Among the many things the moves of the past few days, weeks and months have signified – in the overall sense, the stripping down of the Leafs roster and stockpiling of picks and prospects in a calculated, highly aggressive rebuild – is the opportunity for some young faces to feature in significant minutes down the final stretch of the 2015-16 Maple Leafs season.
Lou Lamoriello says this has always been the timing he envisioned for calling up young prospects. Translation: Here come the Marlies.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 22, 2016
One nice thing about the Toronto Marlies’ record-breaking season, among the many nice things about it, is that it gives the Leafs the option to bring up some key contributors from the Marlies without putting a playoff spot or even a divisional championship in serious jeopardy. Marlies GM Kyle Dubas will ensure all the right players are on the clear-day roster and available for the AHL playoffs, and from there Leafs brass can provide some young players with a taste of NHL action as they see fit while the big club plays out the string.
The constant flux is going to present challenges for Sheldon Keefe in trying to keep his team gelling, winning games and maintaining its place atop the AHL standings, but that’s what he gets paid for and has been dealing with to varying degrees throughout the season. The Marlies have built some padding between them and the rest of the League (15 points clear of second place). In the end, few will remember the awesome 2015-16 Toronto Marlies season if it isn’t primarily serving the big club’s long-term interests. If you’ve listened to any of Kyle Dubas’ interviews this season, you’ll know he’s keenly aware of that. This Marlies team is going to have every chance to go and win a Calder Cup in April and May, so to be too concerned about setting AHL regular-season records or individual franchise records is missing the plot somewhat.
The Marlies have proven to have depth in spades when they’ve gone without key contributors for spells of time. The team is a remarkable 16-3-1 without their leading scorer William Nylander this season. They also went 8-2-0 without both Kapanen and Nylander during the World Juniors. (It’s important to note that Mark Arcobello lighting up the league helped offset those absences, and he figures to spend the rest of the season with the Leafs if not another NHL team).
Dubas has ensured the Marlies are prepared for this sort of situation by stocking the organization with reasonable depth options. The Orlando Solar Bears relationship has served the Marlies well: Outside of the goaltenders (Rob Madore won all four of his appearances with the Marlies — 1.25GAA, 0.952SV%, one shutout), Brett Findlay spent most of last season with the Solar Bears as well as 15 games in the ECHL this season. Since his call up to the Marlies, he’s proven a useful contributor with 14 points in 28 games. Findlay has recently centered Brendan Leipsic and Connor Brown and has four points and three goals in his last three games. Eric Faille has 50 points in 47 ECHL games and has chipped in a couple of points in his four AHL appearances; defencemen James Martin and Eric Baier (contributed a point in is one Marlies appearance to date) appear capable of filling holes temporarily.
The Marlies also just added a proven point-producing AHL center in Colin Smith, via the Shawn Matthias deal, at the same time Sam Carrick is returning from injury, which will further shore up their center depth alongside Nylander, Gauthier and Findlay.
With all that said, the Maple Leafs announced today, on the heels of the Matthias, Polak and Spaling trades, the recalls of Brendan Leipsic (after one game down in which he potted a pair of goals) and Stuart Percy. Let’s take a look at some of the individuals mentioned, as well as a few other future call-up options, while Lou Lamoriello and co. go about punching more holes in their lineup by flipping expiring contracts.
The Nylander Question
For all call-up options other than Nylander and Kapanen, the entry-level contract question is irrelevant because they’re older than 20, playing professional games and therefore currently working through entry-level contract years anyway. For Kapanen and Nylander, it becomes an important part of the equation because their ELCs slide another year provided they play nine or less NHL games.
In Kapanen’s case, it is quite obvious he should be left to continue building on a good month in the AHL, given he is only just now hitting his stride with the Marlies this season after a bit of a rocky start with inconsistent production and an injury. This stretch of 10 points in 12 games since the WJC is promising news, and now it’s about proving it consistently month over month.
For Nylander, who has proven himself an elite AHL scorer month over month and is posting a historically unprecedented points-per-game pace for a 19 year old, the question is a more complicated one. Chief among the considerations is how the Leafs want to go about managing his contractual situation within the parameters of the CBA.
Something we talked about here back in October is the idea of giving Nylander an NHL taste in the neighbourhood of 10-20 games, or anywhere up to 40, in the back half of the season so as to give Nylander some NHL development time under Mike Babcock while burning an ELC year but not a year of his RFA eligibility (which comes into play at the 40-game mark; therefore, it is no longer a factor this season). Potentially, it could serve Leafs management well in their first major contract negotiation by reducing the NHL body of work Nylander’s camp has to negotiate with. With potential high-end talents like William Nylander, RFA control becomes more important than the ELC in the big picture, so the theory here is “the earlier the better” when it comes to locking up the 19-year-old to his first major contract.
There is an element of risk in that approach. If Nylander were to come out and crush it in his first two NHL seasons with a better-than-expected rookie year, they may regret not having the extra year of his ELC come 2018-19. The question is, what is the smarter bet?
There is also the middle-ground option of giving Nylander a nine-game taste, stopping short of burning his first ELC year.
