Dear MLHS Readers,
It’s been a while.
My last article for MLHS was a Toronto Marlies game review back on March 11, 2020.
As I am sure the majority of you are well aware, the American Hockey League canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 season on May 11, 2020, with no Calder Cup awarded.
With the NHL having announced a start date for January, it feels appropriate to get back into writing about Toronto’s affiliate, even if the prospects of an AHL season are remote, but I’ll get to that later.
To start, let’s briefly recap the 2019-20 campaign.
Toronto Marlies’ 2019-20 Season
For the first occasion since 2011, the Toronto Marlies were odds-on to miss out on a playoff berth — a bitter (probable) end despite a promising start to the season.
After opening with six straight victories and stringing together an 11-game point streak (8-0-3), they were one of the league’s top teams through October and November. There were underlying signs that not all was well with the team, though: They relied too heavily on stellar goaltending and a high-octane offense to paper over otherwise deficient performances, and the inevitable reversal in fortune took place around the turn of the year.
After a 6-1 loss to Laval on December 28 was followed by a humbling 4-1 loss on home ice against Cleveland three days later, a blowout on January 3rd was a warning shot across the bow from which Toronto never fully learned or recovered: An 8-2 defeat in Syracuse could have been an even larger margin of defeat. Those three straight lopsided losses kicked off a tailspin, as the Marlies amassed a brutal record of 11-18-2 before the season was brought to an early conclusion.
It was fitting that the final game of the campaign was an insipid 4-1 loss to another struggling team, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Toronto was 29-27-5 when play was halted, nine points back of a playoff berth with 15 games remaining.
The Marlies roster was stripped back to the bare bones at times, but that doesn’t excuse many of their performances post-Sheldon Keefe era, which were lacking heart and conviction.
The new man at the helm on the bench made a number of questionable lineup decisions at the beginning of his tenure, which was frustrating to watch and certainly didn’t help matters (I’ll touch on Greg Moore later in this article).
It’s highly questionable as to whether there will be a 2020-21 AHL season, but if there is one, it’s likely to be a compact version with fewer teams and a lighter schedule. That being said, let’s stay positive and take a look at what a Toronto Marlies roster may look like, all of the changes from last season, and some possible things to look forward to.
Toronto management needed to make some decisions regarding goaltending throughout the organization heading into this uncertain off-season. That ultimately led to Toronto parting ways with Group 6 UFA, Kasimir Kaskisuo.
An injury limited the Finnish goaltender to 27 games in the AHL through 2019-20 and his NHL debut was blighted by the fact that his Maple Leafs teammates totally bailed on him in the blowout loss that all but ended the Mike Babcock era.
The dominoes never really fell right for Kaskisuo, and that’s why Toronto could not feel comfortable with him as the number-three goaltender in the organization. The acquisition of Aaron Dell provides a slice of proven NHL depth and a top-notch AHL number one (career .924 save percentage in 72 games).
It was a tough rookie year for Joseph Woll, although he did have one early special moment by posting a shutout on his professional debut against the Manitoba Moose. It would be fair to say he had an up-and-down campaign, although it was not always of his own creation. Toronto gave up too many scoring opportunities with odd-man rushes and defensive zone giveaways galore on a game-by-game basis, especially in the second half of the campaign.
It was a rough learning curve for Woll, but one I expect him to grow from.
And then there was Ian Scott, who missed the entire campaign after having to undergo hip surgery. My expectation is that the 21-year-old will play in the ECHL, all things being equal.
The latest edition to the goaltending ranks is Michael Hutchinson, who will provide stability and experience at the AHL level. With the NHL taxi squad likely to hold three goaltenders, the addition of Hutchinson adds some insurance and should give the Marlies a veteran presence in the crease.
The 2019-20 Marlies blue line was hugely disappointing for the most part.
Veterans Jordan Schmaltz and Ben Harpur were unmitigated disasters on the backend. Both proved themselves major liabilities on a nightly basis, with neither able to showcase their purported strengths on offense (Schmaltz) or hard-nosed physical play (Harpur).
It was head-scratching how Greg Moore kept turning to these two players in the latter half of the season when fringe players like Michael Kapla (called up from Newfoundland) proved they were more capable.
Kevin Gravel was the one veteran who could be relied on, but illness prevented him from being a fully effective performer. There is a chance that Gravel could return on an AHL deal, but none of the aforementioned four, including Kapla, are likely to return.
Neither will Jesper Lindgren, who was included in the Kasperi Kapanen trade. I was never that enamoured by Lindgren’s performances and felt like the NHL was a huge long-shot for him at this stage.
I expect that Timothy Liljegren will be given a role in the NHL for parts of next season, but regardless of his possible promotion, the Marlies blue line will look a lot stronger than in 2019-20.
Teemu Kivihalme will be striving to put himself into some NHL conversations, while the Marlies will be bolstered by the return of proven players at the AHL level: Calle Rosen and Martin Marincin both seem set to miss out in the numbers game depending on the size of the taxi squad.
David Warsofsky was acquired in the Kapanen trade and brings a ton of experience (454 AHL games), leadership (captained WBS Pens last season), and offense from the blue line (233 career points). Mac Hollowell, Joseph Duszak, and Kristians Rubins all enjoyed promising rookie campaigns and will be looking to take a step in their sophomore seasons.
