With 18 games remaining on their schedule, the Toronto Marlies’ magic number to secure playoff qualification sits at 31 points.
The North Division has rarely been so competitive in recent seasons, with eight points currently separating 1-5 and the sixth-placed Cleveland Monsters a further six points behind but with a game in hand available to narrow the gap.
There can be no resting on their laurels for the Marlies especially given the clubs around them in the standings are all in good recent form, particularly the fifth-placed Belleville Senators, who have hoisted themselves to the brink of a playoff berth on the back of an incredible 17-game points streak (12-0-5). In fourth are the Utica Comets, who have put together a 7-3-2 record through their last 12 games.
Syracuse Crunch and Rochester Americans continue to trade blows at the head of the division and recently split a set of tightly-fought contests. The pair have both won six of their last 10 games and are strong favourites to clinch home advantage with 75 points each, six clear of Toronto in third place.
Two-thirds of the Marlies‘ remaining schedule is comprised of divisional rivals as they face Belleville and Laval on three occasions, Utica and Rochester twice, and finish off with a single game apiece against Binghamton and Cleveland.
While the divisional games are key to progress in the standings, it should not be overlooked that Toronto has to contend with a pair of three-in-three’s, including a tough road trip against a trio of Atlantic Division opponents.
Roster Turnover and Lineup Transformation
With the AHL trade deadline passing without incident, the Toronto Marlies roster is now set for the stretch run (notwithstanding ECHL call-ups or reassignments from NHL). The current lineup is a far cry from that which began this campaign, let alone the one that hoisted the Calder Cup back in June.
Such is the disparity with players available at this current time, the most recent starting lineup that clinched a 3-2 victory against the Cleveland Monsters featured just eight players who took to the ice for the opening game of the campaign in Utica (Dmytro Timashov/Pierre Engvall/Josh Jooris/Jeremy Bracco/Colin Greening/Timothy Liljegren/Vincent LoVerde/Jordan Subban).
The challenge for incoming General Manager Laurence Gilman has been to deal with several players not performing up to expectations and a host of injuries that have tested both his ability in the trade market and the organization’s overall depth.
Those traded out of the organization (either NHL or AHL deals) include Adam Cracknell, Stefan LeBlanc, Morgan Klimchuk, Emerson Clark, Jeff Glass, Andrew Nielsen, and Carl Grundstrom. Also departed is the previously on-loan Sam Gagner, who was an unexpected but excellent bonus for this roster.
Absent through injury at the time of writing are Chris Mueller (hamstring), Calle Rosen (foot), Mason Marchment (broken collar bone), Andreas Borgman (concussion), and Frank Corrado (knee).
Gaps in the roster have presented opportunities for those in the system and new acquisitions alike, and it’s how these players adapt to new roles that will determine the Marlies‘ fortunes from here on in.
Adam Brooks has grabbed his chance with both hands since Mueller’s unfortunate absence through injury. Since his promotion to the top line alongside Jeremy Bracco, Brooks has recorded five goals and three assists in nine games. Having also taken over Chris Mueller’s spot on PP1, the young centerman has netted three power play goals, but much of the credit should also go to Bracco, who hasn’t missed a step since losing Mueller as his regular linemate and has continued to lead the team in scoring (57 points in 57 games) and the league in assists (42).
There has been much talk about Pierre Engvall’s switch to center — a certainly bold but required move (due to lack of options) made by Sheldon Keefe that is so far paying dividends for team and player. I’m yet to be fully convinced by the Swedish forward defensively when playing down the middle (a work in progress), but there’s little doubt it’s proven to be a success as far as offense goes with six points in his last nine outings after producing 20 points through the previous 48 games.
There has been some developing chemistry with Michael Carcone and Dmytro Timashov either side of Engvall and both of those previously fringe players have also hit their strides with nine and eight points, respectively, since being switched onto the newly-constructed line.
