Shorn of William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Mark Arcobello, T.J Brennan, Connor Carrick, Josh Leivo and Nikita Soshnikov, the Toronto Marlies of 2016-17 were never likely to hit the heights achieved by the record-setting 2015-16 iteration.
It proved to be a rollercoaster season involving a huge influx of new players, a blistering start, a downward spiral, and a memorable rise up the standings — one which almost resulted in Toronto clinching an unlikely North Division title.
Toronto placed themselves atop the North Division in the first month of the season by winning six of eight games and scoring 30 goals in the process, a third of which came via the Marlies‘ high-flying power play.
Home advantage was put to good use as well, as the Marlies won all five games hosted at Ricoh Coliseum.
Rookie defenceman Andrew Nielsen scored Toronto’s opening goal of the season, his first of three in October, a month that included eight points in total. Brendan Leipsic led the league in scoring with 13 points, while Kasperi Kapanen wasn’t far behind with nine.
Back with the Marlies after spending the previous season exclusively in the NHL, Byron Froese wasn’t discouraged, finding the net on five occasions.
After clearing waivers, Brooks Laich and Colin Greening found themselves demoted to the American League. The pair was joined by another veteran in Milan Michalek, although the Czech winger didn’t make his Marlies debut until November.
Travis Dermott got off to a promising start to his rookie season, helping himself to five assists in his first seven games. Unfortunately, a high-ankle sprain in the last game of October meant that Dermott would miss a considerable chunk of time in November and December.
The normally-reserved Rinat Valiev showed an unexpected penchant for dropping the gloves early in the season, although he proved he wasn‘t particularly adept at the fisticuffs. The second-year professional amassed 54 penalty minutes, including three fights, in the opening month of the season.
After sitting out training camp injured, Nikita Soshnikov got back up to speed in his six games with the Marlies (1g,2a) and it wasn’t long until he was recalled to the Leafs for the rest of the season.
Antoine Bibeau was the hot hand in net in October with a 5-0-1 record and two clean sheets, and he was named Goaltender of the Month in the AHL for his efforts. That took his career shutout total to nine with the Marlies, surpassing the franchise record previously held by Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas.
The Marlies were an inconsistent team in November, surrendering first place in the division with a record of one game under .500.
A 3-0 road win in Wilkes/Barre Scranton was the highlight of the month but it was followed by two heavy defeats to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, with TJ Brennan’s new teammates putting 11 goals past Toronto in the process.
The power play continued on its merry way, striking in eight times in ten games. However, the penalty kill was now floundering as one of the worst in the league, allowing eleven goals through the month of November.
Milan Michalek made his Marlies debut and played on a line with Brooks Laich and Colin Greening — a trio worth north of $11 million dollars in NHL salary. The line proved largely ineffective, although Michalek went on to collect four points with other pairings through the month of November.
Brendan Leipsic, Kasperi Kapanen and Byron Froese continued to lead the way offensively — Leipsic racked up a ten-point haul, Kapanen scored five goals, and Froese bulged the net on four occasions. Andrew Nielsen chipped in with four points and Kerby Rychel finally got the monkey off of his back with a trio of goals.
With Nikita Soshnikov recalled, Josh Leivo was sent down for a conditioning stint. Leivo was unlucky to collect zero points in five games and did his best to provide a spark on what was becoming a pretty inconsistent Marlies team.
Antoine Bibeau recorded his third shutout of the season in the win against WBS Pens but failed to pick up a win in his next six outings (0-5-1). Garret Sparks won both his starts, but after shutting out St. John’s, he was suspended indefinitely by the Toronto Maple Leafs for violating team policy following an altercation online.
Signed to a PTO in late September, veteran Jeff Glass was called into competitive action for the first time since February of 2016. A 22-save performance against Utica was enough for Glass to claim victory on debut.
Tobias Lindberg was the latest injury concern, missing a couple of games, while a suspected wrist injury kept Frederik Gauthier out of action until mid-December.
Toronto mustered just three victories in 12 games through December, free-falling down the standings in the process. Stopping the puck was the biggest issue at this stage of the season, with the Marlies allowing over three goals against per game during this dismal stretch.
The turmoil of 24 separate transactions wasn’t helping the cause, with many of those belonging to the goaltending carousel that was now in full swing. Signed to a PTO, Karri Ramo lost all three starts and allowed 13 goals in the process. Antoine Bibeau, meanwhile, was recalled to the Leafs and lost in his NHL debut before winning his second start — which proved to be his last of the season — with a 25-save effort against Tampa Bay.
