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Marlie success guarantees little when it comes to the Leafs, but it should help a bit…

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…


  1. Hi Michael,

    It's a different environment than the 1970s and even the 1990s to be sure. And I know I have referenced certain teams in the past. But I do recall the old Nova Scotia Voyageurs and how some of those dynastic late 70s Habs cut their teeth with the Vees. I also recall the Albany River Rats and Adirondack Red Wings won Calder Cups very shortly before their respective NHL squads were Stanley Cup winners.

    You are absolutely right, AHL success does not translate always, immediately or completely in every case. But, you and I have discussed it before... the tradition of winning, the culture of expecting more of yourself and your teammates, those have been lacking in Leafland I think. After years of missing the playoffs, having the AHLers play and win rounds, this an only help the franchise.

    Talent aside, I always felt a large part of the Leaf success in 1991-93 had to do with the winning experiences of Gilmour, Fuhr, Anderson, Krushelnyski... guys who had been there. Similarly, the late 1990s, Joseph and Belfour, Roberts and the like. All players who had won or had been as close as a win away from the Finals.

    Nowadays teams can't stock up on former Cup winners in the latter half of a career. So, the alternative I think is to start with your AHLers trying to win their league... your juniors trying to win a Memorial Cup... etc.

  2. I totally agree that building a winning environment matters, Mark. Absolutely. (And your examples are relevant, though the times have changed, yes. Those old Voyageur teams, heck, they were as good as some of the NHL teams at the time! And New Jersey and the Wings both benefited through wise development of their farm systems...)

    Certainly, the Senators this season drew on the experience of some of the young players who had a nice run in the AHL last spring.

    As you say, you can't just go out and grab a Gilmour, etc. nowadays. The Leafs are doing the next best thing with their promising kids...

    Good stuff as always. Thanks Mark.

  3. Albany River Rats. Breaks my heart. They stole my Utica Devils...

    Good food for thought, though. I was a bit surprised to see that the Marlies essentially ran over the Barons in the opening game. The success is definitely inspiring, and a lot of it is coming from the kids we've already seen with the Leafs (Kadri, Colborne, Frattin, Gardiner, Scrivens).

    Waiting for one of those Germans to make his mark in the NHL.

    The culture of winning (how Herb Brooks built Team USA in 1980...he also coached the Utica Devils), I would argue, is a solid plan. Not surefire, but what is?

    The Leafs don't have many "blue-chippers" in the A, if's arguable. But what they do have are a bunch of guys that can probably develop into very effective third-liners. And with their winning experience in the AHL, that only makes those guys much more reliable and valuable come time for the NHL playoffs.

    If they keep their 5th overall pick, they'll only add to the prospect depth, which is nice.

    Speculation time, if the Leafs go out an poach Cory Schneider (not happening), and Carlyle's defensive approach works to improve that PK, then the Leafs are a playoff team...and a dangerous one at that.

    I added Schneider just to represent a reliable net presence.

  4. Outstanding post, Derek. ( of the issues with minor-league franchises is the movement issue...unless you're Rochester, one of those great, old, traditional AHL franchises..and Hershey, too, of course, you see a lot of movement. St. John's had to feel awful when the Leafs pulled up stakes and moved the Marlies to Toronto a few years ago. So I can appreciate what you are saying about Utica/Albany.....)

    And I fully agree, no "plan" is surefire, but what the Leafs are building now via the Marlies and the entire system of development can only help- even if only a little.

    Schneider would be very nice. But I'm guessing there are about 10 other teams who would like to add him, as well!

    Thanks Derek.

  5. I am glad to see a colum on the Marlies.

    I have been following them closely in these playoffs. It certainly is nice to be thinking about the Leafs/Marlies being in a Cup final even if it is a Calder Cup.

    I hope the fans and the media support the Marlies with this deep run. There have been years when their playoff efforts have largely gone un reported.

    I am really happy with the Marlies success. I see two important things in this playoff run.

    Ben Scrivens is progressing right on track. He looks like he will be a capable NHL backup either this coming season (2012/2013) or the next season and could be an NHL starter in a few years. Think of Carey Price and Cory Schneider, both dominated in the AHL with deep playoff runs before moving on to the NHL. Scrivens is on that exact path. The Leafs have not damaged this good prospect. He is flourishing.

    My second happy thought involves the line of Frattin, Kadri and D’Amigo. That line has been the hottest line in these AHL playoff. That could be your third line for the Leaf next season of the one after or parts of it could be spread through the 3rd and 4th lines. Either way that's some good young speed a talent for a third line. It facilitates trading or getting rid some veterans and could free up some cap space for other moves.

    Here's my question relating back to LA's success. If the Leafs had more cap space and more budget room because they didn't have contracts like Komisarek, Armstrong and Lombardi...could they have made a better pitch for a guy like Jeff Carter, who seems to be a missing piece for the LA Cup run.

    Without Carter does LA get past Vancouver?
    We all know it’s a game of inches

  6. Great stuff, DP.

    Your train of thought on Carter is valid, to me. I'm guessing the Leafs may have been in on Carter last year, but I also seem to recall that the Jackets and Flyers had been discussing that trade for many months. Maybe it was kept secretive and other teams didn't really know the Flyers were shopping him?

    In any event, he has been a difference-maker, for sure. He has his detractors, and we all remember his "reputation" along with Richards in Philadelphia. (And he did precious little, though he was injured, while in Columbus. I'm guessing he did not want to be there...)

    Love your point on Scrivens. I'm sensing this "run" may be most important for his development, as much or more than anyone else.

    Many of us would love to see an entire "Kid Line" promoted to the Leafs and stay together. But as you say, they all bring something that should only help, regardless of what line they will be on with the big team.

    Solid. Thanks DP.