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How many Marlies (e.g. Joe Colborne) are really destined to make a contribution with the Maple Leafs?

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I watched a program on Leafs TV recently and the “panel” was talking about the Toronto Marlies.  If you listened to the back and forth discussion, you would have almost sworn the Marlies were an NHL team.  The talking heads made it sound as though most of the baby Leafs were good enough to play in the NHL right now.

Now, I know this is Toronto and I know people get awfully (and easily) excited whenever a “prospect” appears to be able to walk, talk and chew gum at the same time—or when a somewhat older (and usually un-distinguished, if we're honest) player arrives in town and dons a blue and white uniform.  We figure these guys must be good.  After all, Brian Burke drafted—or signed or traded for—them, right?

But do we really, honestly think that most of the Marlies are legitimate NHL’ers?  If so, how many?

I posted a piece here a couple of weeks ago about Joe Colborne, for example.  I wondered aloud what kind of upside he actually had.  I still don't feel as though I know.  He's not old, I realize, but I'm not sure even the Leaf brass knows at this point.  I recognize that injuries have been an issue, and that can really derail a young player's development curve.  But that said, where is Colborne right now?  What will he be?  Whereas, for example, Nazem Kadri has 24 points in 24 games this season with the Marlies, Colborne stands at 9 points, including just one goal, in 25 games...

Now, maybe we need some context for this discussion:  if super-hopeful Leaf observers are suggesting that most of the Marlies could play for a few games with the Leafs and not hurt the club, maybe even play none too badly, sure, I don't doubt that might be the case.  After all, Gardiner is already an NHL’er, and so are Frattin and Kadri, from where I sit.  For me, they’re not “prospects” anymore.  They’re Leafs.  So I’m done with talking about them in that vein.

Guys like Aucoin, Fraser, Zigomanis, Ranger and Kostka have all spent some time in the NHL.  At one time, Ranger appeared to have a bright future—and after some time away from the game, may still.

But do we think any of those guys are going to be difference-makers, actual impact players at the NHL level? Do we believe that all of Colborne, D’Amigo, Ashton, Abbott, Holzer, McKegg and Blacker are going to be productive Maple Leafs?

Hey, maybe statistically you have a better shot of having some of these guys make it compared with if an organization only had, say, one “blue chip” prospect.  But which of these guys, if any, is really and truly a high-end, elite-level NHL prospect? How many are actually “blue chip”?

Is anyone on the above list of names, or that is on the current Marlie roster (other than the aforementioned Gardiner), "can’t miss"?

I just think sometimes we really do over-estimate what we have in Burke’s “system”.  I'm all for being optimistic and seeing the good traits in emerging, young players.  But believe me, having followed this franchise for more than fifty years, I've seen this movie before.  People want to convince me that we have more great young prospects in the system now than ever before and that's fine.  But we have had many outstanding "prospects" in the past.  Many high draft picks. History suggests we have seldom seen a number of these youngsters with potential develop and thrive at the same time in Toronto.  I can point to certain "mini eras" where this did begin to occur (e.g. very early '70s, mid-later '70s, mid-later '80s), but it has not happened often.

And, in fairness, as I’ve said here before, plenty of NHL teams have a ton of nice prospects in the AHL these days.  The Leafs are hardly alone. 

And I wonder, I really wonder, of the players we are discussing here today, who is going to be a bonafide star in the NHL?  If we’re talking about a Morgan Rielly, a 5th overall pick, a player we have all seen that is an elite skater and has seemingly stellar hockey sense, maybe we can begin to talk about a possible “can’t miss” prospect.  Maybe.

But beyond that?  I think at times we are wishing, and hoping. Again, I’m all for enjoying watching the Marlies and wishing them success, and having fun watching the youngsters develop.  But surely we have to be realistic and clear-headed in our assessments of players and their potential.  I mean, yes, we can say, "that Fraser is really rough.." or "D'Amigo sure can skate..." but when we put the whole package together, I ask again, how many of these guys will be high-end NHL'ers with the Leafs?  Because, let's face it, the current Leaf roster is already filled with plenty of guys who are replaceable parts.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise.  What say you? (Remember, I’m not talking about replaceable third and fourth line NHL’ers—I’m looking for players who will not just make the roster but in fact make the Leafs substantially better, which for me means they have to be better than what we have now, for starters....)

I look forward to hearing your thoughts…


  1. If I had to make a prediction, think Ranger is the mostly likely to make a future impact in the NHL.

    There is also Leo Komorov who looks like he could have a decent NHL career.

    Holzer won't make a huge impact but he would probably play in the NHL on at least 8 teams right now. Kosta is interesting perhaps he plays on the third pairing as powerplay specialist in the NHL, but I would sure like to see him in camp up against Franson and Komisarek.

    Jesse Blacker has youth on his side. He is only 21 and had a pretty good first year in the AHL...16 points in 58 games. I think it is quite possible for him to peak in a few years as a second pairing defenceman.

    Many of the forwards are just 4th line guys. Keith Aucoin is 4th line guy. I think Spenser Abbot and Greg McKegg might look at Aucoin and see thier future: stars in the AHL but not big enough to play consistently in the NHL.

    But having these guys isn't so bad. I don't worry as much about injuries now. We have a stable full of guys that will do a decent job on a call up. They are better than the guys we used to call up. We aren't calling up Brayden Irwin, Luca Caputi or Christian Hanson. Keith Aucoin is a point a game guy in the AHL and so is Spenser a rookie.

  2. Thanks DP. Lots of youngsters in the system- we'll see how they all develop!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours, DP!

  3. Michael,

    This, exactly this. I am always telling people that drafting and developing players is about all-stars and hall of famers. It is not about acquiring another guy for the 3rd or 4th line. All of my eggs are in the Morgan Rielly basket. He is the only possible star among the minor leaguers. You are absolutely correct, Kadri, Gardiner, and Frattin are already Maple Leafs not Marlies.

    I would like to wish you a happy and safe holiday season, for you and all of those people you care about. Merry Christmas Michael, take care.

  4. We see this the same way, it seems, Jim. Some nice players, yes. But difference-makers on a really good team? Not so sure.

    Warmest wishes to you and yours as well, Jim. Your contributions here are very much appreciated. Have a wonderful Christmas.

  5. P.S.

    We sometimes forget we also have another decent prospect in the World Juniors. Tyler Biggs is playing for team U.S.A. I could see him moving between the 2nd and third line (depending on the game) during the peak of his career. At 225 lbs, his combination of size, toughness, skill and two-way play might be a very welcome and noticeable change for the Leafs.

    Maybe not quite a star, but a Ryanne Clowe type player who plays tough, turns it up a notch in the playoffs and is adored by the home crowd.

    I am really looking forward to seeing him play against the best at the World Juniors.