On Saturday, I took in the Marlies 4-2 win against St. John’s with McKeen’s Hockey pro scouting coordinator Gus Katsaros. First off, he’s an excellent hockey guy who you should follow on Twitter @KatsHockey, if you aren’t already. More relevant to this piece, we discussed numerous Marlies and Leafs-related matters that I’ll go over here as points of discussion and analysis.
It’s worth noting that, when it comes to the game itself, it wasn’t the greatest. The Marlies and IceCaps both played the night before, and each team was noticeably tired. On a good day, St John’s isn’t the most exciting team to watch as there really isn’t much talent there – the IceCaps two leading scorers are both D-men who have 17 and 16 points respectively. Add in the fact that Alex Burmistrov wasn’t playing on top of the aforementioned note of both teams looking tired, and well, you can imagine what kind of game it was.
The Marlies are simply a much better team than the IceCaps, and even though they didn’t play their ‘A’ game, they took care of business. That’s what good teams do.
Anyways, here are some talking points from recent Marlies games I’ve taken in:
- It’s always interesting watching Joe Colborne. He’s so big, and he has a noticeably high skill level considering his size, plus he can move more than adequately. In the IceCaps game, he made two high end passes; the first was on a 3 on 3 rush, where Colborne brought the puck below the hash marks, both forwards charged the net and were guarded accordingly, and he recognized Korbinian Holzer trailing the play and hit him for a pass that allowed the defender to walk in for a semi-breakaway. Holzer’s shot didn’t hit the net. Then in the third period, Colborne was at the top of the circle on a power play and hit a streaking Mike Kostka backdoor, but he wasn’t able to convert. If you were to go through a bunch of game tape on Colborne for the year, you would obviously see things he needs to improve, but you would also see quite a few scoring opportunities he’s created that haven’t been buried. In this game alone, there were two prime scoring chances he created that at the end of the day went undetected.
- Gus actually charted out on-ice goals performance here. At the time of that piece, he had only been on for seven goals against, while the team average was 14. So in essence, he’s not on for many goals against, and he’s been creating. I’m not going to defend Colborne to the bitter end – I’m not even sure if I’m defending him right now – as he only has 9 points in 25 games in a year where he should be doing much better. He’s stopped going to the dirty areas, he has only 33 shots on net for the year, and he’s turning 23 in January. But, there are little positives that can be gleaned from his game. Maybe the chances he creates start getting buried in the second half? That could quickly change the current perception of him.
- One more note on Colborne. There was an instance in the second period where he attempted to cut in and shoot the puck off the rush, but a defender got his stick on it and deflected the shot wide. It was a pretty nondescript play, but I thought about it a lot. In pretty well any sport, most people know that competing against a guy that is bigger than you is exponentially more difficult because they can leverage their body and create space for themselves that makes it nearly impossible for someone with a smaller body to guard them. Joe Colborne is listed at 6’5, and there just aren’t many players bigger than him out there. So when you think of him trying to cut in and simply get a shot on net, it should be relatively easy for him. At 6’5, with his reach and skill, in the AHL, he should be able to effortlessly put pucks on net pretty well whenever he wants, yet he was guarded with ease. This brings me back to Poulin’s interview with Lindy’s Leafs Magazine over the summer in which he told us that Colborne grew another inch over the summer. In that sense, he’s still very much a kid growing into his own body and learning how to use it. Now, how long you can stay patient with a kid and hope that he puts it altogether, I don’t know. But there’s enough there to make you want to wait at least a little longer. As mentioned, the pieces are there, he’s creating chances and isn’t scored on very often. You’ve got yourself a player if he could ever learn how to leverage his body, control the puck, and fend off defenders in the dirty areas of the ice. It’s just a matter of how long the Leafs will be patient with him now, and obviously if Colborne can start producing results.
