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The Marlies, "prospects" and realistic expectations

Episode #2 of our new "Leaf Matters" podcast - a show dedicated exclusively to the Maple Leafs and Leaf fans - is now available.

Click here to listen to this week's show.

As with my regular posts here at Vintage Leaf Memories, we won't always agree on the topics of the day, but hopefully you will enjoy the podcasts because they provide Leaf-oriented talk and some food for thought...Thanks for tuning in!


Those who follow VLM know I don’t get too worked up about the first few games of any new season.  It takes time to work through the kinks, even after training camp.  There are adjustments because of roster changes, new linemates to find chemistry with, all that stuff.  Besides, in an 82-game NHL season, as we were reminded last season, sometimes it's not how you start, it's how you finish.

When it comes to the Maple Leafs, I start to pull some serious observations together by the, say, 10-game mark.  20 games into the season, I think we usually have something substantial to discuss, in terms of assessing what track the team seems to be on and how certain individual players are trending.

So I am loathe to dip all too deeply into the Toronto Marlie analysis pool at this point in the young American Hockey League season because a) I’m not that close to the situation b) I only see them sporadically, and usually just on TV  c) many other hockey writers and bloggers follow them much more closely than I can and they do a great job of covering the team and d) hey it's the Marlies, not the Maple Leafs. (I recognize the importance of a strong farm system, for sure.  But big numbers at the junior or AHL level do not guarantee success at the NHL level, so I'm cautious when it comes to how a guy plays in the AHL.  It's just a different level - and type - of play.)

But given the hype that surrounded the team heading into a new season—because they are home to so many of the Leaf prospects—it’s hard not to be somewhat aware of how the Marlies are doing.  Kids like Sparks, Rielly, Finn and Biggs are still playing at the junior level, but the names we are even more familiar with—Ashton, Colborne, D’Amigo, Holzer, Abbott, Blacker, Komarov and yes, the ever-enigmatic Nazem Kadri—are on display these days with the baby Leafs. (I consider Gardiner a full-time Leaf already and talked about his development yesterday.)

And in this instance, I use the word “on display” with intent.  Because of the NHL lockout—and of course the obvious proximity regarding where the Marlies "are" and play essentially just up the street from the ACC (at the Ricoh Coliseum)—I’m trying to remember the last time there was this much focus—scrutiny, really - on a Maple Leaf farm team.

These guys are under a microscope like never before.  Games are on TV- live, and not just on LeafsTV.  TSN and the Toronto newspapers are covering the Marlies like it matters.  Bloggers are out in force covering the games.  It’s same with junior hockey when it comes to Leaf prospects.  (We are getting daily reports on Tyler Biggs, for example.  I'm sure he's a nice player, from what I've seen, but it's easy to curb my enthusiasm.  I can't count the number of junior guys over the years who have looked, "big",  "awesome", "mobile", "physical", etc. at the junior level.  That's why they're called prospects:  they haven't done anything yet.)

They may some day, and if they do, hey, that's great.  And those who "covered" them on the player's road to the NHL can sit back and tell the rest of us..." I told you he'd be great...".  What we won't read about are the many more "prospects" who basically never much got past that prospect stage, who were written about just as breathlessly. Those columns are usually forgotten.

I guess we, as Leaf fans, are so desperate to believe that the cavalry is coming in the form of outstanding young players in our "system" that every hit, every nice pass, every good play makes us want to think that this “next” group of emerging (potential…prospective…hopeful??) Maple Leafs will be the real deal, and will finally help turn the moribund franchise around.

So, only 8 games into the season, and acknowledging I have only watched the farm team play irregularly so far this fall, I flip to the standings and stats page today and what do I see? The Marlies have a record of 3 wins, 4 losses and an overtime loss.  I mean, it’s pretty meaningless stuff, given that we’re not even at the aforementioned 10-game mark where I begin to take things a bit seriously.  (And hey, two wins in a row and suddenly it will look like their season is going just fine...)

