The Toronto Marlies recently passed the midway point of the AHL season while on their current six-game road trip.
This roster was never going to match the achievements of last season, but there’s little doubt that 2016-17 has been a disappointment as far as team results so far. The Marlies currently sit fifth in the North Division, four points outside of a playoff spot, with a record of two games below .500.
Toronto’s road form has been a huge part of their struggles, mustering just eight victories in 23 games. In the Eastern Conference, only Hershey, Binghamton and Syracuse have fewer wins away from home ice and they haven’t played nearly as many road games as the Marlies.
Among the positives is the powerplay, which is fifth best in the league and is registering a goal per game on average. A penalty kill that for the longest time was languishing among the worst in the AHL has now climbed above 80%, despite Toronto giving up the second most powerplay opportunities in the league.
For the most part, the Marlies have been good enough defensively, especially on home ice, where they’ve allowed visiting opponents only two goals per game on average. It’s the offense that has proven to be the biggest barrier to consistent success this season — Toronto is averaging 2.85 goals per game as things stand, and that’s a number that has been bolstered by the recent road trip featuring 13 goals in four games.
Veteran players vastly underperforming and young prospects struggling to produce have been factors, along with injuries and other absences. Kasperi Kapanen and Brendan Leipsic are now both hurt again after the pair also missed time over the Christmas period. Brooks Laich, Milan Michalek, Tobias Lindberg, Rich Clune, Travis Dermott and Rinat Valiev have all been injured or are currently unavailable. The Marlies have lost Nikita Soshnikov and Frederik Gauthier to call-ups, with only the latter looking likely to return at any point.
The goaltending situation has been a shamble at times, barring Antoine Bibeau’s hot start to the season. The failed Karri Ramo experiment, brief stints for Jhonas Enroth and Jeff Glass, the team suspension for Garret Sparks, and the call-ups for Bibeau have left Toronto without much in the way of consistency between the pipes. Unless injuries occur, the Marlies will now move forward with the two youngest goaltenders on the roster from here on out in Sparks and Bibeau.
It’s been a difficult season to assess players with the team struggling so much to produce results. The standout performances are obvious, but there have recently been some promising showings from some unexpected sources.
Arguably the Toronto Marlies most valuable player this season, his recent absence has left a huge hole in the forward group. The Leafs next best prospect has come on leaps and bounds during his sophomore season, playing a big part on both sides of special teams and leading the team in goals and points up until his recent injury. His decision making has vastly improved as well as his responsibility and attention to detail on the defensive side of the game. Now confident he can dominate at this level, he was on pace for 30+ goals through a full season. The heart of the powerplay’s success, Kapanen is leading the way with nine goals and 22 points when Toronto has the extra man.
Leipsic began the season scoring at a scorching pace that he was never going to be able to sustain. He has, however, continued to regularly produce, keeping tabs with Kapanen for the team lead in scoring. The left winger has been the team’s top producer at even strength with 17 points (13 of which are primary). He’s second in powerplay scoring behind Kapanen, serving as the set-up man from the right circle. Like the aforementioned Kapanen, Leipsic has been handed greater responsibility and is featuring on the penalty kill, where he has helped himself to one shorthanded goal. He’s always been quick, but it appears that another gear may have been found in terms of his skating. He’s maybe been guilty of overhandling at times, but he’s been a real driving force of everything good offensively for Toronto.
The Manitoba native has once again proven himself a credible goal-scoring threat at the AHL level. Considering the Marlies’ overall struggles to score at even strength, his ten goals at 5v5 have been invaluable. Froese is only behind Brendan Leipsic in ES scoring and is on pace to surpass his goal and point totals set during his first stint with the Marlies. He’s ultra consistent, relied upon in key situations, and is the Marlies number one centre at the current time. He’s no doubt an improved player since his time with the Leafs last season, and it’s a credit to him that he’s dealt with the demotion the right way.
It’s been a season of two halves for the Ontario native. He was the best defenseman on the team before suffering an ankle injury which saw him miss a fair chunk of time. It’s been a struggle for Dermott to fully recover and get back up to speed, but now at 100%, he’s resumed his upward trajectory and was instrumental in last weekend’s success. Sheldon Keefe is already starting to lean on him in the key situations, particularly with the absence of Rinat Valiev. If Dermott had been able to produce a little more offensively he’d have been a lock for an A grade.
The rookie defenseman is one of the more difficult players to weigh up when assessing a grade. There’s no doubting that his offensive numbers have been greater than anyone could have expected. A key cog on the powerplay, Nielsen’s 19 points are tied with Leipsic for second most on the team. His eight goals from the blue line are more than all of the other Marlies defensemen combined, emphasizing his value to the team. At the other end of the ice, Nielsen has at times proven a liability and he’s been directly culpable for at least a handful of goals against. It’s those defensive deficiencies that see him downgraded from a higher mark. The temptation might be there to look at his offensive production and assume he could make the jump soon, but he’s very much a work in progress.
