The 2015-16 Toronto Marlies were a young team that was difficult to assess at this time last year. No one could have predicted a regular season championship win before the first puck drop, at least not with any real conviction.
Twelve months later, the same could be said of the 2016-17 squad, with many new faces arriving, including five rookies. From the 2015-16 starting roster, six veteran players have departed Toronto, while William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown and Josh Leivo are now with the Maple Leafs.
Success for the Marlies is measured on a different barometer under the current management regime, with player development now front and center. At the same time, the expectation, from the management to the fans, is that Toronto will contend again in 2016-17.
One of the Marlies biggest strengths in 2015-16 resided at the center position, but the absence of dominant forwards William Nylander and Mark Arcobello now leaves a huge hole to fill.
The return of Byron Froese will help significantly, as will last season’s late addition, Colin Smith. Two Maple Leafs from last season will provide added experience and quality in Colin Greening and Brooks Laich, although the duration of their stay in the AHL remains to be seen. Add the improving Frederik Gauthier and veteran Marc-André Cliche into the mix and Toronto look set, at least for the time being, down the middle.
The left wing position is overloaded with depth headed into the new season. Andreas Johnson, Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Tobias Lindberg and Rich Clune are options, just for starters. Colin Greening could be asked to fill a role on the left side, while rookies Trevor Moore and Mason Marchment are also possibilities.
The right wing situation pretty much sorts itself out, with Nikita Soshnikov, Dmytro Timashov and Kerby Rychel looking like locks for spots, but the depth on that side isn’t quite as strong as the left.
A pre-season camp and exhibition series in Newfoundland was more about the Orlando Solar Bears and tryouts than the Marlies roster, but after all the assessments and re-assignments played out, one player has earned himself a ticket to Ricoh.
William Wrenn, a right-handed defenseman formerly drafted by San Jose, will join the Marlies in Toronto, although he is yet to receive a contract offer at the time of writing. He’s part of a nine-man defensive core that incorporates far more youth than experience this season.
Much will be expected of rookies Travis Dermott, Andrew Nielsen and Nikolas Brouillard, while Rinat Valiev will likely again be paired with returning captain Andrew Campbell after a successful partnership last season. Justin Holl, signed to a one-year entry-level NHL deal, has shown signs of further improvement with a strong camp and he could take on an enhanced role this season.
A significant cog in the Marlie wheel in recent seasons has been T.J Brennan’s offensive contributions, which outweigh his defensive deficiencies at the American League level. Two players who could potentially step up into that void and make an impact are Brouillard and Neilson — especially the latter, who showcased his talents in the opposition zone during the rookie games and in preseason.
Molding his roster into a consistent winner will be another tough challenge for Sheldon Keefe as he enters his second year behind the bench. There is much work to be done with a vastly different roster.
A powerplay without Arcobello, Nylander and Brennan may be hard pressed to match last season’s strike rate of 17.4%, but Toronto can certainly shore things up and not allow teams to score so freely short-handed. The Marlies 13 goals against on the powerplay were the league’s third worst in that regard.
The penalty kill got off to a flying start in 2015 but gradually worsened, in part due to call-ups, and ended up finishing 12th overall. The Marlies’ aggressive PK units tallied 13 times offensively last season, and struck three times in one game while down a man in a memorable come-from-behind win in Wilkes-Barre Scranton.
Any success on the penalty kill is often in large part down to goaltending, and that’s a position that remains a quandary heading into 2015-16. Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks look set to duel it out for the number one spot, with the former in the last season of his entry-level control. The expectation will be that Sparks will grab the reigns, now on his second contract as a professional after signing a one-year, two-way deal in the summer. Both Bibeau and Sparks are looking for improved consistency in contract seasons.
With Jeff Glass released from his PTO, the third goaltender in the mix is rookie Kasimir Kaskisuo, who will be pressing the aforementioned duo for some early ice time. It’s unlikely that the Marlies will carry three goaltenders for an extended period of time, meaning one man could be finding his way to Orlando sooner than later.
Players to Watch
Some Marlies players to keep an eye on, in no particular order:
The Swedish winger got off to a promising start to his professional career in North America in the playoffs last season until he fell victim to a callous hit in the Albany series. While he has to adjust to the rink size, speed and size of the players in North America, he has three-plus years of experience against men back in the SHL, where he produced at a high level. He will be relied upon on the power play and could push his way up the pecking order quickly.
Rychel’s tumultuous tenure in the Columbus organization has been well documented, but he’s a proven performer in the AHL when his head is in it. This is an opportunity for the right winger to turn the page, become a dominant player in this league, and earn himself another chance in the NHL.
The Winnipeg native has been a little overlooked despite an impressive sophomore season, including his first ever NHL goal by unconventional means during a February callup, followed by a strong preseason that went a little under the radar. Now in the last season of his entry-level contract, Leipsic is under no illusion of what is required of him moving forward. Expect him to be pushing a point-per-game pace once again.
It was quite the up-and-down 2015-16 for the Finnish speedster last season, but now comes the real test in a sophomore professional season that brings with it higher expectations. Kapanen needs to build on a strong preseason by finding consistency in the AHL. We only got to witness brilliant flashes last season, but Kapanen should be able to take a step in his 20-year-old season and become an offensive leader for the Marlies.