But here’s the interesting little twist, at least to me.  When we look at the simple statistics for some of the prospects I cited above, the numbers are not exactly imposing.

Kadri  - 0 goals, 3 assists and a minus 2 so far
D’Amigo - 0 goals, 2 assists and an "even" plus/minus
Ashton - 1 goal, 1 assist and a plus 1
Komarov - 1 goal 2 assists and a plus 2
Colborne - 0 goals 4 assists and a plus 3

Now, those very un-examined and somewhat superficial offensive statistics rarely reveal how an individual is actually playing, either shift to shift or night to night.  Plus/minus numbers are meaningless for the most part at this time of year.  They can change radically in no time, so context is important.  The goals and assists totals don’t necessarily reflect if a guy is winning face-offs, creating turnovers on the forecheck, or playing a tough, grinding, physical style.

I know what I saw from D’Amigo, for example, at times in the AHL playoffs like year, and I liked a lot about how he played.  Can that translate into becoming a useful NHL players?  That, I still don’t know. But I do know I'm not  especially concerned with how he looks right now, in November.

Komarov is here to be an agitator, so the offensive numbers won’t matter that much.  Can he irritate, and take his guy out of the game often enough to be a productive Leaf?  He has shown some of that so far with the Marlies.  Though he is a fair bit older at 25 than a lot of our prospects, we won’t really know what he brings until he has some experience at the NHL level.

To me, Kadri should already be a full-time regular in the NHL.  Not that he has necessarily earned the gig, but we need to see, at some point, if he can play.  Please, no more yanking him back and forth to the Marlies.  Let’s just see if the kid will put up points and contribute at the next level—but to do that, he needs a real opportunity—not just a few games being run out there on different lines with different linemates every night.  (And being told he's not strong enough, fast enough or turns the puck over too much.  At some point, just let the kid play....)

So no, I’m not terribly worried about the fairly modest offensive numbers for these guys at this point.  It’s far more important to actually watch and assess how a guy is playing than just looking at their “stats” after a few games.  But all this said, the “numbers” do remind us that, as I’ve tried to say here in this space many times, every NHL team has “prospects” that look great at some point.  The Leafs  can’t just rely on these “prospects” as though they are going to be the answer at the NHL level when it comes to making the big club a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.

They may all turn out great.  But maybe only one or two will ever earn a full-time gig with the blue and white and have some kind of impact.  I don’t have a clue at this point.

It's the same thing with the junior kids I mentioned above.  I won't analyze every shift from Tyler Biggs with the Oshawa Generals, whether he is putting up points or playing “well” or not.  That’s junior hockey.  Others can do that much better than I can.  And as I said above, I’ve seen so many guys over the past forty years light it up in junior hockey- but at the NHL level, they are at best third-liners (as important a role as that can be), and many don’t even make it, or last very long.

So, like most fans, while I will enjoy watching the “kids” develop, whether they are with the Marlies or in junior hockey, I will hold my expectations for all these players  until I see the whites of their eyes—and my own eyes tell me they can contribute to making the Leafs a strong team some day.


  1. Good post Michael. I was a bit surprised that you didn't mention one prospect who has been a pleasant and unexpected surprise this year. That is Greg McKegg. Many of us thought of him as a talented offensive player who maybe lacks a defensive side of the game, and might struggle at the AHL level. Quite surprisingly, Eakins has not only got him playing a good defensive game, he readily throws him out there as a checking line, and to shut the opposition down in the final minutes of the game.

    As you noted, it is quite early in the season, but for a checking line, McKegg's numbers are quite good.
    8GP 2G 2A 4Pts 0 plus-minus and SH% of 22.2
    Not sure what his TOI is like, but I've been quite surprised with his play. He might be quietly developing in the shadows of Kadri and Colborne.

  2. You're absolutely right, Don (TML_fan). I should have included McKegg. Many here have mentioned him to me, and I have tended to overlook him.

    I haven't seen a lot of him yet, so I'm not, as I mentioned in my post, well-positioned to make fair assessments of some of these youngsters.