Garret Sparks’ suspension was lifted but he couldn’t prevent a loss on home ice to Hartford in his return. After Jhonas Enroth — who had fallen out of Mike Babcock’s favour with the big club — cleared waivers and joined the Marlies, the Swedish netminder won on debut but suffered defeat in his second start.
Daniel Maggio was recalled from Orlando and made his Marlies debut on a line with Greening and Laich, notching a goal and an assist. William Wrenn, Rinat Valiev and Rich Clune (who suffered a groin injury shortly thereafter) also scored their first goals of the season.
Kasperi Kapanen missed some time with an injury in December but still produced five goals and six assists during the month. Colin Smith looked like a shadow of the player we saw in 2015-16 early in the 2016-17 campaign, but he finally mustered some offense in December, notching a goal and seven helpers amid a five-game point streak. After busting his slump in November, Kerby Rychel was also now up and running with three goals and eight assists in the month of December.
Brendan Leipsic and Milan Michalek were injured in the first week of the month and didn’t return until the 28th.
Also returning from injury was Travis Dermott, who needed some time to get back to the form he enjoyed at the beginning of the season. Frederik Gauthier also made his return but was mysteriously scratched after two outings. All was fine, though, as it was soon announced that ‘The Goat’ had been recalled by the parent team. A first NHL goal arrived in just his second game with the Leafs after he wired a shot past Semyon Varmalov to give Toronto a 5-0 lead on the road in Colorado.
The power play continued to be a bright spot, striking 14 times in the month, but that also accounted for 50% of the Marlies’ overall goal total through December, underlining Toronto’s issues with even strength scoring. Showing no signs of improvement was the penalty kill, which allowed 10 goals against, with the problem exacerbated by a lack of discipline that was affording the opposition four or five power play opportunities per game.
Toronto closed out 2016 by incurring three straight losses and headed into the New Year with a record below the .500 mark.
After winning two of three to kick off the New Year, Toronto sank to four straight defeats and their chances of making the playoffs were looking increasingly remote. As of January 15, the Marlies found themselves at the foot of the North Division and 28th overall in the AHL with a 0.446 points percentage.
With almost a week to digest their predicament, team meetings were held and some home truths were told. After the season, Sheldon Keefe pointed to this week as a turning point for the organization:
“Obviously, three months ago we didn’t have a great feeling about where we were at, but that didn’t mean we didn’t believe in our people and the players that we had. We felt confident that we could turn things around. When things really hit rock bottom and we hit last place there in the division, there was a nice break in the schedule with five or six days without games. That gave us some time as a staff to really dig into where we were. We looked at some statistical metrics of where we were at and things that we perhaps could diagnose what might really be happening. In doing that, we actually found a number of positives with our group that we could build upon.
We just tried to create a picture for our team that would give them reason to believe and push. At the same time, our roster settled down a little bit and we found our way back. Within that, obviously management believed in our team and made some additional changes to try to help the group. We put ourselves in a position to succeed in the playoffs. When you look at that process, it was a challenging one and a difficult one for me; a first for me as a coach at any level in terms of having such a struggle midway through the season and having to find a way back. It was an important development opportunity for me and I’m certainly happy with how the players stuck with it. Leadership found their way. Young people stepped up. When we had bad injuries, some of our best hockey was played when we were really shorthanded. It’s a credit to the depth in the organization and the leadership and work that guys put in to turn things around and give us a chance to play in the playoffs.”
A three-game set on the road against Atlantic Division opponents didn’t look an ideal opportunity for a turnaround, but Toronto proceeded to play their best hockey since October.
A 7-4 victory in Hartford was inspired by a hat-trick from a recent recall from Orlando in Brett Findlay, who went on to score a fourth goal before the weekend was done.
Despite the debut of Seth Griffith the following evening, the Marlies dropped to a narrow defeat in Bridgeport and were unfortunate not to take at least a point from an encouraging performance.
Garret Sparks brought his A-game in Springfield during Sunday’s encounter, making 32 saves as Toronto snuck out a 2-1 victory.
Still on the road, Toronto picked up a shootout victory against Rochester thanks to a fortuitous winner from Colin Smith, whose shot banked in off the back Linus Ullmark.
The Marlies then headed out East and won two consecutive against the St. John’s IceCaps, including a come-from-behind 5-3 win, and it was apparent the confidence level in the dressing room was starting to rise. The exclamation point came the following day as Toronto thumped St. John’s 4-0 with a second shutout in the month for Sparks. Seth Griffith struck first, extending his point streak to five games, while rookie Dymtro Timashov potted a double.