At one point this season, the Marlies had so many options on the blue line that they were prepared to trade Stefan LeBlanc away. With Calle Rosen, Andreas Borgman and Frank Corrado out through injury and Martin Marincin back up with the Leafs, it’s fallen on Toronto’s two youngest and most exciting prospects to take up the slack.
Timothy Liljegren has been tasked with top pair minutes for the majority of the season (alongside Calle Rosen) allied with penalty killing duties. Lately, he’s also been asked to play alongside less talented partners (Sam Jardine in the last game) while also taking on the extra responsibility of power play minutes.
The Marlies had been happy to have Rasmus Sandin rolling along with limited minutes, including power play time up until his absence following the world juniors and subsequent injury. His upward curve of progression this season allied with the current issues of the blue line has seen the rookie promoted consistently to top four minutes, a spot on PP1, and even penalty killing duties of late. So far, the 18-year-old (turns 19 on March 7) has handled these extra responsibilities remarkably well, but I’m not convinced that’s plan A, at least in the short-term.
Although the Marlies are one of the top scorers in the AHL season, a big chunk of their offense is now elsewhere or unavailable. They will need the three newer additions to the roster to make a greater impact on the team than they’ve shown thus far.
The subtraction of Trevor Moore leaves a chasm that the Marlies are looking to plug with Nic Baptiste. It’s a pointless exercise to try and compare Baptiste to Moore, with the latter having confirmed that he deserves to be a full-time NHL player at this point, but Baptise is committed to 200-foot hockey in the same way as Moore, can be effective on both special teams, and is a proven goal scorer at the AHL level. Given an opportunity on the top line, Baptiste has certainly shown potential from the left wing position, but he has yet to score despite six Grade-A scoring chances, albeit he’s just two games into his Toronto career.
Gabriel Gagné has been a disappointment through 17 games with just two goals and three assists to his name. Primarily a ‘shoot first’ right winger, Gagné hit the twine 20 times last season as a member of an underwhelming Belleville Senators team, but he hasn’t looked like the same player during the 2018-19 campaign. You could make the argument that he hasn’t had the most creative linemates to generate offense with, but he failed to shine when given limited opportunities alongside the likes of Trevor Moore, Adam Brooks, Pierre Engvall, and Dmytro Timashov. If Toronto can somehow unlock the upside of the 6’5” winger, they’ll benefit from his howitzer of a shot and ability to leverage his frame to get inside on opponents and drive hard to the net — something he doesn’t do nearly enough.
Acquired in early February, it’s fair to say that Tanner MacMaster has struggled during his short time with the Marlies, although it’s perhaps not surprising given the 23-year-old only turned professional last season and has only just passed the 50-game mark in the AHL.
There have been signs that he is turning the corner in the last few games with two points in his last four outings, including a first goal in the most recent victory that hopefully will give him a shot of confidence. MacMaster may prove to be the odd man out in time, especially if prospects on the fringe in Newfoundland take an opportunity to impress in Toronto as Brady Ferguson has done recently.
The Situation In Net
Much of the Marlies’ problems this season have come down to a lack of consistent performances between the pipes. Having tried five different goaltenders this season, it’s now down to Michael Hutchinson and the inconsistent Kasimir Kaskisuo to lock it down for the remainder of the season.
Somewhat surprisingly, Hutchinson has found consistency hard to come since a stellar debut against Charlotte Checkers in January. However, the signs are encouraging of late, with the 29-year-old goaltender posting a combined .937 save percentage through his last five outings while going 3-1-1.
Kaskisuo continues to confound with his form this season, which is no better summed up than over his last seven starts. The good was two shutouts (combined 55 saves) and two excellent performances against Springfield and Syracuse, where he stopped 55 of 58 shots for a pair of victories. At the other end of the scale were the 10 goals he allowed on 57 shots in two defeats against Belleville and then the yank he received after allowing two goals on two shots against Syracuse.
With the Marlies facing a compact schedule down the stretch, they’ll require both goaltenders to be on top of their game to secure a playoff spot that the Toronto organization as a whole highly values.