The American Hockey League is often noted for its roster turnover — look no further than the reigning Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers, who enter this season with a virtually unrecognizable roster after 16 players moved on this offseason.
It’s no different in Toronto, where GM Kyle Dubas has been very active since the Leafs‘ first-round exit with various trades and free agents signings, resulting in a new-look Toronto Marlies roster heading into the opening weekend of the season.
Lack of options will not be a problem for head coach Sheldon Keefe, who has a stacked depth chart to select from. The club can also easily delve into the ECHL to promote one of the prospects developing in Newfoundland, such is depth currently in the organization.
Keefe’s greatest challenge will be keeping the experienced players, especially the forwards, happy with their ice-time and deployment while also succeeding in his main task of ensuring Toronto’s fledgling prospects receive adequate opportunity and playing time.
Breaking down the 2019-20 Toronto Marlies Roster
The Marlies begin the year with four forwards on NHL contracts — five if you include the injured Kalle Kossila once he’s reassigned. There’s also Matt Read, who recently signed an AHL contract after his professional tryout at Leafs camp.
The experience of the current crop is apparent; the youngest player among the forward group is 21-year-old Hudson Elynuik and the average age up front is over 25. The “prospect pool” is relatively shallow, with four players on entry-level deals (five you include the injured Mason Marchment).
Much attention will focus on the likes of Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco, and Pierre Engvall, who all enter the last year of their entry-level contracts and will need to find a new level to put themselves at the forefront of management’s thinking in the short and long term. I expect them all to be given top-six roles with special teams time. I would not be totally shocked (albeit it’s a long-shot) if they try to push Bracco to become more defensively responsible by handing him some PK time.
Egor Korshkov put together an excellent NHL training camp and will be pushing hard for the first callup, while Mason Marchment will just be hoping to get himself healthy and playing again ASAP. His professional career to date has been hampered too often by injury and this is yet another setback that he and the organization could do without.
Notable forwards reassigned to Newfoundland include RW Justin Brazeau and centers Colt Conrad, Brady Ferguson, Zach O’Brien, and Aaron Luchuk, who all must have thought they had a legitimate shot of making the AHL club in the summer. Certainly, nobody on the AHL roster can take their spot for granted with so many young, hungry and talented players looking to make an impression in the ECHL.
On defense, the most notable talking point is the fact two noteworthy young prospects have been tabbed to begin the season with the Newfoundland Growlers. Mac Hollowell and Joseph Duszak will both begin their full professional careers in the ECHL as part of the log-jam on the blue line created by the big club’s reassignments.
At the time of writing, the Marlies‘ defense core is lacking in legitimate, young NHL prospects and has a very unfamiliar feel to it, with seven players from last season leaving the organization for a variety of reasons. A strength in previous years, it feels as if it’s the team’s weakest department with Rasmus Sandin’s promotion and the likes of Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen traded out of town.
Kevin Gravel, Ben Harpur, and Jordan Schmaltz bring some NHL experience after losing out in the Maple Leafs training camp, but the main focus on the blue line will be on the following four prospects.
Timothy Liljegren was the last defenseman reassigned to the Marlies and his task to start 2019-20 is a simple one: Continue where he left off last season, logging huge minutes on the team’s top pairing and special teams. Liljegren has become a somewhat underrated player due to his lack of points and flashy play in comparison to Rasmus Sandin, but he’ll be looking to prove a point this year and put himself in the NHL conversation before season’s end.
Teemu Kivihalme and Jesper Lindgren will both attempt to hit the ground running — the former has something to prove after missing out on the Leafs‘ roster, while the latter has struggled during his limited North American career to date before prospering recently in Finland.
Kristians Rubins, meanwhile, appeared to turn some heads throughout camp. With Sandin promoted, that leaves a spot open for the 21-year-old Latvian defenseman to make his mark after leaving a decent impression last season in a limited AHL role.
Ryan Johnston and Michael Kapla (re-assigned to Newfoundland today) are both signed to AHL deals, with the latter seemingly possessing the greater upside, although neither are considered prospects at 27 and 25 years of age, respectively. Alex Gudbranson is currently injured.
The battle for goaltending roster spots among the Leafs prospects was expected to be one of the more intriguing aspects of the Marlies‘ camp. However, an injury to Ian Scott at the worst possible time ensures Kasimir Kaskisuo and Joseph Woll will share the crease duties.
Woll made a strong impression in camp on Sheldon Keefe, who described the prospect, “as advertised in terms of what his potential is to be an NHL goaltender, but also to be a player that’s going to make some noise in the American League this year.”
Signed to an AHL contract, 20-year-old Russian goaltender Maksim Zhukov has been assigned to Newfoundland. The Growlers have also bolstered their netminder ranks with the signing of Patrick Munson, who only turned professional last year and impressed in the UK’s Elite League with the Nottingham Panthers.
2019-20 Season Predictions
Results are not the be-all, end-all in the AHL, but the Toronto organization places a lot of value on making the playoffs and embarking on long post-season runs. Over the last five seasons, the Toronto Marlies have played 67 playoff games and won 40 of those. That’s almost an extra regular-season campaign on its own, providing invaluable experience for developing young prospects.
Regular-season success will ultimately hinge on divisional play, with 63% of the Toronto Marlies schedule (48 of 76) coming against North Division foes. The Belleville Senators will play the Marlies on 12 occasions, which should provide for a good season series. Ottawa has done an excellent job of recruiting for their farm team and currently have a host of promising NHL prospects in their AHL ranks. In short, the North Division is not the picnic it once was, with no easy games on the schedule.
With such a revamped roster, it’s a blessing that the Marlies face a relatively low-key start to their 2019-20 campaign with plenty of practice time available. They’ll play just one game through the opening weekend followed by a pair of outings in Manitoba the following weekend, affording the team a chance to bond on the road.
Time to practice in the AHL can often be a premium, so don’t undervalue the calm start as the schedule ramps up — in second half of the year, they’ll play a combined 26 games through the months of February and March.
AHL rosters can shift rapidly due to injuries, trades (especially around the deadline), and reassignments, but with the players currently at Sheldon Keefe’s disposal and the depth in the ECHL, it’ll be a disappointment if the Marlies aren’t a top-five team this season and a strong contender come playoff time.
Projected Toronto Marlies 2019-20 Opening Night Lineup
There is so much depth and talent at forward that you could think up all kinds of permutations beyond the combinations below. However, this is my best guess at this stage of the season. Sheldon Keefe will no doubt tinker with his lineup quite a bit through the first four-to-five weeks of the year.
Kenny Agostino – Adam Brooks – Jeremy Bracco
Pontus Aberg – Pierre Engvall – Matt Read
Garrett Wilson – Tyler Gaudet – Egor Korshkov
Darren Archibald – Hudson Elynuik – Nicholas Baptiste
Rich Clune – Tanner MacMaster
Teemu Kivihalme – Timothy Liljegren
Kristians Rubins – Jordan Schmaltz
Kevin Gravel – Jesper Lindgren
Ben Harpur – Ryan Johnston