Never has a Toronto Marlies team been better prepared for a shot at the Calder Cup.

The Marlies have come close twice in the last five years. Even without their numerous injuries, I’d argue Toronto would not have beaten the dominant Norfolk Admirals team that swept them in the 2012 Calder Cup Final. Two years later, while it seems likely to me that Toronto would have beaten St. John’s in the 2014 championship final, the Texas Stars — despite the Conference Final series going the distance, with the Marlies leading 2-0 in Game 7 — were the better team and deserved winners of the Calder Cup that Spring.

This postseason, a Toronto team that won the AHL regular season title with consummate ease, icing the most exciting collection of young Maple Leafs talent this organization has ever owned at one time, is being touted as the 2016 champion already in some quarters.

Recent history is kind to the Marlies‘ quest for their first ever AHL title. Four of the last seven winners of the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy have gone on to hoist the Calder Cup, including the last two consecutive seasons, with Texas winning in 2014 and Manchester Monarchs (now the Ontario Reign) victorious in 2015.

Despite what some fans might be thinking, however, this won’t be a cakewalk for Toronto, who can expect to face all manner of challenges throughout the playoffs.

“I was talking with Willie (Nylander) the other day, about it – you’re not going to go down there and run the show. Like, you guys aren’t going down and going 16-0. You’re going to face a Game 7. You’re going to lose a Game 5 in your barn and face a Game 6 in theirs. Like, that stuff’s coming. It’s coming. But that’s the stuff you’ve got to go through. There’s no other way to acquire that knowledge than to go right through it. So for them, it’s a huge, huge opportunity. I’m going to be watching. I can’t wait.”
– Brooks Laich

The pressure and expectation will rest on the shoulders on a young Marlies roster; for many on the team, competing for a professional championship will be a brand-new experience. The target may have been on their back during the regular season, but that will be nothing compared to what they’ll face starting this weekend.

Toronto’s lack of AHL playoff experience is most visible between the pipes. Antoine Bibeau has just one post-season game to his name, while Garret Sparks has played just 14 minutes of post-season action in relief back in 2013. On the other hand, Bibeau responded extremely well to the pressures of competing in a Memorial Cup in junior and has been excellent in the last two months of the season. Sparks is, undoubtedly, a mentally-tougher goaltender after his recent spell with the Leafs.

Sheldon Keefe’s first year as a professional coach has been exceptional, but this is a different level, with the focus now intensified and the expectations raised. As much as development has been the key this season and will continue to be a focus during the post season, the emphasis and mentality naturally switches, somewhat, to “just win.”

The Marlies biggest strength also presents its challenges. A roster chocked with offensive talent will leave Keefe with some tough decisions ahead of game one, although there’s no doubting their ample depth is a major asset as Toronto faces down a long playoff run. Cohesion and chemistry is something that needs to be factored in (Hyman and Nylander were an unlikely partnership back in October), while also keeping players on the fringes of the lineup involved. The full Marlies team hasn’t played together much in the last two months of the season, and it’s vital they hit the ground running, especially with a short best-of-five series to kick off the playoff proceedings.

The Road to the Calder

The campaign begins with a best-of-five against a physical Bridgeport Sound Tigers team that the Marlies have never faced before in franchise history. An easy task on paper, maybe, but the Islanders affiliate will have nothing to lose and can play with the freedom of a major underdog.

The Eastern Conference will throw up lots of different challenges along the way, especially against some far more experienced teams.

Second-placed Albany Devils are a difficult team to beat, as their record suggests (46-20-8-2). They’re incredibly solid defensively, including an exceptional penalty kill, and their eighth-ranked power play would have ended the year higher if Mike Sislo had not been called up (Sislo’s 14 powerplay goals were a league best).

The Hershey Bears have a strong record in the post season and will be powered by the league’s leading scorer, veteran Chris Borque. The Atlantic Division champions scored 259 goals, second to the Marlies in the East.