Divisional match-ups will be key for Toronto — two-thirds of their schedule up until the new year come against North Division foes.
A pair of games at home versus Utica will be a good opening test, as Vancouver’s affiliate are generally a tough and well-drilled unit.
The following weekend is the first three-in-three set, including a trip to Rochester before returning home for a couple of games against Manitoba.
A strong beginning to the season is important, as it is notoriously difficult to make up ground quickly in the American League.
Toronto Marlies 2016-17 Schedule
|Date||Visiting Team||Home Team||Game Time/Status|
|2016-10-15||Utica||Toronto||1:00 pm EDT|
|2016-10-16||Utica||Toronto||5:00 pm EDT|
|2016-10-21||Toronto||Rochester||7:05 pm EDT|
|2016-10-22||Manitoba||Toronto||5:00 pm EDT|
|2016-10-23||Manitoba||Toronto||3:00 pm EDT|
|2016-10-26||Providence||Toronto||7:00 pm EDT|
|2016-10-28||Toronto||Albany||7:00 pm EDT|
|2016-10-29||Toronto||Albany||5:00 pm EDT|
|2016-11-05||Toronto||St. John's||7:30 pm NDT|
|2016-11-06||Toronto||St. John's||4:00 pm NST|
|2016-11-11||Toronto||W-B/Scranton||7:05 pm EST|
|2016-11-12||Toronto||Lehigh Valley||7:05 pm EST|
|2016-11-19||St. John's||Toronto||5:00 pm EST|
|2016-11-20||St. John's||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2016-11-23||Toronto||Albany||7:00 pm EST|
|2016-11-25||Toronto||Syracuse||7:00 pm EST|
|2016-11-26||Utica||Toronto||1:30 pm EST *|
|2016-11-29||Lehigh Valley||Toronto||7:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-02||Toronto||Rochester||7:05 pm EST|
|2016-12-03||Hartford||Toronto||5:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-04||Hartford||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-07||Toronto||Utica||7:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-09||Toronto||Providence||7:05 pm EST|
|2016-12-10||Toronto||Hartford||7:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-14||Toronto||Rochester||7:05 pm EST|
|2016-12-17||Albany||Toronto||1:30 pm EST *|
|2016-12-18||Albany||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-26||St. John's||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2016-12-28||Toronto||Binghamton||7:05 pm EST|
|2016-12-30||Toronto||Albany||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-03||Toronto||Manitoba||7:00 pm CST|
|2017-01-04||Toronto||Manitoba||7:00 pm CST|
|2017-01-07||Rochester||Toronto||5:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-08||Rochester||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-11||W-B/Scranton||Toronto||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-13||Toronto||Syracuse||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-14||Rochester||Toronto||5:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-20||Toronto||Hartford||7:15 pm EST|
|2017-01-21||Toronto||Bridgeport||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-01-22||Toronto||Springfield||3:05 pm EST|
|2017-01-25||Toronto||Rochester||7:05 pm EST|
|2017-01-27||Toronto||St. John's||7:30 pm NST|
|2017-01-28||Toronto||St. John's||2:00 pm NST|
|2017-02-04||Syracuse||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-05||Syracuse||Toronto||1:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-07||Utica||Toronto||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-10||Toronto||Utica||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-11||Albany||Toronto||5:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-12||Albany||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-15||Toronto||Utica||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-17||Manitoba||Toronto||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-18||Manitoba||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2017-02-20||Binghamton||Toronto||3:00 pm EST *|
|2017-02-22||Syracuse||Toronto||11:00 am EST|
|2017-02-24||Toronto||Binghamton||7:05 pm EST|
|2017-02-25||Toronto||Hershey||7:00 pm EST|
|2017-03-02||Bridgeport||Toronto||11:00 am EST|
|2017-03-04||St. John's||Toronto||5:00 pm EST|
|2017-03-05||St. John's||Toronto||3:00 pm EST|
|2017-03-08||Toronto||Rochester||7:05 pm EST|
|2017-03-12||Toronto||Manitoba||2:00 pm CDT|
|2017-03-14||Toronto||Manitoba||7:00 pm CDT|
|2017-03-17||Binghamton||Toronto||7:00 pm EDT|
|2017-03-18||Binghamton||Toronto||1:30 pm EDT *|
|2017-03-21||Rochester||Toronto||7:00 pm EDT|
|2017-03-24||Toronto||Binghamton||7:30 pm EDT *|
|2017-03-25||Springfield||Toronto||5:00 pm EDT|
|2017-03-26||Syracuse||Toronto||5:00 pm EDT|
|2017-03-31||Toronto||Syracuse||7:00 pm EDT|
|2017-04-01||Toronto||Syracuse||7:00 pm EDT|
|2017-04-04||St. John's||Toronto||11:00 am EDT|
|2017-04-07||Toronto||Utica||7:00 pm EDT|
|2017-04-08||Hershey||Toronto||5:00 pm EDT|
|2017-04-09||Rochester||Toronto||5:00 pm EDT|
|2017-04-14||Toronto||St. John's||7:30 pm NDT|
|2017-04-15||Toronto||St. John's||7:30 pm NDT|