember correctly from my childhood) exemplary and outstanding dedication or contribution that merited such acknowledgement. (I remember Dave Keon, for example, winning the award when I was a youngster, but it was not handed out every year…)
In any event, I was really pleased to see Ryan Hamilton called up and play against the Devils on Friday night in Jersey. Hamilton, who will turn 27 next month, was drafted years ago (I think it was 2005, not sure) in the second round or thereabouts by Minnesota. He was acquired in the Robbie Earl deal during the 2008-’09 season and has been a Marlie stalwart since. Hamilton has displayed real tenacity, does his work along the boards and has enough skill that he puts up significant points at the AHL level. Marlies coach Dallas Eakins thinks enough of him that he has been the captain of the Marlies this season.
Through all the twists and turns in his young pro career, Hamilton, believe it or not, has/had never played a single NHL game. Not one. And on Friday night, he was in the starting line-up for the Maple Leafs.
Every year he has had to overcome injuries, yet he keeps coming back and producing for the Leaf farm club. All the while, I’ve been thinking (and posting occasionally here) that if the Leafs really believe in their so-called “meritocracy” system, then they should have already called up Hamilton by now. I would always hear some reason why it wasn’t him, but my belief is: regardless of position, if a guy deserves a call-up, do it. Why do I say this? Well, it sends a message that the guy who is truly most deserving of a shot at playing with the Leafs—not necessarily the young guy you obtained a big trade, or one of your high-profile draft picks, or an emergency junior call-up (like they did with Kadri two years ago in mid-season)—is the guy you will actually promote.
In any event, Hamilton finally got his shot Friday night. He played more than 14 minutes, earned an assist on the Kadri marker, and contributed to a Leaf victory.
I don’t know what the Leaf plans are for him going forward, but I’m glad he got his shot. He earned it.