Whether or not there is any sort of NHL season this year, there is one thing we do know: there will be an AHL season.
The Toronto Marlies will go into the season looking to defend their regular season division championship and their Western Conference playoff championship. The online odds at canada.betfair.com show they are among the firm favourites, but at this stage it’s based on last season’s glories, so there is still a lot to prove this year and a long way to go yet.
Even with that kind of target on their back this season, the Marlies will be well-primed to at the very least win their division yet again.
They are set to return most of their core from last season but there will also be some significant changes.
First and foremost, Ben Scrivens will more than likely be gone. Even if the Leafs do end up eventually bringing in another goalie to tandem with James Reimer at the NHL level, Scrivens is waiver eligible next season, so the chances of him going unclaimed are slim to none.
With that in mind, goaltending represents the biggest question mark for the Marlies in the upcoming season. They are currently slated to go into next season with Mark Owuya and Jussi Rynnas as their top two goaltenders. The good news for the Marlies is that Owuya technically had better numbers last season than Scrivens (1.94GAA compared to 2.06GAA, and .929sv% compared to .926sv%). The difference is that Ben played 20 more games. Owuya holds promise and there is absolutely no doubt he can play at the AHL level, but the challenge will be whether or not he can carry the load and be “the guy.” Rynnas is no slouch, either. He’s shown flashes in his time in Toronto, but he’s also been inconsistent and injury prone.
Somewhat like the goalie battle for the Leafs (should it end up being between Reimer and Scrivens), both candidates have shown they can play at a high level, but they need to show now whether or not they can do it over the course of a full season while knowing there isn’t a work horse like Ben Scrivens to bail them out should they struggle or go cold.
The good news for both goalies is that no matter who is starting, they will be doing so in front of a very strong roster.
In the playoffs the Marlies iced a defense of Fraser-Holzer, Gardiner-Blacker and Gysbers-Mikus when healthy. Gone from that top six are Gardiner and Mikus without question as one will be in the NHL and the other signed in Europe. As of right now Korbinian Holzer is also in the Leafs top seven for defensemen. At the very least he should be on the NHL roster, if not playing, for the NHL season.
Over the summer Toronto has added two 26 year old’s to the back end in Dylan Yeo and Mike Kostka (who is turning 27 this year). Kostka is the more intriguing of the two as in the last two years he has had 55 and 38 point seasons, along with 12 points in Norfolks 18 game championship run. Yeo is more of a steady defenseman who can play a regular shift. Neither have played an NHL game yet in their careers.
That leaves the Marlies defense looking something like this at the moment:
Obviously there is still some work to do when it comes to the defense as there are two openings available and no prospects who are eligible to play for the Marlies next season except for Petter Granberg, who according to Jim Hughes via Kyle Cicerella is going back to Sweden for the year. Josh Engels is not signed but he is a player the Marlies have had play defense so he could definitely be a candidate to fill one hole. Matt Lashoff has signed in Switzerland. There’s two holes to fill on the Marlies defense still, that’s the bottom line.
The forwards on the other hand are filled with possibilities and face some tough cuts.
Of the players returning that are guaranteed roster spots, there is Mike Zigomanis, Ryan Hamilton, Keith Aucoin, Carter Ashton, Jerry D’Amigo, Greg Scott, Nicholas Deschamps and Joe Colborne; all of whom will be on the roster barring one of them making the Leafs roster unexpectedly (or getting traded, obviously). You also have to account for who could potentially be sent down to the Marlies after Leafs camp. Nazem Kadri is, of course, the main guy to keep an eye as certainly he seems primed to play with the big club this year, but right now there really is no room for him. Even if he does make the roster and management decides to send a veteran down to the minors to make space for him, that is still another roster spot to account for on the Marlies.
There’s also Leo Komarov and Colton Orr to consider. In an ideal world for the Leafs, Komarov wows at camp winning a spot on the fourth line alongside Steckel and Brown while Orr does enough to be the 13th forward. If either struggles, that is yet another roster spot to account for.
This is important when you consider all the young players who are gunning for a roster spot with the Marlies this year. There is Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs, Greg McKegg, Sam Carrick, Jamie Devane, Kenny Ryan, Andrew Crescenzi, Will Acton, and Spencer Abbott all vying for spots on the team on top of the eight roster locks we have already accounted for.
