With a raft of talent moving on or graduating, the Toronto Marlies class of 2016-17 was never going to match the achievement of their predecessors.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs now chock full with offensive talent and a relatively settled defense, the Toronto Marlies cupboard has been restocked with the addition of proven players and a bunch of exciting rookies. The roster heading into action at Ricoh Coliseum for 2017-18 looks almost as exciting as the group put together two years ago; that in itself will provide Sheldon Keefe with the best kind of problem: balancing ice-time for veterans and prospects.
The marked difference from previous campaigns is the strength of the defensive group that the Marlies will carry into the season. On paper, there is more talent and certainly greater depth than there‘s probably ever been, with nine healthy bodies to choose from.
The additions of Michael Paliotta and Vincent LoVerde add experience, Justin Holl returns for a third season, and Rinat Valiev enters the last year of his entry-level contract. Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen will both be entering their sophomore seasons coming off of promising rookie campaigns.
Much of the focus will certainly revolve around Toronto’s 2017 first round draft pick, Timothy Liljegren, while Martin Marincin will join the ranks fresh from the Leafs after clearing waivers on Friday.
The prospect of Dermott and Liljegren as a pair is a tantalizing one, but it’s not a certainty that head coach Sheldon Keefe will pair them together right off the bat. Keefe has previously paired a more experienced defensemen with his rookies, and that could be a route he chooses with the Swedish prospect initially.
Rounding out the group is Alex Gudbranson, who played four games for Marlies last season but is not currently listed on the opening day roster.
The most impressive depth on the Marlies roster lies at the wing position.
Kasperi Kapanen and Nikita Soshnikov didn’t make the cut with the Leafs, mostly because they were waiver exempt, and how they respond to their respective ‘demotions’ will have a major bearing on the Marlies’ fortunes. Both have proven themselves to be dominant players in the AHL and will prominently feature on special teams.
Kerby Rychel, the Marlies leading points scorer through the 2016-17 regular season, enters the last year of his entry-level contract still looking to prove his NHL worthiness.
Another winger with a point to prove is Andreas Johnsson. Having impressed in the main camp, the Swedish winger will look to build on an impressive 20-goal rookie season (leading the Marlies in 2016-17 goal-scoring) and push himself up the pecking order should a call-up be required.
Bottom six depth will be provided courtesy of Max Novak, Rich Clune and Mason Marchment, while Trevor Moore and Dmytro Timashov will be looking to build upon up-and-down rookie years. Martins Dzierkals, signed to an AHL deal, is an intriguing prospect, although he won’t crack the opening day roster.
Aside from Kapanen and Soshnikov, Jeremy Bracco will garner attention as a prominent rookie among the crop of wingers. Toronto’s second-round selection in 2015 finished his junior career by winning the Memorial Cup as a member of the Windsor Spitfires after tallying 147 points in 106 games in his OHL career.
Further depth will be available on the Solar Bears: Vladimir Bobylev, J.J. Piccinich, and Kristian Pospisil have been re-assigned to the ECHL.
The center position was Toronto’s main weakness last season, but the situation has been remedied somewhat with a selection of smart pick-ups and some help from the parent club.
At 31 years of age, Chris Mueller is an AHL veteran with over 600 games experience (including post-season) and north of 450 points to his name. A Calder Cup winner with Texas Stars in 2014, the New York native is a strong candidate to wear a letter (and perhaps receive the captaincy).
Colin Greening’s return to the Marlies via free agency may have come of a surprise to some, but he proved himself a reliable veteran through the second half of the season, and previous history indicates he has a little more offense to give. Like Mueller, Greening is likely to wear a letter this season.
Assistance from the Leafs down the middle will arrive in the shape of Miro Aaltonen and Ben Smith. Aaltonen likely missed the cut with the Leafs for the same reasons that Kapanen and Soshnikov did, and it’ll be intriguing to see how he adapts and performs in the American League.
Smith was always going to be a long-shot to stick in the NHL, but assuming he’s now fully healthy, the 29-year-old should be an asset as a proven AHL performer (0.72 PPG in 174 games).
The only rookie centreman in the ranks is Adam Brooks. Toronto’s 92nd overall selection in 2016 was a standout performer in the WHL as an overager (and captain) for the Regina Pats during his final junior season (130 points in 66 regular season games), capping a highly productive final two years in the WHL.
Signed to AHL deals, Jean Dupuy (not on opening day roster) and Joshua Winquist are both capable of fulfilling assignments at center and wing, although the latter is injured at the time of writing. Frédérik Gauthier is still rehabbing, with November pencilled in as his potential timeline for a return.
To label the Marlies’ crease a problem area is likely overstating the issue, but there is a deal of uncertainty surrounding the goaltending position. Garret Sparks was the anointed number one throughout the summer and his AHL numbers suggest there’s potential here. The problem for Sparks has been staying healthy; his pro career thus far has been fragmented by injuries, with the latest occurring during the 2017 playoff run (groin strain).
Calvin Pickard now enters the mix with the season almost upon us, and his arrival casts some doubt over Sparks’ position as the number three goalie in the organization. The 25-year-old certainly hasn’t looked out of place in the NHL while playing behind some average-to-poor Avalanche teams. Pickard has also proven himself to be a more than capable American League goaltender (career .914 save percentage) when turning out for a Lake Erie Monsters outfit that consistently struggled to reach .500.
Pickard’s arrival casts some doubt over the future of Kasimir Kaskisuo, who was the man to take over from Sparks during the 2017 post-season campaign after overtaking Antoine Bibeau. The Finnish netminder struggled in the ECHL last season but has shown a deal of promise in the American League in a handful of starts.
I would imagine that Kaskisuo will stick around in Toronto for a week or two before being reassigned to Orlando for playing time. He’ll need to adapt better to the rigours of the East Coast league this time around, but he’ll have the benefit of a much-improved roster to play behind.
Signed to an AHL contract, Cal Heeter is the Marlies number four goaltender heading into the season. Heeter, a fairly reliable netminder who put up decent numbers during a 12-game AHL stint with Grand Rapids Griffins last season, will begin the season with Orlando.
The alignment and scheduling of the American League continues to ensure divisional match-ups remain key for playoff qualification. Toronto will face North Division rivals a total of 54 times, split as follows: Laval (12), Belleville (12), Rochester (8), Syracuse (8), Utica (8), and Binghamton (6).
The North Division is likely to be stronger than ever with Laval and Rochester, in particular, stacking up well. There are unlikely to be any weak links as there have been in previous years.
A good start to the season is always important, but Toronto will need to hit the ground running away from Ricoh, with ten of their opening 15 games taking place on the road.
The 2017-18 campaign gets underway at 4 p.m. EST on Saturday against the Utica Comets.