    As you say, he may well be the kind of youngster who emerges and maybe even surpasses other prospects on the big club's depth chart based on our "meritocracy" system...

    Thanks TML_fan.

  3. I really think you nailed it, Michael. We, as Leafs fans, are so desperate for something to cheer for, something to keep us hopeful, that we cling to any shred of good news from the "kids". And like you said, plenty of players have looked good in junior and failed to take that next step (even that next step in the AHL, let alone NHL).

    I too will cheer for the successes of those playing for the Marlies or the OHL/WHL, but getting overly excited every time a player has a big night is too much for me.

  4. Exactly, Matt (Five Minutes for Fighting). I'm not trying to rain on any parades, just expressing what I feel is a reasonable view that it makes sense to be somewhat restrained in our enthusiasm for all these "great" prospects. Bottom line: we'll see!

    Thanks Matt.

  5. Another great podcast, Michael! Keep 'em coming. The most entertainment I've had about NHL since the inevitable lockout began. Reminds me that I'll still care if the league ever actually comes back.

    I don't know if it's only the case in Finland, but quite a few people here are starting to think the lockout doesn't so much hurt the sport itself, as it hurts just NHL. We have a rather meager attendance from NHL players as the bargaining goes on, as player budgets that were made before would never allow the kind of spending required by anyone with actual salary demands to join here. Whoever comes to Finland, will mostly play for keeps.

    That being said, here's a quick scouting report for the non-Finnish players in our league. Erik Karlsson's the highest-profile guy here. Incredibly skilled, obviously, but not as dominant as you'd expect. Maybe enjoys the time and space a bit too much.

    Jason Demers, playing for my hometown Kärpät. Absolutely amazing. Really, really smart d-man. Not overly physical, but can't be intimidated by anyone. Jarkko Ruutu doesn't even try to piss this guy off. Leafs should trade for him, for... I don't know, whatever.

    Kyle Turris, also smart, but really needs to work on his general toughness to be a great NHL-level centerman. He's been good, also for my hometown team, but he needs to bulk up. Great hockey sense, but his physique won't carry him that far.

    Lee Goren played pretty well for his team, nearly a point per game taking many, many shifts in every game, but he's not one to watch for the future and he wasn't someone who seemed financially sound, for his team, to keep in the long term. So they let him go, probably to get a bigger name for the rest of the season. Not the best policy, as you usually hang on to the guys who actually make things happen, but maybe the "Goren" jerseys weren't that hot of a sales object.

    Then there's Stephane Robidas, who is nearly my age, who has brought some sort of leadership to HIFK Helsinki. His current team is in disarray, and he's been playing the hard minutes every game since he stepped out of the plane. But he doesn't seem good enough to play here thus far. Not for what his insurance is costing his team, unless he's paying it himself. He's been ok, but that's not good enough for a guy with his experience. Or perhaps he has too much experience and not that much mileage left. Less than impressive, in any case.

    One thing I'm pretty certain about, though, is that none of these guys killed off anyone else's contract. Some younger guys in here might have to face another year of junior hockey, but nobody got fired. They're here just to play, doing their best. Of course, the players in the Swiss leagues or in the KHL might be after whatever money they can get as well. But anyone who plays in Finland, I can guarantee, won't get any more privileged than they were before.

    And honestly, if any of the Leafs European scouting staff are doing their jobs right now, I urge them to take a look at Jason Demers. He's better than Brian Rafalski was when he played in Finland. And younger, too.

  6. What it comes to prospects, I believe I could have some insight on Komarov.

    He can actually play. He's a rat, sure, and a small one at that, but he showed in KHL, which is predominantly a skill league, that he could score at .5 per game over two seasons. I know the Leafs fans don't have exactly stellar feelings about Finnish players, having seen Berg and Toskala, but Komarov is, and I believe CAN be, essentially, Esa Tikkanen, only he's smaller and a bit more agile.

    I know every single Leafs fan probably hates Tikkanen, but would that have been the case if he had played for the Leafs?

  7. Hockey fans, including Leaf fans, should appreciate your insights around what those NHL'ers are bringing to the Finnish Elite League, CGLN.

