With the reintroduction of a professional hockey team in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the Toronto Maple Leafs organization has pieced together the last piece of the ambitious plan put in motion by Kyle Dubas by essentially creating their own ECHL affiliate.
After establishing the Marlies as the premier ‘Single A’ team in the AHL, the organization is now investing heavily to ensure St. John’s will be considered in the same vein given time, with the pipeline of players and coaches alike now extending into the ECHL.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however, as life in the East Coast League can often be fraught with difficulties and present last minute challenges and obstacles.
The injuries sustained by Frederik Andersen and then Kasimir Kaskisuo meant the Growlers were without the services of touted number-one goaltender Eamon McAdam for the second part of their opening homestand to begin the season and for the foreseeable future.
Mario Culina, a 21 year old goaltender hailing from Sault Ste. Marie, has been signed to fill in that gap, while other additions include defenseman Rodi Short and centerman Todd Skirving.
The latter pair have been signed with Alex Gudbrandson injured and forwards Maxim Mizyurin, Kristian Pospisil and Josh Kestner have also been unable to feature this season at the time of writing.
To compound issues, the Growlers begin an eighteen day, eight game road-trip on October 19th in Manchester, Ontario — yet another taste of what trials await them in their inaugural season.
This young roster averages around 24 years of age and has already come face to face with one of the biggest challenges that occurs due to the geographical realities of St. John’s. Opponents will mostly play back-to-back game sets on The Rock, and it’s no easy feat to pick up two consecutive victories against the same team, as the home crowd has already witnessed this season.
The Newfoundland Growlers split the opening home games of the season against one of the ECHL powerhouses in Florida Everblades, which is no mean feat, but they’ll think they should have at least taken one more point from the visitors.
A similar story played itself out this week as Adirondack came to town.
Toronto prospects featured heavily and made an immediate impact in game one. Newfoundland struck on the power play inside the first minute of the first game to kick off a seven-goal outburst, starting with a give and go between Zach O’Brien and Giorgio Estephan that resulted in the latter firing home from the slot. O’Brien finished the game with four assists, Estephan scored twice, Brady Ferguson also picked up a pair, and Scott Pooley chipped in as well en route to a 7-3 victory.
Newfoundland were the better team for the majority of the opening frame in the second half of the back-to-back, owning the bulk of the possession, but they paid for their mistakes and the game quickly got away from them. Ferguson scored his third in two games in a losing effort, Pooley added two more points, and Zach O’Brien’s two-point game gave him six points over the two-game set.
Developing Behind the Bench: Ryane Clowe
Newfoundland’s Head Coach was frustrated and disappointed by his team’s effort in game two, but he conceded it might take his young group some time to adjust to the complexities of the league and the unique challenges facing them in St. John’s.
Clowe’s team plays a puck possession game, which isn’t necessarily the norm in the ECHL. The Growlers head coach confirmed this is a style he prefers himself, but it’s also the philosophical direction coming from the Toronto organization with the goal of modelling the Growlers after the Leafs and Marlies.
Having worked with A.J. MacLean during the postseason, Clowe also confirmed that the power play would run as close to the Marlies‘ as possible, player personnel permitting, and the same for the penalty kill.
This season is going to be as much a learning experience for Clowe as the players, with this being his first head coaching experience of his career.
The Marlies have bolstered the Newfoundland roster with a host of players on AHL contracts — predominately forwards — and most have made promising starts to the season.
Defensemen Signed to AHL Deals
Alex Gudbranson was extremely solid on the top pairing during Tuesday’s victory (before injury) and his loss was definitely felt during the following evening’s defeat. A reliable, experienced defenseman who logs big minutes, Gudbranson will be a key figure for St. John’s this season.
Stefan Leblanc is the more interesting of the two defensemen on AHL contracts. A second-year professional coming off a tough season in Laval, the Ontario native is very comfortable with the team’s style of play and shouldered a ton of minutes on the top line in the two games I viewed.
LeBlanc quarterbacks the top power play unit, is rarely flustered with the puck on his stick, and would be the clear pick at this early stage should the Marlies need a callup on the blue line.
Forwards Signed to AHL Deals
Yet to feature: Kristian Pospisil and Josh Kestner
Ryan Moore had mixed fortunes during the two outings this past week, scoring a pair of goals, although his mistake contributed to the Growlers implosion on Wednesday. Entering his rookie season, Moore has been switched from centre to the wing by Clowe to give him time to acclimatize.
Zach O’Brien was one of the standout performers. At 26 years old, he’s a veteran among this forward core. The Newfoundland native leads the ECHL in scoring with six points (1-5-6) in four games and Clowe admitted he is relying on O’Brien to be a key performer with his proven ability at this level.
Derian Plouffe centered the Growlers third line and his lone assist through four games belies his overall work rate and contributions. He’s a reliable forward without the skill and flash of a few other Toronto prospects, but his penalty killing and face-off skills should provide an important piece of the backbone for Newfoundland down the middle.
Perhaps the most tenacious forward on the Growlers roster is Scott Pooley. His work-rate directly led to two goals this past week, and he is second on team scoring with five points (1-4-5) — made more impressive by the fact he’s playing on the all-rookie line.
Benefitting from slotting between Zach O’Brien and Giorgio Estephan, Brady Ferguson has three goals to his name. The Texas native also compiled four assists in five games late last season with the Marlies. Ferguson admits there is slightly more time to think and more room to operate in at the ECHL level, but that it’s the consistency of his performances he’s looking to even out in hopes of making the jump to the next level.
Giorgio Estephan impressed many onlookers during the Toronto Marlies recent camp as the second best performer behind O’Brien during the Adirondack series. His three-goal total thus far is tied for team best and he is a driving force on his line alongside O’Brien and Ferguson. If this level of form continues through the season, he’s automatically in the mix for a call-up to Toronto.
Matt Bradley is not a total rookie at the ECHL, having featured in 17 games for Atlanta in 2016-17. A former draft selection by Montreal Canadiens in 2015 (fifth round), Bradley has excelled down the middle alongside Moore and Pooley, helping himself to four points (2-2-4).
The BC native hasn’t been afraid to shoot the puck with 17 shots through four outings, and he’s creative in the offensive zone. That said, his decision making could be better in all three zones, which hopefully should come with nurturing and experience.