This upcoming audition presents a chance for Percy to build on what a promising start in the NHL last season after an excellent 2014 training camp. He tailed off after some average performances amid self-described mismanagement by Leafs brass, who admitted an error in rushing him into too big of a role, overexposing him during his nine-game NHL stint to start 2014-15.
“I don’t think our process with Stu was good enough. I thought we rushed him up and he played real well and as soon as he started to struggle, we didn’t really protect him up here with his usage, so on and so forth for a 21-year-old. Then we struggled and put him right down. I don’t have anybody to blame but myself. I take the brunt of that.”
– KYLE DUBAS, TORONTO MARLIES GM
Percy’s sophomore season only went downhill from there, suffering a concussion in a December game versus Milwaukee and only making 43 appearances for the Marlies.
Turning 23 in the Spring, Percy has quietly rebounded this season in the AHL. There have been a few bumps in the road; he was a healthy scratch for a couple of games, he dealt with a minor injury, and he was the victim of a nasty hit from Utica’s Darren Archibald, thankfully missing just one game as a result.
Taking time to learn the Babcock/Keefe system, Percy’s play has only improved as the season has progressed. A cerebral player, his ability to move the puck is well known, and it has only been enhanced with a greater systemic emphasis on possession. Under Sheldon Keefe’s guidance, with encouragement for all five players to fill in for one another in offensive positions, Percy has often found himself in scoring positions he would not have been in otherwise.
The result is what is pacing to be a career year production-wise for Percy, with four goals and 19 points in 43 games. He’s tied a career high in goals and is just six points shy of his career high in points in 28 fewer games.
Twelve of his points have come at even strength, while seven are powerplay helpers, which for the most part remains a struggle and a mystery for a super talented Marlies team. It’s possible Babcock might make use of his passing ability on the Leafs powerplay and encourage him to use his shot, which is deceptive and better than it looks at first glance.
In terms of usage, Percy has often been paired with Viktor Loov, and the two have frequently played hard minutes against some of the league’s best players in the AHL this season. From the practice lines, it looks like Mike Babcock will re-unite that pairing starting tomorrow night:
Leafs D at practice
— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) February 22, 2016
This audition will be a particularly meaningful one knowing this is Percy’s final year of his entry-level contract. Once an RFA, the decision will have to be made as to whether or not Percy is worth allocating one of the 50 Standard Player Contract slots to for next season.
Depending on how Sam Carrick rebounds from injury and how Collin Smith performs on his new team, the Leafs could also take looks at either player down the stretch as, like Percy, they’re pending RFAs. There are certainly players who have earned it more, however. There’s little doubting Connor Brown — ten points in his last ten games — has done as much as or more than anybody to earn an NHL taste and is chomping at the bit for his first NHL regular season action.
Two of the more interesting names who get less play when it comes to a recall in the immediate term are Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman.
The 22-year-old Russian free agent signing first drew attention this season for his work on the Marlies penalty kill. Paired with Frederik Gauthier, the two were a major part of why Toronto’s PK was excellent early in the season. His turn of speed and willingness to drive the net has seen him create many shorthanded opportunities this season and score two goals at 4v5. What makes his success in this area even more impressive is that he apparently didn’t even play on the PK back in Russia.
Whoever has played alongside Soshnikov and Gauthier has always benefited from the experience, whether it be Rich Clune (yes, really) or, more recently, Tobias Lindberg in what looks an intriguing line if Keefe decides to keep them together. The words versatile and reliable come to mind with Soshnikov, and that ability to plug in just about anywhere while also providing PK utility could go a long way in getting his foot in the door in the NHL lineup. He’s hard to shrug off the puck, shows strong decision-making and isn’t afraid to get involved with the physical side of the game.
Despite playing on a checking line, Soshnikov has registered 25 points this season, with all — bar three points — either goals or primary assists. Twelve goals at even strength puts him only one behind Brennan, Arcobello and Nylander, all of whom are/were tearing the League apart this season. Only recently given opportunities on the powerplay, Soshnikov’s racked up six points at 5v4, half of which are goals.
Soshnikov has another two years on his entry-level deal before he’s an RFA, but how long he sticks around in North America could depend on what kind of shot he receives in the NHL, which is why the Leafs may present him with that opportunity sooner than later.
The 23-year-old was acquired from Florida after stating his intention to test free agency last summer, opting to come home to Toronto — a decision no doubt influenced by his connection to Kyle Dubas, his former adviser/agent.
Hyman survived later into 2015 training camp than most expected, appearing to make the right impression on head coach Mike Babcock with his high motor and presence on the forecheck.
In his first professional season with the Marlies, Hyman has been moved around the lineup a lot while managing to score eleven goals and 31 points in 51 outings. Currently entrusted to line up alongside Kasperi Kapanen and William Nylander, Hyman recorded three primary helpers in Marlies’ recent victory against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. His 14 even strength primary assists total is second behind only Josh Leivo.
He’s adapted to the Marlies new system and the American Hockey League quickly and is a disciplined player (just one minor penalty in last 17 games). Establishing himself as part of the penalty kill, Hyman leads the team with three shorthanded points (two goals/one assist).
The Toronto native would be an interesting guy to take a look at in the NHL with his well-rounded skillset and work ethic, knowing he’s recently produced at the near-point-per-game rate you look for in advance of a call up (10 points in his last 12 games).