The Marlies have a positional strength and surplus at center ice. They feature Keith Aucoin, Mike Zigomanis and Joe Colborne. Other potential center candidates include Crescenzi, McKegg, Carrick, Acton and Ryan.
During the playoffs last year, Eakins had centers Kadri, Zigomanis, Colborne and Dupuis to play with, and in order to get them all ice time he played Kadri and Zigomanis on a line together with Ryan Hamilton. Should two of the above center prospects impress, it’s possible Eakins once again puts together a line like that. If they don’t, then expect the Marlies to role three lines very evenly (depending on how each is playing that game) while mixing in a fourth line shift every once and awhile.
On the wings, the Marlies are looking at having Hamilton, D’Amigo, Ashton, Deschamps make up their top six (unless, as said, they shift one of their centers to the wing), with players like Scott and Abbott knocking on the door. Scott in particular is a guy who could play top six minutes in the AHL, but is a guy Eakins rotates all over the roster. That leaves only two or three roster spots for wingers such as Ross, Devane, Biggs and any of the other center prospects who could just be moved to wing.
Of the prospects eligible to play for the Marlies, Sam Carrick, Brad Ross, and Andrew Crescenzi could be returned to junior for overage years. Tyler Biggs could go down to junior as simply a 19 year old (and also play in the world juniors).
Carrick is one guy to keep an eye for going back down as even though he had a great season in Brampton as their captain, it was really his first dominant year and it might not be a bad idea to send him back down to do it again and possibly even lead the Battalions on a lengthy playoff run this time around.
Conversely, Brad Ross doesn’t really have anything left to do in the WHL as he’s pretty well maxed out his ability there for awhile now, playing on a dominating line with top five picks Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter and then showing this year he could produce without them.
According to Brock Otten, (who is a pretty well informed guy that gets around OHL rinks), there are rumours the Leafs have informed Kitchener Andrew Crescenzi will play pro this year in either the AHL or ECHL. Even with that though, he would have to beat out incumbent Will Acton for that fourth line center. That might not seem like much, but Acton is an established AHL player at this point who knows how to play his role successfully at this level. He will be tougher to beat out for that role than people think.
At the end of the day the Marlies could begin the year looking at a roster that resembles something like this:
(Lines are not meant to be exact, this is more to show who will make the team)
Crescenzi- Begins year in the ECHL
Carrick- Back to OHL
Biggs- To the OHL
Orr/Kadri/Komarov- Leafs make room for them, otherwise Devane is probably losing his roster spot
*Please note the roster will change dramatically should there be a lockout and the Leafs have to send down guys like Frattin, Gardiner, and Kadri to begin the season.
As always with an AHL affiliate, success won’t solely be measured by wins and loses. With a roster featuring prospects such as Colborne, Ashton, D’Amigo and Blacker, a big part of what coach Eakins and his staff do this year will have to be focused on getting the kids ready for the next level and hopefully even graduating some players to the NHL during the year.
Last season was the first year under Eakins that he was told to win first and foremost. Leafs management has preached about creating a winning culture with the Marlies and translating it to the Leafs gradually, and it’s understandable, but at some point you have to look at the roster and question the fact that Zigomanis and Aucoin are probably both better AHL centers than Joe Colborne, but only one of those three has the potential to become something special with the Leafs.
There are these types of questions all over the forward unit. Yes, young kids like McKegg and Ross will have to work their way up the lineup, but each of them would have to pass some pretty established quality players to get substantial ice-time. Some will inevitably say Eakins should sit career AHLers in order to get the kids ice-time, but sitting better players so worse players can play is one of the quicker ways to lose everyone’s respect in the dressing room and alienate your players from what you are trying to teach.
Injuries will of course happen and players will eventually be moved up or down the lineup due to their own play or outside circumstances, but Eakins has a tricky year ahead of him when it comes to getting players ice-time, and walking the line between playing his veterans and developing the kids.
Further to this all, the Marlies roster only highlights another reason the Leafs still need to clear space on their NHL roster. If Kadri and Komarov, for example, have to be sent down because the big club has no space, that could mean prospects such as McKegg and Ross lose their AHL roster spots and have to be sent down to the ECHL. There’s technically nothing wrong with the ECHL, but if you’re Brian Burke, you want your prospects developing in Toronto, with Eakins, and a solid Marlies team.
We’ll see how it all plays out. Fortunately and most importantly, as the lockout looms the Marlies assure us there will still be hockey in Toronto worth watching.