- This is a bit of good timing, as Kyle Cicerella just wrote an excellent piece on Abbott learning from Aucoin. I was going to comment on the fact that it’s pretty clear the Leafs are playing Abbott with Aucoin because, with Kadri out, nobody else up front can really think the game the way Abbott does. He’s 5’9, so he obviously isn’t very big, he’s not the fastest skater, nor does he have the best shot, but he thinks the game at a very high level. In fact, during the IceCaps game, in the first period, Abbott whipped a pass to Aucoin in the slot, and he wasn’t ready for it. Abbott is fighting an uphill battle because 5’9 undrafted forwards don’t get very many chances to stick in the NHL, but he’s throwing up a point per game now in his first AHL season, and is seeing consistent power play time at the moment. If he’s able to keep up his point totals, Abbott is going to force the Leafs to eventually take a look at him at the NHL level. But it’s only been 12 games, and it’s very hard to predict how smaller players will react to playing against NHLers. At the very least, he is getting everyone’s attention.
- During the IceCaps game, Gus pointed out an excellent play in which D’Amigo knew he was going to get flattened, but did so in order to make a play to advance the puck. This was something that I noted during the Marlies playoff run last year as he is a guy who will sacrifice his body to make plays. D’Amigo’s inconsistent game to game, but he’s been playing on the Marlies shutdown line for most of the year and has been killing penalties, which is what the Leafs will want him to do. You kind of wish D’Amigo was bigger than 5’11, but he’s a solid and bulky 210+ pounds and will get dirty. Of the many unfortunate effects of the lockout, one is that the Leafs can’t take a look at a guy like D’Amigo at the NHL level. Maybe he only would have played five games, but at least there would have been something to gauge him on at that level. Otherwise, are the Leafs going to feel confident throwing a rookie in on their shutdown line to play against the NHL’s elite night-in and night-out for 82 games come next year? That’s risky, to say the least.
- One of D’Amigo’s shutdown line mates, Will Acton, should be getting a lot more attention than he currently is. Acton has been playing against other teams top lines all season more or less. Meaning, when Rochester comes to town, he’s the one who lines up against Marcus Foligno, when it’s Grand Rapids, he plays against Gustav Nyquist, and so on. That right there speaks to the responsibility he’s being trusted with on a team that is expected to compete for a championship again this year. Acton’s 6’2, he finishes all of his checks, drops the gloves on occasion and can be depended on for a regular shift. Yes, the Leafs have Steckel and McClement as their 3C and 4C, but neither of them offer the physicality Acton does, plus Acton can play wing. Simply put, he plays Randy Carlyle hockey, and there aren’t many players on the Leafs or Marlies you can honestly say that about. Acton may or may not be playing himself into a spot on the Leafs, but he is playing himself into the conversation, and that’s a feat in itself. This is a kid whom many thought was signed because of his last name. Now he’s becoming an important player on a good Marlies team.
I’m going to cut off the player notes here. I’ll be reading the comments if anyone wants to discuss other players there. I didn’t want to write too much and overwhelm.
On a more important note, I hope everyone has an excellent holiday and/or Merry Christmas.
It was met with a lot of skepticism when the St. John’s Maple Leafs were relocated to Toronto in 2005. Seven years later, the move just continues to look better and better.
The Leafs’ AHL affiliate had excellent attendance numbers and were highly popular in St. John’s during their time there. The move was a result of the Leafs’ desire to reduce travel costs and fill the Ricoh. While the attendance was terrible for the Marlies‘ first few years of existence – including a low point when barely 2800 people showed up for their first ever home playoff game in 2006 – the team is finally establishing a presence in the city. As the lockout drags on, many Toronto hockey fans are now turning their attention to the Marlies and even taking in a game or two if possible.
What really makes the Marlies’ presence in Toronto nice, though, is the fact that you’re in the same city as the parent club if you’re a player on the team.
Imagine playing in Hamilton and having to pack up to go to Montreal, only to then get sent back to Hamilton a day later?
Then there’s the fact that the Marlies are basically run like an NHL team. They use the same facilities as the Leafs, and get access to the same specialty coaches as the big club does. The Marlies coach gets to be around management routinely and sit in on draft meetings, trade deadline day, and so on. Do you think the Leafs would have retained Eakins if he the Marlies were located in St. John’s still? There’s at least an argument to be made that it would have been significantly harder to do so. On top of that, if you’re a minor league player or college free agent deciding where to sign, what’s more appealing than living in the same city as the parent club?
