Ahead of the start of the Toronto Marlies’ 2023-24 regular season, GM Ryan Hardy discussed his new coaching staff, the hiring of Matt Cooke as head coach in Newfoundland, and the team’s goaltending situation with so many options available.
How satisfied are you with how this team is built and set up for a new AHL season?
Hardy: We have a lot of good players — a good mix of veteran, experienced guys and young guys. I thought we made a lot of progress last season in terms of evolving our culture and improving the environment that we have for developing players.
We have a new staff in here and a lot of change. Certainly, we are excited. There are a lot of good guys. Excited to get going on Saturday.
What can you tell us about the individuals on the new coaching staff?
Hardy: We have three guys we brought in, John Gruden, Eric Wellwood, and Michael Dyck. I worked with Gruds in the U.S. program seven or eight years ago before he went to Flint, onto Hamilton, and then to the NHL.
To me, as we built out a staff, I always sort of view a coaching staff not as a head coach and two assistants but as a collection of people that can compound each other, fill in each other’s gaps, and work in a way that they can all maximize what each other brings.
In a head coach, I was looking for a guy with the experience that John had but also the leadership qualities that he has and the passion that he has for teaching. That was important.
Welly is a great up-and-coming young coach that we have had in our system in Newfoundland. He did a great job with us there. We wanted to continue to develop him and grow with him.
Michael Dyck brings a lot of experience in the WHL working with high-level prospects in junior and a lot of experience with Hockey Canada, too.
We have a good mix of young and old to go with Hannu [Toivonen] and Troy [Paquette]. It’s a lot of guys with a passion for teaching and a good focus on developing and creating the culture we want to have here.
Eric Wellwood hasn’t been at practice in the last couple of days. What is the reason behind that?
Hardy: He is taking a medical leave for an indefinite amount of time. He is okay. I am in contact with him all the time. People are wondering where he is, but any time you have a medical situation, out of respect for the family and for Eric, it will be all we touch on with that.
What went into the hiring of Matt Cooke as the new Newfoundland Growlers head coach?
Hardy: The Growlers were pretty late in the game this summer looking for a coach. We have sorted through our agreement with them.
Matt had reached out to me previously when we had the opening with the Marlies. I passed his name along to the guys in Newfoundland. As part of that process, he and I spent some time together. He came in here for a few days.
We all had some sort of preconceived notion of how he might be as a coach based on how he was as a player. We found him to be a really intelligent guy who had a passion for teaching. He was able to reflect on his experience as a player. Certainly, it was a different time and a different game then.
We were all comfortable with what he is going to do with the players from a coaching standpoint and the passion he has for that based on the experience he has of over 1,000 games and winning the Stanley Cup. He would be the first to tell you he is a much different style of coach than he was as a player.
He is a good guy. I am excited to work with him in a partnership we have with Newfoundland. Hopefully, he will have a good season there as we have for the last handful of years.
Marshall Rafai came into last year with an AHL contract and then he locked in an NHL deal. What did he do to earn that? What steps do you hope to see from him this season?
Hardy: One of the great things every year is when guys come in and are able to convert those contracts from American league to the NHL. We had Marshall, [Marc Johnstone] with Pittsburgh, and Noel Hoefenmayer in Edmonton. That is a great area we take pride in — to develop that and continue it going.
As it relates specifically to Marshall, I thought he did a great job coming in last year, particularly in the first half of the year when the Leafs were decimated with injuries and we were decimated with injuries. He came in as a first-year professional, and he and Tommy Miller at one point were eating first-pairing minutes against top competition.
His skating is world-class. He is a competitive guy. He has an incredible passion for hockey and an incredible passion for getting better at hockey. He spends a lot of time focused on his nutrition and a ton of time focused on what he is doing in the gym on his body.
In terms of areas for growth, sometimes the passion and care level that he has for competing, being part of a team, and achieving his NHL dream may tense him up. I want to make sure that with the puck, he continues to make clean decisions and grows in confidence in that area. If he can do that with all of the things he has in the 6’2 frame that he has, there certainly is a prospect there and one we are excited about.
With Joseph Woll and Erik Kallgren moving on to the Leafs and Devils, respectively, how do you approach the goaltending situation this year?
Hardy: Martin Jones has an incredible amount of experience and is an NHL-capable goaltender at this moment right now. If I am completely honest, we are a little bit surprised that he got through waivers and arrived here with us.
Our primary focus — and Brad Treliving has reiterated this when he got here — is on developing players and developing prospects. We have a couple of young goalies on NHL contracts in Dennis Hildeby and Keith Petruzzelli, and then we have Peksa, Cavelin, and McKay as well on AHL contracts.
In the short term, what we’ll probably do is let Petruzzelli and Hildeby take the net for a little while, and make sure there is enough opportunity for Jones to stay fresh and get experience here.
With a goalie plan, you lay out a plan, but injuries happen and weird things happen. Goalie is a funny position. I have a plan. It will probably be adjusted next week. We will go forward as best as we can.