There are stats for everything these days, so I’m sure someone, somewhere, has done work on whether a team having success at the AHL level eventually sees that translate into progress for the parent organization at the NHL level. (Didn’t Mirtle at The Globe do a piece along these lines lately, or at least reference someone who did?)
Some Leaf fans choose to believe that the Marlies playing well this spring bodes well for the Leafs next season—and beyond. Those in that camp can rightly point to the fact that the Leaf affiliate is winning and gaining playoff experience with a very young squad. It’s not as though they are doing this with mirrors—or with a bunch of old, former NHL’ers or long-time AHL veterans who don’t fit into the organization’s future plans. This team can play. They’ve been an elite team through much of the regular-season—and have been even tougher to play against in the playoffs, both home and away, as we saw again Thursday night.
On the other hand, the Rochester Americans and the Abbotsford Heat aren’t exactly the Flyers, Penguins, Capitals or Rangers—the types of teams these young future Leafs will be up against if they help the Leafs get onto the NHL playoffs a year from now. So while we can be impressed with the play of certain young Marlies, our enthusiasm should probably be tempered by the reality that there really is no comparison between the minor-leagues and the level of play required to be consistently effective at the NHL level. The NHL game is faster, decisions have to be made much more quickly. It’s just a better game. You can see it every time you watch an AHL contest. (I know the old line about how some guys are better NHL’ers than AHL’ers - meaning they play better in an NHL environment - but I’m not sure that applies here…)
The Leaf brass has highlighted the Marlie success as the natural part of of their organizational plan. But let’s be honest—this wasn’t exactly the plan going on now four years ago when Burke took over. His desire was to rebuild the Leafs quickly, on the fly. I’m not saying he wasn’t interested in building a better farm system (and he’s certainly done a respectable job of that), but the messages back then were different (to me, at least—not everyone agrees, I realize) than they are now.
And that’s fine. Things change. GM’s have to adjust to new realities. Now, the Leaf focus leans more toward youth, depth and asset acquisition. Oh, they still talk about being tougher, which was the mantra from Day One of the Burke regime. But the kind of toughness they need is the kind of grit that we are seeing on a nightly basis in the NHL playoffs: the utter determination to win battles, drive to the front of the net, fight for rebounds—and block shot after shot. For sure you need a "fighter" in there to get you through the regular-season, but come playoff time, you need this other—and much more valuable—type of rugged play right across the roster.
This is where the Marlies come in. You can find some good fourth-liners in free-agency, usually at a fairly inexpensive cost (though the current Leaf roster has too many over-priced low-minute guys with bad contracts, and that’s on Burke). Pending UFA Jordin Tootoo comes to mind, as but one example that I mentioned in yesterday’s post. But the Marlies also have provided a glimpse into the kind of potential that a number of their still young players have to fill not only top-line roles, but also those valuable “bottom-six” spots. I don't see Colborne as ready (not now, anyway) to play hard, grinding minutes at the NHL level, though he’s been sold to us as a second-line center as early as next season. Kadri’s role would surely be that of a more offensive player. I don’t exactly project him as a third-line checker. But what about D’Amigo? Would he provide the requisite combination of skill and raw determination to play a third-line role, say?
And what about Marcel Mueller (he of the opening goal in Thursday night’s opener in Oklahoma City, after sustained Marlie pressure deep in the opposition end…)? Could he fit? We know the recently-signed Komarov from Finland brings an edgy game, which could help next season.
Bottom-line, there are no guarantees that the Marlie success will translate to the next level for any - much less all - of these young players. (Though wouldn’t it be something if we could translate the Marlies' penalty-killing success?) But it’s hard not to be impressed with the effort level, the play of a lot of the young guys and the obvious success they have achieved. A 5-0 win in Game 1 in Oklahoma City doesn’t necessarily mean they will walk into the finals, but no team they have faced so far has been able to even slow them down.
What this ultimately means for the Leafs, I don’t know. But the Marlies' fine play this spring certainly will make day-dreaming this summer about what it might mean a lot more fun…