Welcome back to another season of Toronto Marlies hockey.
This is my ninth season covering the Marlies at MLHS. Where did the time go? It has been an enjoyable journey to this point, and I am looking forward to getting back into the swing of things. I remain appreciative of the opportunity to write for an incredible site and be part of a special team of contributors and the incredible community that supports us.
It’s certainly a time to look forward within the organization at every level, so let’s get into the 2023-24 season preview.
The new brain trust behind the bench
While the Toronto Maple Leafs roster has been tinkered with this summer, there have been sweeping changes on the farm.
The first major development concerned the departure of head coach Greg Moore and assistant coaches A.J. MacLean and John Snowden. Although Snowden could consider himself unlucky not to retain a position within the organization, the reality is that a shake-up was sorely needed.
The appointment of head coach John Gruden, plus two new assistant coaches Michael Dyck and Eric Wellwood, brings a fresh look to a Marlies team that needs to turn the page after some recent underwhelming campaigns.
The hope is that Gruden’s experience with and reputation for developing players, especially on defense, will be a key factor in on-ice success this season. He’ll also need to bring a structure to Toronto’s game that was lacking during Moore’s tenure. I hope and expect that there will also be improved accountability; lineup decisions and player roles in past seasons smacked of coaches’ favourites over what was best for the individual and team.
It’ll be telling in the opening weeks how Gruden handles veterans such as Kyle Clifford in terms of their usage within the lineup and special teams.
Speaking of special teams, this was one area where Toronto enjoyed success last year. The power play ranked first in the Eastern Conference and second overall with a 23.6% success rate. Despite nearly 300 times shorthanded last season (second most in the East), Toronto’s penalty kill ranked fifth in their conference at 81.5%. That’s a high bar for both new assistant coaches to reach.
The new head coach won’t be short on firepower to call on, at least to begin the season. Nick Robertson, Pontus Holmberg, Bobby McMann, captain Logan Shaw, Alex Steeves, and Nick Abruzzesse will likely form a formidable Marlies top six. There are also the exciting additions of rookies Ryan Tverberg, Ronni Hirvonen, Ty Voit, and possibly Robert Mastrosimone into the forward mix.
Two fascinating storylines to keep an eye on are Jay O’Brien and Dmitri Ovchinnikov. The former is turning professional on an AHL deal after getting passed over by Philadephia, while it’s yet to be seen what the latter can produce on North American ice.
The Marlies are really well-served in goaltending options. You could argue it’s the club’s strongest suit this season despite a lack of North American experience among the group. The trio of Dennis Hildeby, Vyacheslav Peksa, and Keith Petruzzelli will each look to stamp their mark and assert themselves as the Marlies‘ number one. That, in turn, could lead to one becoming the organization’s number-three goaltender depending on the fate of Martin Jones between now and the trade deadline.
Thankfully, the organization has seen fit to add some veteran presence on the blue line along with some much-needed offensive upside. William Lagesson, Maxime Lajoie, and David Farrance should provide some stability, firepower, and experience to the defense core.
Topi Niemelä is the blue liner that most fans will be keen to monitor the progress of after an impressive first stint in the AHL late last season. The likes of Mikko Kokkonen (following an excellent training camp), William Villeneuve, Marshall Rifai, and Jonny Tychonick should benefit from Gruden’s tutelage. The latter might initially be sent down to the ECHL but is a name to watch out for following an impressive rookie campaign.
An opportunity for a fast start on home ice
Toronto topped what was a very poor North Division last season thanks to an electric start to the campaign in which they outscored their defensive deficiencies. Those came home to roost in an embarrassing second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Rochester Americans.
The division appears wide open again, and therein lies the opportunity for the Marlies to stamp their authority under new leadership. The schedule presents Toronto with a chance to make a positive start to the 2023-24 season. The first five games will be hosted at Coca-Cola Coliseum, albeit with just two divisional rivals visiting in Rochester and Utica.
If the Marlies fail to capitalize on the early homestand, they will face a tough early test afterward. Toronto embarks on a seven-game road trip immediately after the homestand, with a pair of games in Belleville, double headers against Laval and Grand Rapids, and a visit to Milwaukee.
In a division-heavy schedule, it is almost an oddity that only six of the first 15 games are against opponents from the North. The tide turns in the new year, especially in February when the Marlies will face divisional rivals in nine of 11 games.
It’s folly to try and predict what the lineup may look like come Saturday, but let’s attempt for the hell of it. The lineup below shows the strength in depth Toronto has in their farm system this season. With plenty of back-to-back games to start the season, expect a regularly shifting lineup.
Potential Opening Night Toronto Marlies Lineup
Nick Robertson – Pontus Holmberg – Bobby McMann
Alex Steeves – Logan Shaw – Nick Abruzzesse
Roni Hirvonen – Dmitri Ovchinnikov – Max Ellis
Ty Voit – Joseph Blandisi – Ryan Tverberg
Kyle Clifford/Jay O’Brien
David Farrance – Topi Niemelä
William Lagesson – Mikko Kokkonen
Maxime Lajoie – William Villeneuve/Marshall Rifai
Vyacheslav Peksa/Keith Petruzzelli
Opening night is Saturday, Oct. 14 vs. Rochester. See the full Marlies schedule.