Once three games under .500, the Baby Buds were now 20-20-3 and the much-maligned penalty kill had pulled up its socks, going 88% through January.
Injuries were a theme at the beginning of 2017, with the Marlies’ two best players and AHL All-Star selections both sidelined. Kasperi Kapanen was targeted by Syracuse defenseman Jake Dotchin, suffering an ankle injury that curtailed his involvement for around six weeks. Brendan Leipsic missed a similar amount of time after sustaining an injury in the victory against Springfield.
Tobias Lindberg and Rinat Valiev, meanwhile, were sidelined until March. Milan Michalek’s last action of the season came in the victory against Hartford; the veteran wasn’t seen again for the remainder of the season.
Toronto’s goaltending situation was slowly resolving itself, thanks in part to the Leafs claiming Curtis McElhinney off of waivers. Jeff Glass was released from his PTO, Jhonas Enroth had played himself out of contention, and Antoine Bibeau was returned to the Marlies by the Leafs. The Quebec native was struggling at this point, however, which provided an opportunity for Garret Sparks to take the reigns. He took full advantage, posting a 5-2 record, a .942 save percentage and two shutouts, providing the Marlies with kind of reliable goaltending they were sorely lacking for the previous two months.
Frank Corrado’s conditioning stint was also a timely addition to Toronto’s struggling blue line. In his seven games over the course of two weeks, he was relied on by Sheldon Keefe to log some tough minutes and chipped in three points.
Rookie forward Trevor Moore broke out offensively with a goal and eight assists in January, including a four-game point streak to end the month, after being placed on a line with Seth Griffith. Griffith was exactly the pick-me-up the Marlies needed after losing Kapanen and Leipsic to injury; with a point to prove, the right winger helped himself to seven points in five games.
Byron Froese and Kerby Rychel were also productive, chipping in nine points apiece. Andrew Nielsen surpassed the 20-assist mark and Travis Dermott’s long wait for his first professional goal came to an end late in January.
Some personal milestones were achieved by the older members on the roster: Andrew Campbell, Marc-André Cliche and Justin Holl played in their 600, 400th and 100th AHL games, respectively.
With their playoffs prospects hanging on the ten divisional match-ups in February, the Marlies took 15 of a possible 20 points from those crucial meetings.
Garret Sparks was now the anointed Marlies number one, although his performances bordered on erratic at times. Nevertheless, he posted .915 save percentage, one shutout, and picked seven wins in nine starts. Unfortunately, a groin injury sustained in the penultimate game of the month sidelined the Chicago native for four weeks.
Toronto managed 53 goals during the month, with secondary scoring constituting the main storyline, especially from a Marlies blue line that — barring Andrew Nielsen — had provided very little in the way of offense up until this point.
After clearing waivers, Frank Corrado was back at Ricoh for a second stint and led Marlies defencemen in scoring with nine points. Andrew Campbell and Justin Holl were only a point behind as the Marlies blue line combined for 12 goals combined, with Andrew Nielsen taking his goal tally into double figures for the season.
Even Brenden Miller got in on the action during his Toronto debut at the ACC — his innocent dump-in from center ice found its way past Binghamton netminder Andrew Hammond for a memorable if fluky debut goal.
Mason Marchment and Eric Faille both recorded their first AHL goals of the season, while fellow Orlando call-up Brett Findlay made an immediate impact with three goals and as many assists.
Andreas Johnsson was undoubtedly the star of the month, as the Swedish winger scored seven times and played provider on six others. Dmytro Timashov was also finding his stride with an 11-point haul that included five goals — the same goals output as Trevor Moore, who managed one more point than Timashov.
Seth Griffith continued to produce at will, leading the way with 14 points, while Kerby Rychel finished the month with 12. The duo were key cogs on a Marlies power play that clicked at 25% through February.
Byron Froese was the league’s leading scorer after tallying seven goals in eight games up until an injury against Manitoba knocked him out of the lineup on February 17. Froese did not dress for the Marlies again as he was dealt to Tampa in the trade that brought Brian Boyle to the Leafs.
Also coming back in that trade was noted enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, who only made one appearance for the Marlies. Inevitably, he dropped the gloves inside three minutes in his debut.
Rich Clune suffered yet another setback to his truncated season, missing a month with an upper-body injury.
Brooks Laich, meanwhile, returned to action for the first time since December 17. He only suited up 11 times before his season ended early in March in order to undergo elbow surgery.
Toronto acquired Alex Gudbranson on loan from Minnesota to bolster a thin blue line, while Karri Rämö was released from his PTO. Viktor Loov, who made 184 appearances as a Marlie, was traded to New Jersey in a trade that brought veteran forward Sergey Kalinin to Toronto.