We’re obviously going to have to talk about the Marlies this year unless these negotiations swing around (as we should either way), and while there are many things to appreciate about them, we shouldn’t lose sight of how helpful they are to the Leafs simply by being located in the same city as them.
And really, that’s what farm teams are all about: Helping the big club.
Here are some notes from a 1-1-1 weekend:
- On Friday Eakins attempted to play Kadri at right wing with Colborne and Komarov, but the trio didn’t really generate much. What was really concerning though is that Kadri couldn’t break out of his zone while being on his off-wing. Eventually he got moved to play left wing with McKegg and Scott, and he looked much better and more comfortable after that. Many continually suggest Kadri could play either wing, but his breakout struggles suggest otherwise. While he might be a little more dangerous in the offensive zone coming down on the right side, it won’t matter if he can’t break out properly. There’s also been suggestions of him getting some chances at center, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s exclusively a left-winger at this point. That’s not a bad thing by any means; I just wanted to point out what he is.
- While on the subject of Kadri, I wanted to say something that just doesn’t get said nearly enough: he’s dangerous almost every time he touches the puck. Kadri deserves credit for some aspects of his game that he doesn’t receive nearly as much as he should, as he is routinely creating, drawing penalties, and putting pucks on net.
- Kadri had a 2 on 1 against Hamilton Saturday and feathered a soft pass intended for Zigomanis that got broken up easily. Later that game he had another 2 on 1 and riffled one through to Greg Scott, who missed a glorious opportunity to score. Goal or not, it was nice to see Kadri learn from that and make the necessary adjustment.
- Again on Kadri, he may have found a nice running mate in Greg McKegg for the foreseeable future. It bodes well for McKegg that he’s seeing significant time not only at center but with arguably the team’s most electric winger. On Friday he made a nifty move to slip past a hip-check in Hamilton and center a puck in front, on Saturday he scored, and all weekend he saw consistent power play time. What’s been most impressive about Greg so far, though, is his puck pursuit and ability to win battles in the corners. That was not always his strong suit in the OHL, so it’s great to see him taking pride there and doing the dirty work. Kadri and McKegg have combined to cycle the puck very well. When Grand Rapids scored to tie the game, they were the line that went out next and put in a good shift in the offensive zone and got some momentum back. On an organization that’s really weak down the middle, you have to be excited at how fast McKegg is working his way up the ladder.
- Here is one difference between the AHL and the NHL. On Friday, a forward took Gysbers wide on the rush so Gysbers stuck with him as he went around the net. There’s nothing wrong with that. What there is something wrong with, though, is Blacker coming off his man in order to challenge the forward as he came around the net, putting both of the team’s defencemen from that shift on one forward. It didn’t ultimately result in anything negative, but in the NHL if you come off your man in that type of situation you will be scooping a puck out of your net. That’s the kind of thing Mike Komisarek does now – or the last few years – to get in trouble.
- Many blamed Hamilton’s first goal on Friday on Jesse Blacker, but it wasn’t his fault. He missed a puck. That’s a a little mistake that is bound to happen every now and again out bad luck. Now, Gysbers getting beat one-on-one off the rush before Blacker missed that puck is the real problem with that goal. Remember, this is the AHL, so guys are going to make mistakes and the hockey will get sloppy at times. You can live with a mistake like a guy missing a puck, what you don’t like to see is a guy getting cleanly beat.
- Jake Gardiner has 21 shots in 5 games so far. Last year he had 79 total shots with the Leafs in 25 games. If there’s one real benefit for Gardiner in this lockout it’s that he’s using his shot more and beginning to learn how to get it through. Last year he had the Kaberle-syndrome at times and over passed. Some of you may remember last year when Wilson and co. harped on him to shoot. Now, he finally is. I for one won’t soon forget this goal; when he gets a hold of one, he can really shoot the puck.