The Providence Bruins are also a team with the offensive abilities to match Toronto, and they will have their full complement of weapons available with Boston missing the playoffs. Seth Griffith and Alexander Khokhlachev registered over point per game pace through the season while rookie Frank Vatrano scored 36 goals in as many games. In total, Providence have five 20-plus goal scorers on their roster. It should also be noted that the Bruins defeated the Marlies on the two occasions the two sides met during the regular season.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Providence’s opponent in the first round, are not to be underestimated either. WBS were the early front runners in the AHL and gave Toronto the run-around in their first meeting. The Marlies escaped by scoring a hat trick of shorthanded goals to tie the game up before pulling out a fortuitous victory in overtime. WBS may have lost their coach and some good players to Pittsburgh, but they won’t be an easy out for Providence.

If Toronto make the Calder Final, the current expectation is that they will face defending champions, the Ontario Reign (formerly Manchester Monarchs). Ontario are very much a carbon-copy of their parent club, the Los Angeles Kings. Their defense this season finished as the sixth-best in AHL history (albeit through 66 games), with excellent structure and brilliant goaltending from Peter Budaj enabling them to shut down opponents. It’s no surprise, then, that their penalty kill was the league’s best this season. The Reign rely on a balanced attack to score, with just two players hitting the 20-goal mark. They still have familiar names from last year’s championship win — players who will know exactly what is required in the playoffs.

I’m not convinced that the current champions will have it their way in the West, though. The Milwaukee Admirals have had a wonderful season, winning the Central Division with 48 wins for 101 points, and finishing a close second to Ontario in the Western Conference. The Admirals won more home games (27) than anyone in their conference this season, and they will own that advantage unless they face the Reign in the final. Milwaukee have a very balanced team, with excellent special teams — ranked second (PP) and seventh (PK) respectively — and can rely on two equally competent goaltenders.

The Lake Erie Monsters are somewhat of a surprise package and could be considered a dark horse in the West. They’re peaking at the right time, storming into the post season by winning nine of their last eleven. A strong and physical team, the Monsters will be looking to play a tight game and will be aided by recruits from the Blue Jackets.

The Texas Stars should never be discounted, if only because of their offensive power. A run and gun team, the Stars were second in the league in goal scoring but allowed 3.24 per game against in the process.

Enough Caveats — This Marlies team has the ability to do something special

For all the possible issues and bumps along the road, Toronto has many things working in their favour heading into this Calder Cup run.

Leaders like Andrew Campbell, Rich Clune, Ben Smith, Mark Arcobello, Matt Frattin and T.J Brennan should provide a veteran presence the younger players can lean on in nervous times.

Home advantage throughout cannot be discounted, especially if the Marlies make it to the final. The Marlies were also fantastic on the road all season and have shown the ability to consistently take hostile crowds out of the equation by dominating the puck and controlling the play to start road games.

Their ability to generate offense from all four lines is well known, and their offensive ability off the blue line is going to be a major asset as well, especially in tight playoff games where ugly goals in traffic can often become the deciders. T.J Brennan is the notable threat, but Andrew Campbell had a career year offensively and the introduction of Connor Carrick’s offensive abilities to the lineup should not be discounted.

Many teams will have their rosters hindered by parent clubs seeking a Stanley Cup, which isn’t an issue for the Marlies (WBS Penguins will be without the highly impressive Matt Murray in their net due to the Fleury injury, for instance)

Never will a Marlies team be better prepared for a shot at a Calder than this current group. Toronto management has ensured every single base is covered.

Regular season dominance rarely translates perfectly into the playoffs; even Norfolk’s ridiculous run en route to their 2012 championship win, with 15 wins in 18 playoff games, featured a series versus Connecticut that was tied 2-2 and required an OT win to clinch. It will be a great experience for a Marlies team that will garner the collective attention of Leafs Nation.

It’s a clean slate, and the right to post-season success for this highly-talented Toronto team has to be earned every step of the way.

It certainly won’t be given.

An in-depth preview of the Toronto Marlies vs. Bridgeport Sound Tigers round one series will follow tomorrow.