The transactions and personnel shuffle continued early in March. Whether connected or not, there was also a lack of success on the ice early in the month, with the team collecting just three of a possible eight points.
A trade between Toronto and Pittsburgh resulted in the Marlies losing the services of Frank Corrado while adding veteran Steve Oleksy, who subsequently partnered with Travis Dermott and softened the blow of the loss somewhat.
Mike Sislo was acquired from Colorado in exchange for Colin Smith in a “change of scenery” trade involving two players producing well below their career AHL norms. Previously signed to a PTO, William Wrenn was signed to an AHL contract, while centerman Cal O’Reilly was acquired on loan from Buffalo on AHL trade deadline day.
In a paper transaction, Nikita Soshnikov was sent down to ensure his eligibility for the AHL postseason, but an injury made him unavailable despite the Leafs’ early playoff exit.
Toronto bounced back with a pair of wins against Manitoba, putting a combined 11 goals past the Moose. With Garret Sparks still out of the lineup and Antoine Bibeau not in form, Kasimir Kaskisuo was the latest call-up from Orlando and he took full advantage of the opportunity.
The Finnish netminder won all three starts, defeating the Binghamton Senators twice before shutting out Rochester. In-between times, we witnessed the beginning of the end of Antoine Bibeau’s season.
Toronto was dominating Binghamton during a Saturday matinee game at the ACC, holding a 4-1 advantage through 40 minutes. Some inept officiating allowed the visitors to gain a foothold before Toronto totally collapsed and allowed seven goals in the third period. While he wasn’t entirely culpable for the loss, Bibeau was far from his best and did not see any further action during the regular season.
Garret Sparks’ return to action late in the month was a boon for him and the team — he notched three consecutive victories, allowing just three goals and recording his fifth shutout of the season in the process.
Perhaps most importantly, March saw the reappearance of Toronto’s two brightest young stars. Kasperi Kapanen produced at a point-per-game pace over 10 outings before receiving a well-deserved call-up from the Leafs. Brendan Leipsic wasn’t quite as dynamic in his reappearance, but he still mustered three goals and as many assists in eight games, hitting top form as he entered April.
Seth Griffith‘s relentless scoring form continue apace as he put up a streak of five consecutive multi-point games and 17 points overall through the month.
Mike Sislo was enjoying his change of scenery with six goals for 13 points, while Cal O’Reilly registered seven assists.
Andreas Johnsson hit the 20-goal mark, becoming just the third rookie in franchise history to achieve that feat.
“Andreas Johnsson is a guy who, from start of the season to finish, really did a number of great things for us. He was very reliable for us. I don’t necessarily look at it as improvement because I think it was always there. He just needed to adjust and really get comfortable, but he is just a terrific young player that just does so many things really well. Very low maintenance. You tell him something once and he goes out and he does it. He executes at a high level. Very competitive. He has a lot of the ingredients that a lot of players need and that young players need. We are very happy with his development and how things moved for him. I think he had that. He is a guy with more professional experience than others coming into the season and he showed that.”
– Sheldon Keefe on Andreas Johnsson’s rookie season
Kerby Rychel found the twine on five occasions as he looked to chase Johnsson in the scoring stakes, while veteran forward Colin Greening was finding offense easier to come by with seven points — easily the veteran’s most productive month of the season.
What had looked highly improbable in mid-January was achieved on April 7: Despite suffering a loss in Utica, Toronto clinched a playoff berth thanks to the results elsewhere breaking their way.
The question now was whether Toronto could overtake the Syracuse Crunch and claim top spot in the North Division. Two wins left the Marlies in need of just a single point on the road in St. John’s from the final game of the season. A 4-1 loss coupled with Syracuse taking care of business meant the Crunch were crowned North Division champions, ensuring home-ice advantage for Syracuse in a potential playoff meeting between the two sides.
While they missed out on top spot, Toronto’s climb up the standings is worthy of praise. From mid-January until the end of the regulation season, Toronto went 27-10-4 and were the only team in the North Division to finish with 40 or more wins. Toronto finished with the fifth-best goal differential and fifth-best defensive record in the Eastern Conference.
A first round match-up with the Albany Devils was the reward, although Toronto got off to a poor start. Shutout in a 3-0 reverse, the Marlies came up with the perfect riposte by putting six past the Devils in Game 2, sending the series back to Toronto tied at 1-1. With Sparks injured in the victory, Kasimir Kaskisuo was handed the reigns and occupied the Marlies net for the remainder of the post-season.
