In the grand scheme of the Maple Leafs, just what would a Calder Cup mean for the Toronto Marlies?
With the farm club about to open the final this weekend in Norfolk, Va., there are startling contrasts in public response. People who packed the Ricoh Coliseum for Game 5 of the AHL Western Conference final, many in Leafs get-ups, have latched on the Marlies as a blue and white beacon of hope. But many QMI e-mailers and a lot of fan-in-the-street types have a ‘who cares’ attitude towards a minor league trophy, or see it as another Leafs tease.
Having coached many of these Marlies as long as two and three years, coach Dallas Eakins is hearing the same sniping and was quick to give the critics a verbal slash.
“They’re definitely not employed in pro hockey,” Eakins said Monday as the Marlies revved their game plan for the Eastern champion Admirals.
“Somebody just brought a stat to my attention that no (recent) MVP of the American Hockey League playoffs has ever been significant (in the NHL) other than Carey Price. Well, that’s a fine and dandy stat, but if you go back the past 15 years or whatever they were picking at, look at those who’ve played in the Calder playoffs, for one round, been on a winning team or maybe even lost in the second round. A significant amount of players come from this league.
“I don’t understand how anyone can say the Calder Cup means nothing, that our playoffs mean nothing. It means you’re winning. Thirty NHL teams have prospects in this league and now there are two left (Toronto and Tampa Bay). How does that not bode well for the future of any organization?”
The shining example at present is the Binghamton Senators, down 3-1 in last year’s opening round, coming back to win and going all the way to the Calder. With several ‘Bingo’ players in its lineup, Ottawa skipped the rebuilding phase in 2011-12 and nearly upset the Rangers in the first series.
“Most people thought they’d finish dead last, but something went on there,” Eakins said. “Maybe it was because (veteran) Jason Spezza had a better year, I don’t know, but there was (an AHL) contribution.
“We’re teaching our players how to win and they’re doing it. There can never be a negative feel for that. We’re doing something right and we hope it pays off for the big club down the road.”
It’s unlikely there would be a huge personnel change next season with the Leafs roster purged in favour of farmhands, keeping in mind salary cap issues and a young Leafs team that some Marlies are already part of. But all the benefits of winning at Ricoh can’t be measured in just a cab ride to play at the ACC.
“You face so many different types adversity in the playoffs and a lot goes unseen by people,” Eakin said. “What these guys have gone through already will make them better fathers, better husbands, better human beings and better people in their community. This kind of thing rubs off. If you can win and get as far as we have, you’ll carry that with you the rest of your life.”
Jerry D’Amigo’s flowing playoff beard is something not seen in a Toronto pro rink in a few years.
“A lot of people are enjoying summer right now, but you play this sport to win it,” said D’Amigo, tied for the team lead with 13 playoff points.
“We’re a step below the NHL and it’s pretty good if you’re the top of that class. I’ve been on championship teams before and you love the feeling, you love everything around it. When you’re not, you don’t remember your teammates, you’re not that close. Win a championship and you’re best friends forever, you carry it with you and talk about it with your grandkids.”
Defenceman Matt Lashoff has spent all or part of seven seasons in the AHL.
“People can roll their eyes all they want at what we’re doing here. The reality is, the big majority of these guys are going to be NHL players for a long time. This is only going to help them moving forward, the experience of big moments, being in tight games into the third period, where there’s a lot of pressure on you. You know how to manage your emotions and your game.
“You see the sacrifices that need to be made, you see how teams are built and should be built to have that winning attitude.”
Marlies secret weapon: Carter
When the Maple Leafs moved defenceman Keith Aulie to Tampa Bay for forward Carter Ashton at the trade deadline, there was no way of knowing the two would become Calder Cup ‘sleepers’.
Three months later, the duo are supplying scouting data to the respective Norfolk Admirals and Toronto Marlies, who’ve never met before this week’s AHL final.
“I had Carter right in my office this morning, going through their systems stuff,” admitted Toronto coach Dallas Eakins on Monday. “I’m sure Keith is filling them in over there. But the problem Keith has is we’ve run three or four systems all year so we keep the other teams on their toes. He can tell them all he wants, but they just never know which one’s coming.”
Eakins is leaving no stone unturned.
“I’ve not only talked to coaches of teams who’ve played against Norfolk in playoffs, I’ve talked to three head coaches in the NHL who’ve played against Tampa, because their systems are very similar.”
One of those men might have been former Leafs boss Ron Wilson.
The concussed Ashton is on the Marlies long list of injuries, though he and Marcel Mueller were well enough to take part in some of Monday’s workout. Still missing are three key forwards, Mike Zigomanis, Nazem Kadri and the latest injury, Matt Frattin.