The Toronto Marlies were in need of replenishing after yet another summer of wholesale change for the AHL affiliate.
The center position has been of particular concern since the rookie class of 2015-16, including William Nylander, graduated to the big club. It was especially noticeable how thin Toronto was down the middle during their most recent Calder Cup campaign that ended in a Game 7 conference semifinal exit at the hands of the Syracuse Crunch.
The list of centers who have left the organization in last year is at least six long: Colin Smith, Byron Froese, Cal O’Reilly, Sergey Kalinin, Marc-Andre Cliché, and Brooks Laich. Frederik Gauthier will also be out of action until at least November and Brett Findlay has not yet been re-signed (although I would expect the reliable forward to be offered a deal). With that in mind, it’s no surprise that four of the acquired players could all fill a role at center.
Colin Greening‘s NHL days may be behind him, but he proved to be an excellent veteran presence on a young Marlies team last season. He failed to pull up any trees offensively, mustering 24 points in 69 regular season games, but he was a versatile veteran (can play center or wing) for Sheldon Keefe and an effective penalty killer. Having made the best of his situation in the AHL, Greening was rewarded with a one-year, one-way contract worth $750,000 (as far as the Leafs‘ cap situation, it’s below the $1.05 million threshold). The Newfoundland native will begin the season with the Marlies and will look to make a case for a call-up should the opportunity present itself.
AHL veteran Chris Mueller has been signed to a two-year contract that starts as a two-way deal with a max AHL salary in year one ($400,000) and switches to a one-way deal in year two with a $650,000 NHL salary. With the way the contract is structured, the Marlies seem to be looking for some consistency at center ice for a couple of years in wake of the revolving door situation of the past year.
Marlies fans may remember Mueller from his role on the Texas Stars offensive juggernaut that overcame Toronto in seven games of the Conference Final before going on to claim the Calder Cup in 2014. The 31-year-old is a veteran of 578 AHL games, producing 140 goals and 410 points. He’s a playmaking forward whose skill set lends itself well to the power play (37 PP goals in last four seasons), and he is a lock to center a line in the Marlies‘ top six.
With former Marlies captain Andrew Campbell headed Arizona and Steve Oleksy off to Anaheim, the need for an experienced defenceman was also addressed with the signing of 28-year-old Vincent LoVerde on July 1. The Chicago native has 300 AHL games to his name and captained the Manchester Monarchs to a Calder Cup championship in 2015. He remained the captain when Ontario Reign became the Kings’ AHL affiliate the following year and has worn the “C” in three successive seasons.
Yet to see any regular season action in the NHL, LoVerde has posted 33 goals and 120 points during his American League career. The two-time AHL All-Star is very comfortable in possession but does not overcomplicate the issue in his own end, and he’s relied upon in every situation, including both sides of special teams. It wouldn’t be a shock at all if he was handed the captaincy right away in Toronto, although Greening and Rich Clune are also in the mix.
Unlike previous years, the Marlies goaltending appears set in stone well in advance of training camp. Antoine Bibeau was not qualified and joined the San Jose organization on a one-year, two-way contract on July 1. With Curtis McElhinney and Garret Sparks both signed to two-year deals by the Leafs, it appears the latter will be the Marlies’ number one with Kasimir Kaskisuo serving as his backup (or 1B at best).
Sparks has been handed a good opportunity with this contract. With the 34-year-old McElhinney signed as an inexpensive, short-term backup for the big club, the opportunity is there to play his way into the Leafs‘ backup role with a healthy and consistent AHL season. Meanwhile, this is a big year for Kaskisuo entering the final season of his entry-level contract. It should foster a healthy competition level between the Marlies’ pipes.
Signed to an American Hockey League deal, centerman Jean Dupuy is well known to Marlies brass as a former member of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds before playing the first two seasons of his professional career with the Rochester Americans. Signed to an entry level deal as an undrafted free agent, the Sabres opted not to qualify Dupuy when the deal expired. Listed as 6’3″ and 207 lbs, Dupuy will bring size, strength and physicality down the middle of the ice, and he’s a player who doesn’t shy away from dropping the gloves. Dupuy isn’t all brawn, though; he posted 21 points in his rookie year on a struggling Amerks outfit.
Also signed to an AHL deal, Max Novak is a 26-year-old latecomer to the professional game after four years in the NCAA. He’s spent two seasons with Albany, accruing 29 points in 106 games while serving a variety of roles on a low-scoring Devils team. He’s not an imposing physical player, but he’s a gritty, hard-working forward who will likely fill in a bottom six role along with penalty killing duties. Primarily a winger, he’s capable of slotting into the center position should the need arise.
The least surprising transaction of the offseason was the re-signing of Rich Clune to an AHL deal a day before free agency opened. The experienced, beloved left winger thoroughly enjoys the city of Toronto and takes great pride in throwing on the Marlies sweater, and he continues to earn AHL deals through his excellence as a role model for the team’s younger prospects. He was hamstrung by the veteran’s rule and then by injury, making just 37 regular season appearances last year, but this will be his third season with the organization and he’ll again wear a letter for the team.