TORONTO - For seven years they’ve been in the shadow of the Air Canada Centre, attention-starved step-kids of the Maple Leafs, playing in a half-empty house.
But the Toronto Marlies are about to get their day in the Sun. And the Globe, the Post and many other media outlets. With the loud call for change at the ACC after the Leafs’ dramatic dip and dubious chance of improving through trades or free agency, the farm system is now viewed by many as the salvation of Leafs Nation.
But how many Ricoh rug rats are actually ready for prime time? After all, this is the team infamous for mismanaging the farm in years past, rushing green kids, sacrificing high picks for failed playoff runs and losing patience with slow learners.
Now that things are in order to some degree, should the Leafs trade one or two prospects to satisfy their seven-year playoff itch or leave the kids alone to grow and not sweat eight straight?
“We’re going to know a lot more about our guys after the playoffs,” said Dave Poulin, the Leafs’ vice-president of hockey operations.
With a pair of weekend wins over Rochester, the Marlies are closing in on clinching their division, soon to be bolstered by Leafs who were astutely kept eligible for AHL duty. General manager Brian Burke and his hockey department have taken a pounding since the main Leaf roster showed itself to be full of holes, but deserve some credit for re-seeding — and not receding — when it comes to the farm.
The Marlies are about to get a taste of Leaf-style scrutiny. Not just in April, because they’ve beaten the playoff curse of MLSE’s other three sports properties, but for the rest of this summer.
“If you can’t handle the market here, you better ask Brian to be traded,” coach Dallas Eakins said recently. “It is what it is, and if you can’t embrace it, be excited about it, you should go somewhere else. I don’t think one of our players is afraid of the market.”
The Hockey News’ Future Watch, which grades all 30 teams’ draft success, has given the Leafs improved grades the past year, bringing them up to the middle of the pack. But Poulin thinks similar analyses by magazines and scouting websites have under-valued the Leafs’ system.
“We know our own players best and the people we have working for us,” he said. “You just have to look at how many teams send scouts to Marlies games to know the interest out there in our players.”
Poulin does concede the team to envy at present is Ottawa. It laid a pipeline of players from their 2011 Calder Cup champion team in Binghamton right to Bytown, vaulting the Sens into the NHL playoffs in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
“There’s Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Kaspars Daugavins, Zack Smith, Bobby Butler and Jared Cowen,” listed Poulin. “That’s the importance of having guys in a winning culture.”
When the Marlies first launched at Ricoh Coliseum in 2005, they had one first-round pick (Carlo Colaiacovo), one future full-time Leaf (Ian White) and 13 players who would come through Toronto, but never stay the equivalent of two full seasons.
This year’s roster features four first-rounders — Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Joe Colborne and Carter Ashton — plus three mid-rounders: Jesse Blacker, Nicholas Deschamps and Mark Fraser. None of the above include four of the club’s top five scorers, Mike Zigomanis, Ryan Hamilton, Marcel Mueller and Greg Scott, nor the man with the AHL’s third-best goals-against average, Ben Scrivens. A late addition is Hobey Baker Award finalist Spencer Abbott.
Kadri always is a talking point, his plugs from Coach’s Corner aside. With his vision and derring-do with the puck, he oozes confidence on the ice and in front of the cameras. Yet his risk-taking did not endear him to Ron Wilson, while Burke chose Ashton as the forward he wanted to grade when naming the last of his four post-trade deadline callups. Kadri did come back on emergency recall and scored, as he did all three times the first game the Leafs brought him back, adding a shootout winner.
“It’s going to be an important summer for Nazem,” said ex-Leaf and Marlie analyst Bob McGill. “Not in terms of getting bigger, but just getting strength throughout his (188-pound) body. He needs an opportunity to play a whole season where he gets important minutes. Down there, he plays 4-on-4, 5-on-5, on the power play and he’s an integral part of their club.”
Judging Kadri’s progress is also a matter of perception. There’s lots to like about him, but more to like at this stage about the six drafted ahead of him in 2009: John Tavares, Victor Hedman, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Brayden Schenn and Oliver Ekman-Larson. All are in the league and contributing.