Rookie defensemen Riley McCourt (20) and Noel Hoefenmayer (21), both signed to two-year AHL contracts, could bring offensive-minded skill sets if their junior careers are anything to go by.
The loss of Pierre Engvall to the Leafs, the Mason Marchment trade, and injuries to key players Adam Brooks and Egor Korshkov left a big dent in Toronto’s firepower and offensive depth in 2019-20.
Stepping up to the plate were Kenny Agostino, Pontus Aberg, and Nic Petan. In 133 games, the trio combined for 57 goals and 124 points. We already knew that Aberg signed overseas before he was included in the Pittsburgh trade, but barring a trade or an injury crisis, Agostino and Petan will be reassigned to the Marlies.
Overall, though, the Marlies’ forward veteran core did not produce the goods expected in 2019-20. Tyler Gaudet, Darren Archibald, Nick Baptiste, and Matt Read all underperformed, although the latter was much better in the second half of the season. The only one guaranteed to return is Tyler Gaudet, although I would not be totally averse to Matt Read receiving another shot.
Garrett Wilson was one veteran who did stand up to be counted on throughout the season, but his role was mismanaged, in my opinion. Wilson is a player and potential leader I would urge the Toronto organization to re-acquire.
In that vein, Rich Clune will return for his fourth year on an AHL contract in 2020-21. While he doesn’t play a great deal (31 games in the previous two seasons), he brings a great deal off the ice in a mentorship/leadership role.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Kalle Kossila would have made a difference to Toronto’s fortunes had he not suffered injuries that limited him to just 12 games through the 2019-20 season in which he produced six points (3-3-6). He will return for the second and last year of his contract with something to prove.
The one big name missing from last year is right winger Jeremy Bracco, who Toronto chose to let walk as an RFA. For good reason, too: He simply wasn’t a fit in the organization, his development had stagnated, and too often he was a defensive liability. At times, I found myself questioning his work rate and attitude in his performances this past season.
Unlike Bracco, Adam Brooks will be back after signing a two-year, two-way contract in May. At 24 years old, this is the last chance saloon as far as his NHL career is concerned, but he is a proven AHL performer who will provide much-needed top-six offensive power at the center position if he can stay healthy.
It’s also going to be a big season for Egor Korshkov, who is turning heads in the KHL on loan with Lokomotiv Yaroslav. 16 goals and 25 points in 44 games comprise a nice enough start to his North American career in the AHL, but I would like to see him find another level if he’s returned to the Marlies, which may be a long shot.
A plethora of players on AHL contracts plied their trade last season in Newfoundland, where the Growlers were set to make a strong run at defending their championship. I’m not going to list them all, but in my opinion, many of those forwards were simply not afforded a fair opportunity in the American League this year.
The two that stand out and should receive an opportunity for this upcoming season are Justin Brazeau, who lit up the ECHL as a rookie (27 goals and 55 points in 57 games) but played only one AHL game, and Colt Conrad.
Conrad was called up twice for a combined 18 days and handled himself well in three outings, proving he could provide some defensive responsibility at the center position — where Toronto was thin — and he could have easily added to the one assist he tallied. It was a head-scratching decision to reassign him back to Newfoundland in February when it was clear to see he was outplaying more experienced teammates on the roster.
Hudson Elynuik, who stood out positively in 2019 Leafs camp, will return after a solid first full season in the AHL following his excellent rookie year with the Growlers.
Scott Pooley potted eight goals in 30 games and earned himself another one-year deal after finding his feet at the American league level.
Newcomers on AHL deals include centerman Bobby McMann and Rourke Chartier and right-wingers Jeremy McKenna, Gordie Green, and Scott Sabourin.
Perhaps the player I’m most looking forward to watching is Semyon Der-Arguchintsev.
The former Peterborough Petes centerman had his first taste of professional hockey in Newfoundland at the back-end of their 2018-19 campaign. SDA posted two points in three regular-season games and suited up for nine playoff outings. It’s a shame the teenager is currently injured after getting off to a promising start in the KHL.
Last but certainly not least is Filip Hållander. Toronto will likely allow him to stay in Sweden (SHL), but like SDA, he would be a fascinating watch with the Marlies.
Stepping into the shoes of Sheldon Keefe was never going to be an easy task, especially for a coach with no prior professional experience.
An argument can be put forward that Greg Moore was on a hiding-to-nothing as he lost many players to call-ups and injuries. However, his inability to get the best out of the group was damning, and I would not be surprised if he lost the room at times.
One of my frustrations was the lack of accountability and mismanagement of players.
One such example is that of Tanner MacMaster, who was continually thrust into a pivotal offensive role in which he wasn’t capable of performing. Moore continued to prevail with this plan even when it was obvious it was completely ineffective and hurting the team.
MacMaster is a fairly decent third-line winger who can play center — not a #1 center at the AHL level when other options are available.
Experienced players in all positions were rarely dropped for call-ups from Newfoundland, even when the rookies or second-year options were outplaying their peers in limited ice-time opportunities.
I look forward to wiping the slate clean and seeing how Greg Moore handles his troops when the Toronto Marlies finally return to action, whenever it might be safe enough to do so.
To finish, I would like to say thank you for your unswerving support of the site through these unprecedented times.
I know everyone associated with MLHS truly appreciates it.
May I take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and best wishes for the new year.
Stay safe. We’ll see you all in 2021 with better times ahead.