The dust had barely settled on the Calder Cup Championship win before incoming General Manager Laurence Gilman got down to work in his new role.
Gilman has been a busy man this summer, including building a roster for the Marlies and the Newfoundland Growlers, who will be the Toronto organization’s new ECHL affiliate from 2018-19 onwards.
Changes have not been limited to the players and staff, however, as Ricoh Coliseum is no more. As of July 11, Coca-Cola and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) announced a partnership that includes renaming the Marlies arena to Coca-Cola Coliseum.
The benefit of reliable veterans on the Marlies roster was evident during the entirety of the championship campaign. The backbone of the team remains firmly in place as Colin Greening was clearly pleased to be staying after signing an AHL deal for one year and Rich Clune joined him by putting pen to paper for two seasons.
Brady Ferguson, Josh Kestner, Derian Plouffe, and Scott Pooley were late-season additions from the NCAA and impressed enough to be offered one-year deals.
Kristian Pospisil, Sam Jardine, and Alex Gudbranson were stalwarts for Orlando Solar Bears last season and are likely to be assigned to the Growlers after agreeing to one-year AHL contracts.
The remaining acquisitions were made from outside the organization and include a mix of junior and AHL players. Forwards Matt Bradley (Regina Pats), Emerson Clark (San Jose Barracuda), Hudson Elynuik (Spokane Chiefs), Giorgio Estephan (Swift Current Broncos), Ryan Moore (Hamilton Bulldogs), Griffen Molino (Utica Comets) and Zach O’Brien (Bakersfield Condors) are joined by defenseman Stefan LeBlanc in signing one-year AHL deals.
The majority of the aforementioned are likely to be heading to St. John’s, at least to begin the 2018-19 season.
Those heading for pastures anew include captain Ben Smith (Adler Mannheim), Max Novak (Tingsryds AIF), Matias Cleland (Maine Mariners), Miro Aaltonen (Vityaz Podolsk), Josh Winquist (Colorado Eagles), Kyle Baun (Belfast Giants), and Martins Dzierkals (Dinamo Riga).
Perhaps the biggest loss, however, will be goaltending coach Piero Greco, who is taking his first steps into the NHL after being hired by New York Islanders. His four years in the Toronto organization will be most remembered for the development of Garret Sparks, who credits his former coach in large part for his breakthrough developmentally the past two seasons.
The Newfoundland Growlers
As was announced earlier this summer, Ryane Clowe will be at the helm for the Growlers inaugural season. Interestingly, it was the Newfoundland native who had to prove himself to Toronto in order to be offered the job rather than the Maple Leafs selling Clowe on the position.
Having spent the past two years as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils and with just two seasons experience in coaching since his retirement, it’s perhaps of little surprise that the Marlies were a little skeptical about why he would want a job that involved stepping down two levels.
Clowe allayed those fears in interviews and will be moving lock, stock and barrel to St. John’s with his wife and children joining him on the Rock as the 35-year-old takes on his first ever head coaching role.
The Marlies are certainly invested in Newfoundland and will be responsible for the coaching, medical and equipment staffs, and approximately 50% of the roster.
John Snowden was appointed as Assistant Coach as the Marlies continue their theme of looking for promising young staff to develop. Snowden is one year Clowe’s senior and has three years experience in the ECHL with Orlando Solar Bears as an Assistant and Associate Coach (formerly Toronto’s affiliate).
Just three players have been signed by the Growlers to ECHL deals at the time of writing, including two players who will be returning to the east coast.
Newfoundland natives James Melindy (defenseman) and Marcus Power (centerman) will be joined by Kristians Rubins, a 20-year-old blue line from Latvia who is no stranger to Canada, having played the previous two seasons in the WHL with Medicine Hat Tigers.
Possible Further Additions
Much will depend on any future trades and how Toronto forms their NHL roster, but there are still options available to Gilman in the AHL free agent market.
Goaltending is rather thin on the ground, but if the requirement is to fill a gap for one year, veteran Michael Leighton is certainly a reliable option.
On defense, there are a plethora of experienced blue liners available like Cody Franson, Paul Postma, Philip Samuelsson, Frank Corrado, and Mark Fayne. Possible projects are available in the shape of Jesse Graham, Ben Betker, and Ryan Sproul.
Forward help from the Maple Leafs is going to filter its way down to the Marlies, likely in the form of veteran additions. The Marlies are well stocked for the most part in that regard, but there are three intriguing free agents from the 2013 draft that may be of some interest.
Right winger Justin Augner (2013 round 4 #103 overall by Los Angeles Kings) would certainly provide some size on the walls (6’6”/231lbs). The Ontario native has recorded 110 points (54-56-110) in four AHL seasons on the west coast and made his NHL debut last season.
Ryan Kujawinski has struggled to make an impact since being drafted 73rd overall by New Jersey Devils in 2013. The centerman was traded twice last season and played for three AHL teams, making just 41 appearances in total. At 23 years of age and capable of playing down the middle, it’s possible Kujawinski could be a reclamation project that the Marlies would take a gamble on.
The Calgary Flames selected Émile Poirier 22nd overall in the 2013 draft, but since turning professional, the Montreal native has fallen on tough times. Having also endured shoulder surgery, Poirier opened up about his alcohol abuse in the summer of 2017.
The 23-year-old is a talented forward capable of playing all three positions. Having now been released by Calgary, Toronto could be a fit for him to rebuild his game and life moving forward, particularly with the mentorship available to him in Rich Clune, who has experience battling the illness of addiction. A highly productive player in the Quebec junior league, Poirier showed a great deal of promise in his rookie season and could prove a pick-up with upside for whoever signs him if they can help him find his professional footing again.
Other Tasks At Hand
Find a goaltending coach to replace Piero Greco is high on the list of outstanding assignments and he won’t be an easy man to replace.
With just three players signed to ECHL contracts, the immediate assignment in Newfoundland is to assist in filling out the Growlers roster. It’s not the easiest sell with players having to move out east and every road-trip being an ordeal — especially in the depths of winter — but that’s where the leverage of the Leafs/Marlies organization can help. There is also the job of filling out the staffing roles — including transportation, equipment and medical — that is especially vital for a team isolated geographically.
The Marlies are now without a captain with Ben Smith’s departure to Germany, but as they proved last year, there may not be a rush to appoint his successor before the season. Natural candidates to become the ninth captain in franchise history include Colin Greening, Vincent LoVerde, and Rich Clune.
One of the more fun chores facing Gilman is finalizing the arrangements for raising the 2018 Championship banner at the home opener on Thanksgiving Monday (October 8). With the fantastic job the organization did with the celebrations following the big win — the parade/rally and enabling all players to have a day with the Calder Cup (almost unheard of in the AHL) — I’m sure we can expect something special.