The 6-foot-5 Colborne was an autumn sensation as AHL player of the month. Obtained in the Tomas Kaberle trade with Boston, he helped ease the sting that lingered from the expensive Phil Kessel trade with the Bruins. But where fellow NCAA grad Jake Gardiner overcame the pro schedule hump with the Leafs, Colborne did not — although the Leafs did call him up yesterday to replace the injured Mikhail Grabovski.
“Now he’s hit a bit of a wall,” McGill said of a late-season points drought. “He does have a couple of shootout goals recently and they’re hoping that’s what it takes to spark him. I think he has to do like last year, go home right away and start training.
“I played with (6-foot-5) Adam Creighton three years in Chicago and Joe reminds me so much of Adam. He’s got the skill set, that same gangly size, and you hope he turns into that physical guy with a mean streak.”
The AHL playoffs, the rookie camp and the 2012 main Leaf camp will also be a chance to gauge the readiness of the Marlies’ defence. Two years ago, everyone fretted where the Leafs would find room for Matt Lashoff, Brett Lebda and Keith Aulie on top of the starting six and whether Simon Gysbers, Jesse Blacker or someone else would jump up. All proved to be unready or over-rated, but the chance has come again for Blacker and a newer arrival, Korbinian Holzer. Poulin and McGill see Holzer with the best chance of stepping in next fall.
“He’s big, strong, a solid defensive defenceman,” McGill said. “And he’s tough in the way you can do something (nasty) to him and he won’t back down. He’ll give you a look like, ‘That’s all ya got?’ He has that toughness of a Vladimir Konstantinov.
“Jesse has come a long way. You have to pull the reins back on him and I like that better than a kid you have to keep prodding. When he does make the jump, I think he’ll play a long time in the NHL. He has that nastiness, a little bite to his game, he’s a fabulous skater with a bit of offensive flair.”
This year, for just the fourth time in 20 drafts, the Leafs will be making a top 10 selection, unless they trade on the floor for a veteran and drop a few places. Regardless, any first-round pick will make a nice bundle with the two added last season, Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy, and top tens already in the fold, Kadri and Luke Schenn. The Leafs also signed Brad Ross (43rd overall in 2010) and Sam Carrick (144th) to entry-level contracts. The Leafs are also keeping an eye on Swedish national team junior defenceman Petter Granberg.
“My personal way to look at it is you have three pages in front of you,” Poulin said. “The left-hand page is the Leafs, 23 players with injuries taken into account, all under a salary cap. The middle page is the Marlies, not limited by a cap or by numbers, about 30 players including long-term injuries and guys on try-out contracts. That includes the six players we keep in Reading (the Leafs ECHL affiliate). The right-hand page is the unsigned draft choices in junior, college and in Europe.
“You only have 50 contracts on all three pages to work with, though they slide for kids who go back to junior. You have more latitude with college players you draft because they don’t have to be signed for four years, but you can’t keep Europeans over there for six or seven years anymore.
“So, ideally, you want the third page pushing the second, pushing the first.”
UP AND COMERS
Five Marlies who could be Leafs next season
1. F Nazem Kadri
New coach, physical edge could finally open the door.
2. F Joe Colborne
About 10 pounds more would help his 6-foot-5 frame.
3. F Ryan Hamilton
More of a long shot, but he leads Marlies in goals and PPGs.
4. D Korbinian Holzer
Two years of AHL apprenticeship about to pay off.
5. G Ben Scrivens
Ready to fill the Monster’s shoes?
FIVE LEAF PROSPECTS TO WATCH NEXT SEASON
1. F Brad Ross, Portland WHL
Top pick from 2010 can score and agitate.
2. F Tyler Biggs, NCAA Miami (Ohio)
First-rounder from 2011 will take bigger role as sophomore.
3. D Stuart Percy, Mississauga/St. Mike’s OHL
Injuries hampered him, but having strong finish.
4. D Petter Granberg, Skelleftea SEL
Stay-at-home defenceman does many little things right.
5. G Mark Owuya, Reading ECHL
Has gone from a curiosity to AHL-calibre in less than a year.