Brendan Leipsic struck twice in Game 3 — both assisted by the returning Kasperi Kapanen — in regulation before the pivotal middle game of the series was decided 45 seconds into overtime on Colin Greening’s speculative low shot that beat Devils goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood.
Game 4 provided more tense overtime hockey. The shots favoured Toronto 41-17 through 60 minutes, but the scoreline was deadlocked at one apiece. In the third overtime, Justin Holl‘s wrist-shot through traffic secured Toronto’s passage into the second round.
Stocked with NHL talent, the Syracuse Crunch presented formidable opposition in Toronto’s quest to reach the Conference Final for the second consecutive season.
While they held the lead first in Game 1, the Marlies were never at in control at any stage as the Crunch thoroughly outplayed them for a 3-1 victory.
Carl Grundstrom was signed to an ATO the following day and was handed his debut in Game 2. The rookie forward made an immediate impact, assisting on Cal O’Reilly’s goal before scoring on debut.
The big thing that really stood out is how competitive he was and just how strong his instincts were, especially offensively. That allowed him to have success offensively, make plays, be able to play with good players, help on the power play. You don’t want to make too many judgements on a player who has come in and had very little time to adjust to the structure and the system. When you get to that point of the schedule, you’re not practicing very much, so he’s not getting practice reps. But his offensive instincts and his competitivenss and fearlessness to go to the hard areas and be around the net and push back when defencemen are being hard on him… those kind of things were pretty impressive for a young player. He played with a lot of confidence with the puck. All of those things show that there is a lot to get excited about there, for a guy to come over and make that adjustment so quickly.
To see him stand up to some guys that are real competitive on the Syracuse side of things, and push back, and have the confidence to bring the puck to the net and get to the net when the puck is about to arrive, and be competitive in tight spaces… Those kinds of things happen a lot more frequently on the smaller ice and it was not an issue for him. I think he actually likes it and invites it and enjoys that side of the game. That was fun to see.
– Sheldon Keefe on Carl Grundstrom
Grundstrom’s efforts weren’t enough, however, as the Marlies were thoroughly outplayed and were frankly flattered by the 8-5 scoreline. Making matters worse, Frederik Gauthier’s season was prematurely cut short thanks to yet another dirty hit from Jake Dotchin, leaving Toronto threadbare at the center position.
With the series switching to Ricoh Coliseum, Toronto grabbed a foothold in the series with a spectacular Game 3 win. After scoring twice at the midway mark to erase a two-goal deficit, Toronto trailed 3-2 with two minutes remaining in regulation. Remarkably, Brendan Leipsic, Carl Grundstrom and Kasperi Kapanen all scored inside a 33-second span to turn the game on its head.
Toronto then came up with their best defensive performance of the series so far in Game 4, limiting Syracuse to 19 shots in a 3-2 victory that sent the series back to Syracuse tied up at 2-2.
Syracuse again dominated Toronto on home ice in Game 5, with the Marlies only able to compete for the opening 20 minutes before capitulating in the final 40 en route to a 5-1 defeat.
A combination of home ice and a breakthrough on the power play in Game 6 enabled Toronto force a seventh-and-deciding game. Three rookies led the way for the Marlies; after Carl Grundstrom netted his third of the playoffs to tie the game near the halfway point, Andrew Nielsen‘s goal with eight minutes left on the clock stood up the game winner, while 26 saves from Kasimir Kaskisuo backstopped Toronto to the 2-1 victory.
Despite the lowered expectation level coming into the year, the challenge and development opportunity of a Game 7 matchup against one of the league’s best teams was exactly the sort of situation Marlies management was hoping to foster for their group this season. And the Marlies almost pulled it off.
Totally against the run of play, Toronto led 3-1 with 29 minutes left. However, the Crunch showed their class and experience by scoring five unanswered, with the result never in doubt once the Crunch took the lead eight seconds into the third period.
While it was a disappointing squandered opportunity in Game 7, taking the Eastern Conference champions and potential Calder Cup victors to the precipice was a prospect that appeared highly unlikely back in mid-January, and was undoubtedly a valuable learning experience for the young talent on the Marlies roster.
In the next instalment reviewing the Marlies season, I’ll issue player grades for the entire Marlies roster
Toronto Marlies Player Statistics - 2016-17 Regular Season
Toronto Marlies Goalie Statistics - 2016-17 Regular Season
Toronto Marlies Player Statistics - 2017 Playoffs
Toronto Marlies Goaltender Statistics - 2017 Playoffs