From a results perspective, the Toronto Marlies’ 2023-24 season was disappointing.

Defensive frailties bugged the team throughout the campaign, undoing some excellent and often dominant five-on-five performances. Toronto scrambled into the playoffs, but the post-season ended abruptly when an average Belleville team outworked them in the first round, taking the series 2-1.

That’s not to say the season didn’t provide some individual highlights and positive developments, including Ryan Tverberg’s four-goal game. Rather than a review of the season, I opted to pick out 10 learning points from the 2023-24 campaign.

1) Age is no barrier to development

As much as the minors are primarily about developing prospects for the NHL, having impactful veterans is just as important. Since Toronto signed Joseph Blandisi in 2021, the former Colorado draft selection has become an integral leader to the organization on and off the ice. 

In each of his three seasons, Blandisi has put up career-high numbers, culminating in leading Toronto with 59 points (70 games) in the most recent campaign. I would not bet against the 29-year-old further improving his game and overall impact next season.

2) A new coach in town

With Eric Wellwood unable to fulfill his duties on indefinite medical leave, Toronto turned to a familiar face. Since retiring from playing, Rich Clune served as a development coach with the organization but leaped at the chance to become a Toronto Marlies assistant coach.

Clune took charge of the ailing power play that scored 10 goals in two months at a strike rate below 13% before his hiring. The Toronto native completely turned around the Marlies‘ fortunes with the extra skater. For the remainder of the season, Toronto’s power play registered at 21.8%, which would have been tied for second-best in the league if they started the year at that clip.

I haven’t seen this mentioned much in the market, but the 37-year-old deserves credit for his work behind the bench and in practice. Out of unfortunate circumstances, Toronto may have unearthed a promising up-and-coming coach.

3) A prospect emerging from the weeds

Heading into the season, Ryan Tverberg wasn’t an overly familiar name to the Leafs fan base regarding prospects. The 2020 seventh-round pick struggled with injury throughout the season but made a tremendous impact when healthy.

Tverberg’s partnership with Kieffer Bellows was outstanding, and no matter who the third man on their line was, they dominated the opposition at five-on-five.

John Gruden was forced to deploy Tverberg at center ice early in the season. The rookie repaid that faith with outstanding performances in the middle, demonstrating maturity beyond his years. 

Smart decision-making and a big work ethic were two of Tverberg’s greatest assets, and his smaller build did not hold him back from winning more than his fair share of puck battles along the wall. 

4) An inspired signing

General Manager Ryan Hardy helped turn around Toronto’s season with a single move, putting a once-promising career back on track in the process.

A 2016 first-round pick of the New York Islanders was sitting at home in Minnesota when the American Hockey League season began. With the Marlies bereft of firepower power due to call-ups and injuries, Hardy penned Kieffer Bellows to a PTO in late October.

The impact was immediate. An eight-game point streak off the bat included six goals and a trio of five-on-five primary assists in an emphatic victory against Manitoba. Despite featuring in only 52 games, Bellows led the Marlies in even-strength scoring with 25 goals and 39 points.

A late-season injury denied the forward an opportunity to hit the 50-point mark, but his performances through the 2023-24 campaign will ensure he is not a free agent next year.

5) The rise and fall of Petruzzelli

The goaltending situation in Toronto is seemingly always in flux, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon with Artur Akhtyamov and Vyacheslav Peksa waiting in the wings. That’s also notwithstanding any personnel changes via free agency or trades.

Kieth Petruzzelli is an RFA this summer, seemingly heading elsewhere after a disappointing campaign. There were some fair performances early in the year, but his sporadic form saw him demoted to number two in the pecking order. He was eventually ousted by Luke Cavallin in March as the young goaltender on an AHL deal shared duties with Dennis Hildeby.

After earning an NHL entry-level deal through a combination of circumstance and promising performances in his first season, it’s likely an unfortunate end to his time in Toronto.

6) Topi Time

Topi Niemelä was thrust into top pair and special team duties for the better part of the 2023-24 campaign. The first-year AHLer embraced his new role and extra ice time.

The right-shot rearguard added offense to a defensively responsible game, recording 39 points (8G/31A) in 68 games. His deployment at the end of the season was somewhat of a surprise, anchored with Pietronirio often on the bottom pairing. That aside, it was a promising showing for the Finnish defenseman in his first full AHL season.

7) Hildeby’s House

Dennis Hildeby established himself as the Marlies‘ number-one goaltender in a trying season for the organization in the position. He set a franchise record by becoming the first rookie netminder to record 20 wins (21) in a single season.

By his admission, Hildeby admitted that his performances were inconsistent for parts of the campaign, but there were caveats. The Marlies carried three or four goalies at various stages of the season, and Hildeby struggled back in the AHL after a spell with the Leafs in which he didn’t see any game action.

The big Swede finished with a .913 save percentage, sixth best amongst all rookie goaltenders and 15th overall in the league.

8) Pontus proved he belonged at the top level

Sent back to the AHL on two occasions, Pontus Holmberg did not sulk or bemoan his situation. Instead, the 25-year-old showcased that he was too good of a player to remain in the American League with outstanding performances for the Marlies.

The Swedish forward seemingly had to go above and beyond to prove his worth to Sheldon Keefe at the NHL level, but no doubts remain that he is an NHL player. Where he fits under Craig Berube next season, after all the dust settles on the offseason moves, remains to be seen.

9) Jacob’s jumpstart

Jacob Qullian was a late-season addition for the Toronto Marlies following his signing of a two-year ELC. Expectations for the 22-year-old were to dip his toe into the water and receive a taste of professional hockey before the summer.

Quillan opted not to read that script. The rookie forced John Gruden to make him a regular in the lineup through the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs with the calibre of his performances.

His adjustment to the speed of the pro level was seamless, and it’s no exaggeration to say he improved with every passing game. It was easy to see why Quillan won the ECAC Gladiator Best Defensive Forward Award; his two-way game and a strong showing in the faceoff dot allowed him to make a promising start to his pro career in Toronto.

10) Much better but not perfect

Regular readers of my work will know that I was not a proponent of Greg Moore during his coaching tenure with the Marlies. Replacement John Gruden made an excellent impression in his first season as a professional head coach.

Accountability was the largest sea-change as Gruden held himself and his players to a higher standard. No matter age, experience, or contract, players were treated according to their on-ice performances. 

Gruden’s handling of Kieffer Bellows was excellent, especially when the player got ahead of himself after a bright start in Toronto.  The younger players on the roster flourished in the environment, as evidenced by the performances of Ryan Tverberg, Robert Mastrosimone, and Jacob Quillan. Those three were rewarded with greater responsibilities and more ice time as a result of their play.

After accountability, the calibre of Toronto’s play at five-on-five was the next biggest difference between Gruden and his predecessor. The building blocks are in place for next season, but as with every coach, there are points of contention.

The utilization of Kyle Clifford in the top six for the majority of the season was baffling, given other available options. Topi Niemelä was shuffled down the pecking order late in the campaign, seemingly at odds with his performance level. Perhaps a nagging injury played into that, but we’ll never know for sure.

Those are minor grievances on my part, though. Overall, Gruden’s appointment and year-one work was a step forward for the organization.