Before his call-up to the Leafs, Gauthier was undoubtedly one of the most improved players on the Marlies roster. His PK and face-off abilities have improved, along with his skating, and he was certainly more comfortable and confident in possession. Keefe was happy to have him centre some of the more skilled players on the team, and while he didn’t put up a ton of points, those around him flourished. The Marlies have missed his reliable play and steadying presence through the middle of the ice, where they’re sorely lacking quality depth.
Ordinarily, I would not hand out a grade to a player who has played fewer than a quarter of the team’s games. An exception to that rule is Tony Cameranesi because of the positive impact he’s made since the recall from Orlando. While he’s never going to be the most skilled player on the ice, he generally makes something happen offensively when he’s out there. Cameranesi has caught many defenders off guard with his blistering speed, he is persistent in pressuring the puck carrier, and he’s unafraid of the dirty areas of the ice despite his size. Rarely handed penalty kill opportunities in Orlando, it’s a role he’s embraced and excelled at through ten games with Toronto; he easily could have a pair of shorthanded goals to his name. Through the month of January, he has made himself an integral part of the team in short order.
An enigma for most of his professional career to date, Rychel failed to hit ground running for the Marlies. After recording just two assists in his first eight games, he slowly but surely began to piece it together, starting with a pair of goals in a road victory against WBS Pens. The majority of Rychel’s success has come on the powerplay, where he provides a physical presence in front of goal. 20 points accrued in the last 23 games means he’s on the right track, although a little more production at even strength is still needed.
It’s been interesting season thus far from Valiev, who began by trying to fight seemingly anyone and everyone willing — an odd tactic given he doesn’t possess the skills to succeed in that role. Since stepping back from his glove-dropping antics, Valiev has been one of the Marlies’ better defensemen; solid if not spectacular, but more importantly less prone to the turnovers that have plagued this team. His offensive production is down from last season and through 34 games he has yet to muster a goal at even strength. Another player on the current injury list, he is a big absence from Toronto’s defensive core.
The world of Garret Sparks is rarely dull, it appears. A season of highs and lows so far included a team suspension for an online incident. Having lost just five of thirteen games in regulation, Sparks is the only Marlies goalie with a winning record and he’s also currently in good form. Allied with two shutouts, Sparks’ save percentage stands at a very respectable .925 and he’s only once allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts. He’s picked up the ball after his issues in November and the net is currently his to lose.
The left winger has suffered from the log jam at wing on this Marlies roster, appearing in just 25 games this season, but his patience has been rewarded recently. There has been positive growth visible in Moore’s game. Mostly buried on the fourth line to start the season alongside veterans who struggled out of the gates, production was hard to come by in the early going. He’s recently benefited from the addition of Cameranesi to the roster — the pair have complemented each other well when Keefe has put them together. Ten points doesn’t sound like a great return, but five of those points have been accrued in his last six games and he played a great game on the top line in the most recent victory over Rochester. With the injuries to the Marlies’ top players, he’s one to look out for in the second half of the season.
Signed as a steady and reliable veteran, Cliché has been just that when called on. He’s never going to put many points on the board but he’s proven to be a reliable penalty killer and solid fourth line checker. Sheldon Keefe has often thrown him into action late in tight games, taking on the role vacated by Frederik Gauthier. He’s been banged up a little at times this season, but a player like Tony Cameranesi has definitely benefited from having an experienced veteran like him around.
High expectations were placed on Colin Smith after his production (albeit in a short stint) last year. Early in the season, his line was the most impressive on a game-by-game basis yet it failed to generate much in the way of actual production. A promising December and start of January saw him produce numbers closer to the rate expected, but he is in another cold snap right now. A recent shootout winner against Rochester should hopefully lend him some confidence. The Marlies require at least an ‘A-’ Colin Smith as they chase down a playoff berth.
The Swedish winger set a high bar during last season’s playoffs with two fine performances before his injury. He looked good alongside Colin Smith early in the season, but I’ve already noted how that line flattered to deceive. Three powerplay goals in his first two games of the season was an excellent start, but he managed just two assists in the following 14 games. The majority of his success has come by way of the powerplay, where his seven goals are most on the team — that’s despite playing almost exclusively on the number-two unit. More offense at even strength is on the wish list for Johnsson in the second half of the season.
The Quebec native began the season with the bang and was named the AHL goaltender of the month in October. While he made his Leafs debut since then and picked up his first career NHL victory, things have not gone as swimmingly in recent days. His level of play has slightly dipped, but he’s also been between the pipes for some of the worst performances from the Marlies this season behind a defense that was constantly coughing up the puck in danger areas. Bibeau hasn’t recorded a victory since December 18, nor posted a save percentage above .900 in a game since then. His tendency to blow hot and cold remains an issue.