- Komarov’s confidence is starting grow. On Saturday he hammered a player toward the end of the Hamilton game, sparking a sort of line brawl. He got a penalty on the play, but I thought he made shoulder to shoulder contact (that said, it was probably boarding). He also hit the post that game. In Hamilton on Friday he made a beautiful curl and pass to Colborne that gave him a mini breakaway which Colborne couldn’t convert. If you watch Komarov off the rush, he really loves to skate in the zone, curl back and survey the ice for his best outlet pass. In the NHL that will be more effective since the game is more organized and it will be easier to know where everyone is. At times in the AHL he has curled back and had nowhere to pass. Maybe the most impressive part of his game, to me, is his back-checking. He understands how to get back, find his man, and stick with him. There was one play in particular where he harassed a guy all the way through the neutral zone, but when the blue line was crossed he released from that player and found an uncovered man to stick with. It sounds basic, but most guys will just stay with the puck carrier and cause confusion. See Colby Armstrong last year as an example.
- Jerry D’Amigo did not play Saturday or Sunday due to injury. Last week against Erie, you may remember, he got absolutely steamrolled in the first period in the offensive zone when he wasn’t expecting it. He got up slowly, went to the bench, but did finish the game. He also, of course, played Friday. I wonder if that hit left some marks though because he looked shaken up afterwards.
- It’s really fun watching D’Amigo and Greg Scott kill penalties together. They are at the point where they don’t just want to kill the penalty, but score shorthanded, too.
- Gardiner and Kostka on the penalty kill have not been great together. One example was Sunday on Grand Rapid’s first goal. Kostka blocked a shot, resulting in the puck bouncing to the point. Inexplicably, he skated up to the blue line, and all the defenceman had to do was pass it down low, leaving Gardiner all alone to deal with three forwards,. Gardiner skated over to the corner to defend the forward, who simply slid it through Jake’s legs to a man in front who buried with ease. Last year the Marlies had the best penalty kill in the league and Blacker was a regular on it, so I’m not sure why Kostka and Gardiner are getting priority over him. Maybe we’ll see it pay off… the season is five games old after all.
- Further, on the penalty kill: It’s interesting to see the Marlies use two forwards and one defenceman when killing 5 on 3s. It’s something they are doing consistently now and I wonder if that means Carlyle will try it in the NHL, too. Tortorella’s Rangers ran it with success in the playoffs. Two forwards challenging point shooters and one defenceman clearing the front of the net might be the new way to try to kill 5 on 3’s.
- More on the penalty kill: Ashton is getting regular time on the unit and being used as a grinder. That’s what he is going to need to do if he’s ever going to make it in the NHL. He’s off to a rough start this season, already finding himself on the fourth line after starting the year on the top line with Kadri and Aucoin. Again, it’s early, but he needs to show something soon.
- Holzer had trouble with Nyquist and Tatar all night. On one play, Nyquist could have had an early candidate for goal of the year as he split Holzer and Fraser but then lost the handle. Expectations on Holzer need to be tempered and kept in check. He crushed Daryl Boyce on Friday, and that sort of stuff should be expected to continue even in the NHL, but he does have trouble with high talent forwards. He’s a decent player, but overall he’s hopefully a solid third pairing defender.
- On the Leafs side of things, it really shows how weak the right side of their defense is. Currently after Phaneuf they have Komisarek, then Holzer, then Kostka. Even if Franson eventually signs, that side is a huge area of concern.
- When it comes to the defense, Mark Fraser deserves huge kudos. Against Hamilton Saturday, the players were being chirpy with Holzer – especially after Holzer was mouthy on Friday – and he hammered a guy in a fight, settling things down for a while. Sunday, Kadri got kneed and Fraser didn’t hesitate to go in there and defend him. Yes, it was a 3-3 game with less than five minutes remaining, but it was game five of the season and teams have to know they can’t take liberties with Kadri. If there’s something to say about Fraser it’s this: he’s a heck of a teammate and the kind of guy you root for. That said, not sure the Leafs could have both he and Holzer up together. Neither are exactly fleet of foot.
- On a side note, it’s a good thing Kadri plays on the edge, mixes it up and defends himself, but nothing would be worse than him getting into a fight and breaking his hand or something. Hopefully the tough guys continue to protect him because opponents are taking liberties with Kadri so far this year.
