Hereâ€™s the thing though: with different leagues comes different expectations and viewing experiences.
When it comes to watching and evaluating the NHL, itâ€™s very simple: winning is all that matters. Each team in the league continuously tries to get better, figuring out how to start winning or continue winning. In the AHL, that is not necessarily the case. At the end of the day the Marlies will probably be judged by many based on the win and loss column, but what really matters – to me – is the progression of their players and how they can eventually help the Leafs win at the next level.
Thus, what will be focused on most here in this space is not really winning and losing, but how these players are progressing and, more importantly, how they can help the Leafs win hockey games whenever the NHL starts up again. Of course, the Marlies accomplishments will be pointed out too, but as I said the main focus is still with an eye towards the Leafs and how these guys can help the NHL team.
One other thing: The Marlies have played two games at this point. For some players, it was their first taste of pro hockey altogether. Letâ€™s give them some time to get their feet wet before we really start critiquing them.
On that note, here are some observations from this past weekendâ€™s back-to-back games:
- In October, Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press wrote this article about the relationship between Randy Carlyle and Dallas Eakins. It includes some of the system adjustments the Marlies will be making this year in order to play Carlyle hockey. The basic premise of the defensive system involves out numbering the opposition in the defensive zone. It is an interesting concept that will be fun to monitor as the season progresses. None of the goals scored against Toronto this weekend could be blamed on it as the Amerks scored on a power play, while Erie also had one power play goal, a goal scored by an individual effort and another scored off a misplayed dump-in on top of an empty netter. Meaning, thereâ€™s no real breakdown in the newly implemented system for us to discuss.
- While the Marlies lost against Erie, they dominated the game so it wasnâ€™t really a great game to get a good look at the system. Against the Amerks it was also pretty one-sided, but there was a stretch in the second period where they got hemmed in their zone for an extended period of time where you could see the team chasing the puck a lot. That is the major downside to the system. Conversely, on many shifts the Marlies have sent two or even three guys into board battles, come out with the puck, and broken out of the zone cleanly after that.
- Another big part of Carlyleâ€™s system is that he likes to use the middle of the ice more when it comes to breaking out. The Marlies have been doing this in two ways. The first is their defencemen, namely Gardiner, simply skating it out through the open ice on their own. The second has been a D to D pass followed by a quick pass up the middle to a center that cuts low below the faceoff dot; the center then makes the quick decision on whether he should pass it to either winger or skate it up himself.
- The Marlies appear to be skating the puck into the zone more often than not so far this year, but Iâ€™m not sure thatâ€™s a reflection on the Leafs style of play to be. Iâ€™d assume Carlyleâ€™s system is more catered towards his specific lines. In other words, Kesselâ€™s line will probably rarely dump it in, whereas McClementâ€™s will most likely do so regularly.
- One last thing the about the Marlies system worth pointing out: when protecting a lead in the last minute of play they had their center, in this case Zigomanis, stay in the defensive zone near the goaltender and goal line when the opposition had the puck in the neutral zone. This was something even Ron Wilson had the team do in order to prevent teams from dumping the puck in behind the D-men who were standing up forwards at the blue line. It wasnâ€™t necessarily pretty, but it was effective.
- Although it is not exactly news to many at this point, itâ€™s probably time to consider Nazem Kadri a full-time winger. He played wing in the playoffs last year mixed with some center on a line with Zigomanis and Hamilton, and now heâ€™s playing full-time wing to start the year. Itâ€™s probably for the best, anyways. There should be a spot alongside Mikhail Grabovski open for him sometime soon.
- On the other side of Kadri has been Carter Ashton. That means they are using his big body to complement skill in Kadri and Aucoin. Where Ashton continues to play will be something to monitor; if heâ€™s going to play on whatâ€™s essentially the top line, heâ€™s going to need to produce at a noteworthy and consistent pace. To this point he has failed to really create anything, but again itâ€™s only two games. On the power play he has seen a steady shift as a floating net presence. That means heâ€™ll stand in front of the net, and then float out to the top of the circle as a one-timer option. Iâ€™ve always personally felt that net presences work best when they literally just plant themselves in front of the goalie and donâ€™t move, drawing a defender to them and driving the guy in net crazy (Keith Tkachuk comes to mind). A floating presence kind of defeats that purpose. Iâ€™ll be paying attention to see if that play continues and if he remains on the top line. Ashton was played as a grinder with the Leafs and that appears much more suited to his skillset.
- Leo Komarov got burned pretty hard against Lake Erie thinking he could pick-pocket Tyson Barrie at the Marlies blue line. The young defender spun around him then went down and scored a beauty of a goal. Itâ€™s a good learning experience because, against good players in the NHL, you are going to get burned if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. And Barrie isnâ€™t even a good NHLer yet. Other than that, Komarov has been finishing all his checks as advertised, which isnâ€™t surprising because he did that in the World Championships consistently. Heâ€™s been a pest so to speak, but he clearly has to adjust to the North American game. This time in the AHL will actually be good for him. If the lockout lifts heâ€™s going to be in a battle to win a spot on an energy and/or grinding line.
- Dâ€™Amigo is another guy who could possibly win a spot on the Leafs in that kind of role. The tough thing right now when it comes to the Marlies is that they have been rolling their lines when they can on account of their depth, which makes it harder to evaluate a player a like Dâ€™Amigo in a shutdown role. I thought this year we might have seen Dâ€™Amigo get power play time and used a little more offensively, but it has been penalty killing and defensive assignments so far for him. His role for the Leafs, should he make it, is pretty clear at this point.
- By the same token, Holzerâ€™s role has specifically been a shutdown defender who sees top penalty killing time. Sounds like Brian Burkeâ€™s ideal third pairing defender.
- Jake Gardiner has been receiving a lot of attention from fans but he is someone I wonâ€™t spend much time on here. We already know he is an NHLer. He was going end-to-end in his rookie season in the big-league, so of course heâ€™s going to be able to do it in the AHL. Heâ€™ll grow his offensive confidence and log a ton of ice-time, but realistically, thereâ€™s nothing to really say about him. Heâ€™s at the point where he needs to be challenged by NHLers. Jordan Eberle and RNH BOTH didnâ€™t even get points in their first two games this season. Thereâ€™s not much to say about these guys sent down due to the lockout. Theyâ€™ll turn it on eventually, but it is what it is â€” they are NHLers in the AHL due to the lockout.
- Joe Colborne is coming back from surgery and still looks like he has to get his game going, but he has the zip back on his passes. The mustard he put on a cross ice pass to Ryan Hamilton for a tap in goal was something he could not do last year after he got hurt. He is getting predictable with that play, but on the whole it very much looks like the once-raw center project is starting to figure it out. When he was drafted everyone knew he was pretty raw, which really just means a little patience and teaching is required.
- Colborne might actually be the player benefiting most from the lockout in the organization because he isnâ€™t ready to put up good numbers as an NHL center. In the AHL he is getting quality line-mates and buying development time. Like Kadri, he too will soon need a serious look at the NHL level over an extended period of time.
Thatâ€™s it from me for now. Itâ€™s going to be a long season, especially if thereâ€™s no NHL, so weâ€™ll try our best here to make it as entertaining as possible. The good news is that there are a ton of players on the Marlies who should eventually become NHLers so itâ€™s not like weâ€™re talking about plugs. Whatâ€™s also good news is that the Marlies are really good. There are also a few Leafs prospects weâ€™ll talk about throughout the year. Plus, who knows when Burke is going to open his mouth next? In other words, weâ€™ll have stuff to talk about.