One of the more intriguing prospects on the Marlies roster, Timashov has not found the adjustment easy in his rookie season. He’s currently on a seven-game pointless streak and previously went 10 games without hitting the scoresheet earlier this season. His confidence in trying to create plays isn’t indicative of someone with just seven points this season, though, and he’s not been shy about shooting the puck. A shooting percentage of just 5.6 must be causing him to grip his stick a little tighter when presented with scoring opportunities. Another player who has bounced around the lineup, Timashov has had to play on his off-wing at times. It’s been a rough learning experience so far, but it’s early days as far his professional development.
It’s been a tough season for the Marlies fan favourite. A healthy scratch on many occasions to start the year due to the veterans rule, Clune has also battled injuries, restricting him to just 22 games. He’s continued to be the positive veteran presence on and off the ice. He’s reliable on the penalty kill and has found some recent chemistry on the fourth line when matched with Moore and Cameranesi.
The Marlies captain has not been as steady this season as he was last. After playing beside a reliable partner in then-rookie Rinat Valiev throughout 2015-16, things have not gone as smoothly alongside Nielsen, who has been a liability in his own end at times. That has undoubtedly placed some extra stress on Campbell’s game. After recording career highs last season, Campbell’s offensive production has plummeted in 2016-17 and he is yet to record a goal. He’s recently been paired with Justin Holl, who likes to be proactive in the attack, meaning Campbell’s role will continue to be more in the stay-at-home vein.
A pleasant surprise last season — subsequently rewarded with an NHL deal last offseason — Holl has been a mixed bag during 16-17. Another culprit of turning pucks over in high-danger areas, Holl has had to rein his game in a little on his own side of the red line. He’s certainly been better defensively of late, but he hasn’t recorded a point since Christmas. A single goal and five assists in 39 games is a poor return from a player with his skill set. He needs to build on a promising most recent performance against Rochester.
A depth acquisition just before the season started, Wrenn wasn’t expected to feature much after re-signing with the Alaska Aces, a team he captained last season. The defenseman has suited up 19 times for the Marlies and he’s been a solid enough addition to the lineup when Keefe’s needed the fresh legs.
There is no doubt that Greening has the ability to succeed in the AHL, as his previous history in the league suggests. He’s not been the dominant veteran forward the Marlies sorely needed, however; “erratic” is the best way to describe his overall performance through 38 games. Initially lining up alongside Brooks Laich and Milan Michalek, he’s bounced around the lineup after the veteran trio failed to produce. Greening generates the majority of his production when driving hard to the net and creating space for linemates. The one bright spot for him of late has been his penalty killing work. Ultimately, he needs to do better than 14 points, and he’s another player Toronto needs more from in order to make a push down the stretch.
With a raft of wingers in the system, a big season was expected from Lindberg as he looked to push himself higher up the organization pecking order. He’s been somewhat of a disappointment during his sophomore season so far with 14 points in 35 games. A lack of consistency from game-to-game has been his biggest issue, and it’s worrisome that he hasn’t driven hard to the net and parked himself out front frequently enough. Battling in those areas has been the recipe for the limited success he’s experienced this season and it is essential to his existence as a professional player. Penalties were also a problem through the first part of the year (eight in 15 games). He’s currently out with an injury.
After making some strides in his game last season, Loov appears to have stagnated and even possibly regressed during his third season in North America. His decision making has been shambolic at times and he’s another defenseman who has been sloppy with the puck inside his own zone. He’s been moved away from Wrenn and Holl, his regular partners for the majority of his games, and has recently skated alongside Travis Dermott. The rookie has so far been a positive influence on Loov, who really needs to knuckle down and play a sounder defensive game.
The veteran centreman has been more active on social media than he has on the ice of late. He has been missing from action since December 17 and there’s been no word on the injury that has kept him out of the lineup. During his 16 appearances, we rarely saw the level of performance Laich is capable of.
How do you assess the Czech native’s season? He clearly isn’t happy with his current situation, by all accounts, and he has struggled with injuries this season. He’s featured in just four games since December 7 and has produced just one goal in his last eight outings. It’s an unsatisfactory situation for both parties, although the Marlies would love a player with his skill set if he was anywhere near the top of his game.
Not Graded (either due to lack of games or no longer with team): Nikita Soshnikov, Frank Corrado, Eric Faille, Ty Stanton, Josh Leivo, Brett Findlay, Mason Marchment, Jhonas Enroth, Karri Ramo, Jeff Glass, Willie Corrin, Daniel Maggio, Nikolas Brouillard, Seth Griffith