Leafs fans are showing heightened interest in the Marlies lately, and deservedly so as they have officially begun their run for the Calder Cup. While AHL success in the playoffs is always a fantastic experience for any player – especially young ones – fans of Toronto hockey at the end of the day are asking themselves one thing: How does this help the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Earlier in the year, I wrote a piece looking at Calder Cup Finalists translation to NHL success. That leads into the current edition of the Marlies as we look at who on this team is being counted on to help the Leafs moving forward and which players are likely to become productive NHLers and part of the long-term solution here.
Now, I want to stress that there is a difference between a long-term NHLer, and a fringe AHL-NHL tweener. A player like Darryl Boyce is an AHL-NHL tweener, meaning he’s a very good American league player, but struggles to get into a National league lineup consistently. Usually players that struggle to translate their games are missing one key ingredient that they can get away with in the AHL, but not the NHL – Be that a lack of speed, size, vision, strength, shooting ability, defensive ability, and so on.
So, inevitably, when someone says “where is Greg Scott,” well, Greg Scott brings a lot to the table, and hey, he could potentially make the Leafs as their 12th or 13th forward, but he is not a long-term solution to anything for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Thus, when we are looking at the players below, we aren’t just looking at players who may or may not crack the Leafs next season, we are looking at players who are being counted on to be contributing Toronto Maple Leafs for years to come in the ongoing quest to make the playoffs.
Jake Gardiner - Nothing needs to be said here, he’s already an NHLer. Dynamic skater, excellent vision, power play quarterback and general offensive catalyst from the back-end. Gardiner’s arguably already a top four defense man – defensive mistakes be damned – but the high amount of minutes he’s already shown he can log mean he could be a top pairing guy.
Matt Frattin - More or less in the same boat as Gardiner due to the fact that he’s established himself as an NHLer (and looked to be a Carlyle favourite, too). Strong, powerful player that mixes it up physically and has a cannon of a shot. Frattin can play in either a top six or bottom six role so it will be interesting to see where the Leafs and Carlyle slot him in to start next season. If the end of the season was any indication, you’d have to think he’ll be in the top six.
Nazem Kadri - Obviously he’s still looking to establish himself as an everyday NHL player, but the skills are all there for him to succeed. He’s slick, creative, has excellent hands and vision, and plays with a mean streak at times. If he’s going to play with the Leafs next season, it has to be in a top six role or else they would just be setting him up for failure. He’s basically reaching that “do or die” point within the Toronto organization where he’s either going to make this team full-time next season, or
Jerry D’Amigo - He’s the hot-ticket item right now in Toronto, but the truth is he had a very good season all around. Here’s a player that comes to the rink night-in and night-out and works his tail off; he’s also furthering his reputation as a big game player at the moment. At the end of the day he’s a bottom six forward, but a good one. D’Amigo is a solid skater, has some offensive game and brings some jam to the lineup; he’s the type of third liner that can occasionally see spot duty in the top six and hold his own but make no mistake, he’s a bottom six forward. D’Amigo saw consistent ice-time on the Marlies penalty kill, which is was the best in the league. It would be hard to argue D’Amigo isn’t NHL ready based on the way he’s played this season and he’ll definitely challenge for a roster spot with the Leafs at camp next year, but even if he doesn’t make it right away he should get NHL time next season and once he does, he’ll probably never go back down.
Joe Colborne - Some have soured on him after his drop off following his scorching hot start to the season, and while there are legitimate questions surrounding whether or not he can be a contributing top six forward, at the end of the day a player who is 6’5, has skill, vision and can play both wing and center makes the NHL in some capacity. The Leafs still see him as a top six center but right it’s tough to see when he’ll get a chance to play center for the Leafs. Grabovski and Steckel are locked in centers with the organization (both via contract and the fact that Carlyle clearly thinks highly of both), then after that there is also Tyler Bozak, Tim Connolly, Matt Lombardi and even Nazem Kadri, plus the ever elusive first line center that Brian Burke keeps talking about acquiring. Thus, he could be starting next season with the Marlies yet again, but much like Kadri, eventually you get to a “do or die” point, and that’s coming sooner than later for Colborne.