    Anyone (Demers) mentioned in the same breath as Rafalski is worth looking at for sure, if they're available- now or in the future.

    As for Komarov (now with the Marlies, as Leaf fans know), well, if he is remotely like the edgy, crafty and eminently hate-able Tikkanen, that's good enough for me. He has shown a few flashes so far this season of being that "agitator" that all good teams need. I appreciate your input on all of these guys.

    By the way, thanks very much for the kind words about the "Leaf Matters" podcast, CGLN. It will take time to build an audience, we realize, but feedback sure helps. Thanks again.

  8. The podcasts are really fun and thought-provoking to listen to, Michael. And to touch on the subjects, still no Luongo for me. He is a great tender, absolutely, I don't pay that much attention to his meltdowns, even, as in my opinion, the Canucks allowed them to happen in every case. Sure, get him if his cost is next to nothing, but the lockout kind of resets the table. He still got the Olympic Gold, which seems to me like kind of a high-pressure environment, and talk all you want about Crosby's goal, Luongo stood his ground to allow for Crosby to make it happen. And it wasn't best-in-seven, it was do-or-die.

    But he wouldn't be the difference-maker for us. He stood on his head for a few seasons for the Panthers, and they did not make the playoffs. Leafs are not so much in need of goaltending as they are in need of structure. Reimer has already shown us he can win, how about helping him do it consistently?

  9. The Luongo debate is a good one, CGLN. Lots of different views out there in Leaf country, including ours!

    You just know he will be moved if there is a season. The question is when- and to what team?

    Thanks CGLN.

  10. As long as there are salary caps and floors, he'll go to back to the Panthers. He seems to like the life under the sun, and the franchise would actually benefit of a contract that will not die.

    Panthers can, in fact, offer useful players whose contracts will go away soon enough, and Luongo will have the adulation of those fans who actually remember him. Plus, I've heard there are serviceable golf courses in South Florida as well.

    Panthers are in a position to offer much better than the Leafs. They can offer the 'nucks Weiss, Matthias and Skille plus a 2nd-rounder, without blinking and giving up really anything truly relevant in terms of preserving the franchise.

    Our Weiss is Grabovski, we don't really have Matthias or Skille to spare, and our 2nd-rounders wouldn't sound too affordable to lose. Florida can throw in Theodore to back up the 'nucks no.1, but do we really want to give up Reimer in that kind of a deal?

    I mean, after all, we're great now that Allaire is gone, in terms of GK coaching, right? No reason to fear butterflies on the ice or in our stomachs anymore? After all, Burke's skull-bashing Ducks was no idealization of Broad Street Bullies at all?

    That Ducks team won the Cup in spite of twice-suspended Pronger and truculence, not because of it. So here's some cannon fodder for the next podcast; Burke is, maybe, not as good and smart hockey guy as he seems, maybe he's just someone who should have been buried alongside Cam Neely's playing career, but remained in the picture because of his uncanny charisma.

    Either Wendel Clark nor Cam Neely would probably not have much of a career in modern hockey. At least, not as the players they were back then. They were skilled, of course, but in their heyday, the padding wasn't constructed of the same unyieldingly hard and uncompromising plastic as it is today.

    But Burke's ideals of how hockey should be played still, today, seems to be built on days far gone. He's not smart, he's not good, he's just a charismatic boy whose ideal hockey world passed by long ago. It's almost insane how he and Grapes are nowadays at odds. Even more insane that Grapes is the one who actually has a tangible point.

    Meh, I don't miss the NHL. But I sure do miss the Leafs, come hell or high water. And sorry about the rambling.

  11. Yes, Luongo to Florida still makes the most sense, though I have this feeling the Hawks may be in the conversation, too.

    If Gillis could get the players you mention for Luongo, I'd tend to make that deal. He could sell that in Vancouver as a "hockey deal", not just a salary dump...

    We'll definitely have some discussions about Burke's approach to building the roster in future podcasts- thanks CGLN.