Carter Ashton – Still in only his first season of pro hockey, Ashton has had quite a few positives including a 21 goal AHL campaign and his first taste of NHL hockey. He’s a big boy at 6’3 and nearly 220, so as he continues to fill out and mature into his body he’s only going to become a better player. Even though he didn’t record a point in his time in the NHL, he’s produced well offensively at every level which suggests that should eventually translate to the NHL in a possible top six role as a net presence and crasher and banger who can score. Ashton is also steady enough defensively to hold down a bottom six role, but you have to think only one of D’Amigo and Ashton win a bottom six spot out of training camp. Seeing as this is only Ashton’s first year in the pro’s, there is no shame in having him down in the AHL to start next season and continue to grow his game.
Stuart Percy - One of the Leafs’ two first round picks last year is already making headway by establishing himself as a staple in a top AHL team’s defense during the playoffs. Percy plays a cerebral game revolving around quality puck movement and decision making. You can tell he’s still learning the speed at which decisions are made at at this level, but he’s been learning every game. I originally projected him to be an NHLer in four years upon being drafted, but the fact that he’s already logging quality minutes in the AHL playoffs is eye-opening. However, he’s only 19 so he either makes the Leafs out of camp next season, or goes back to junior. He’ll be hard pressed to make the Leafs and, assuming he won’t, once he’s done junior he’ll probably need some seasoning. I’m sticking to my four year projection from the draft, but beyond that he has the game of a top four defense man who can play a little power play, be a defensive guy and can log quality minutes. If you’re a fan who has yet to really see Percy play though, this is a golden opportunity to.
Jesse Blacker - Isn’t playing right now due to a shoulder injury, but did have a very good rookie season in the AHL. Was more of a point producer in the OHL than he’s shown with the Marlies, but in pro hockey he’s been more of a defensive rock that looks to take the body and play more of a defensive game. Dave Nonis said earlier this year that Blacker could be NHL ready very soon, and he should at the least get a cup of coffee with the big club next year, but he will be really hard pressed to stick for the year especially since Holzer is ahead of him right now on the path to the NHL (two rookie defensemen, plus a second year guy in Gardiner is a recipe for a disaster even if all of them are good). Failing him sticking next season, he should be a Leaf the following year. Blacker can do a bit of everything and has the game of a top four defenseman as well; if his growth sees his offensive game burgeon as he continues to develop he will be golden.
Korbinian Holzer - Arguably should have been a Leaf this season. Most know the book on Holzer at this point: He’s big, has a mean streak, is a pure defensive defenseman and he got caught in a numbers game this year. The Leafs would clearly love to move Komisarek and replace him with Holzer, but that’s easier said than done. Holzer is a third pairing defense man, but he can kill penalties and that frees up ice time and responsibilities for guys in the top four to be more offensive.
Ben Scrivens - Had a generally speaking good showing with the Leafs this season. As an RFA this summer, you have to think he’s going to push for an NHL opportunity one way or another (meaning Leafs or not). He’s 26, he just had the lowest goals against average in the AHL while winning 22 of his 39 starts, and has nothing left to prove at that level. So simply put, Scrivens needs NHL starts to continue to grow his game. He’s not about to be a number one goalie anytime soon – meaning in the next two years – but I certainly wouldn’t limit his upside and say that he couldn’t become one.
This isn’t to take away from the efforts of the rest of the team by any means – guys like Zigomanis, Dupuis and Fraser have all been spectacular for the Marlies and deserve full credit and attention for how they are playing – but if you’re watching the Marlies and wondering who will be one day contributing to the Leafs or another NHL roster, these are the players to keep an eye on.