- It’s nice that Kenny Ryan got a few goals and some confidence, but in the grand scheme of things his role is that of a sparkplug. He’s a little energizer bunny out there and the kind of guy who can play only eight minutes but is effective in doing so. We’ll see how he continues to play moving forward though as he wouldn’t be the first ever flash in the pan.
- This weekend was Jussi Rynnas in a nut shell. He looked lights out one night, and sloppy the next. He’s always shown flashes of his talent in individual games, but what he really needs to show is that he can string together good games consecutively and consistently. While none of the goals Sunday were really his fault, he was fighting the puck quite a bit and didn’t appear confident in the net at all.
- Ryan Hamilton came out like a gangbuster in game one of the season, and it kind of reminded me of Joey Crabb at the beginning of last year – Crabb had 15 points in nine AHL games before getting called up to the NHL for good last season. Since then though, Hamilton’s really cooled off. Crabb dominated for a month like that before getting called up, which really goes to show you how much a player of that age range needs to dominate to get a call-up to the NHL. Often fans see guys like Hamilton or Crabb – or Zigomanis – and wonder why they aren’t in the NHL. But the reality is that pretty well every NHL team would rather call up a kid with potential over an older guy who doesn’t offer much of a ceiling to his game.
- Nobody talked about it during the broadcast, but how about Colborne’s screen of the goalie on this goal? You can see he’s slowly starting to turn it on now as the season gets going, and he’s really beginning to move the puck. On Komarov’s first goal of his AHL career, he made a really nice play to kick the puck from his skate to his stick in stride, and then riffled a great pass cross-ice. Frattin is due back soon and I’m hoping we get to see the two united again on a line. I really believe Colborne plays his best hockey when he has a trigger man to work with as his mind just naturally looks for players to pass to and set up for goals.
The Marlies don’t play at home now until November 17th. To make matters worse, they only play once this week. Salt, meet wound.
Here’s the thing though: with different leagues comes different expectations and viewing experiences.
When it comes to watching and evaluating the NHL, it’s very simple: winning is all that matters. Each team in the league continuously tries to get better, figuring out how to start winning or continue winning. In the AHL, that is not necessarily the case. At the end of the day the Marlies will probably be judged by many based on the win and loss column, but what really matters – to me – is the progression of their players and how they can eventually help the Leafs win at the next level.
Thus, what will be focused on most here in this space is not really winning and losing, but how these players are progressing and, more importantly, how they can help the Leafs win hockey games whenever the NHL starts up again. Of course, the Marlies accomplishments will be pointed out too, but as I said the main focus is still with an eye towards the Leafs and how these guys can help the NHL team.
One other thing: The Marlies have played two games at this point. For some players, it was their first taste of pro hockey altogether. Let’s give them some time to get their feet wet before we really start critiquing them.
On that note, here are some observations from this past weekend’s back-to-back games:
- In October, Chris Johnston of the Canadian Press wrote this article about the relationship between Randy Carlyle and Dallas Eakins. It includes some of the system adjustments the Marlies will be making this year in order to play Carlyle hockey. The basic premise of the defensive system involves out numbering the opposition in the defensive zone. It is an interesting concept that will be fun to monitor as the season progresses. None of the goals scored against Toronto this weekend could be blamed on it as the Amerks scored on a power play, while Erie also had one power play goal, a goal scored by an individual effort and another scored off a misplayed dump-in on top of an empty netter. Meaning, there’s no real breakdown in the newly implemented system for us to discuss.
- While the Marlies lost against Erie, they dominated the game so it wasn’t really a great game to get a good look at the system. Against the Amerks it was also pretty one-sided, but there was a stretch in the second period where they got hemmed in their zone for an extended period of time where you could see the team chasing the puck a lot. That is the major downside to the system. Conversely, on many shifts the Marlies have sent two or even three guys into board battles, come out with the puck, and broken out of the zone cleanly after that.
- Another big part of Carlyle’s system is that he likes to use the middle of the ice more when it comes to breaking out. The Marlies have been doing this in two ways. The first is their defencemen, namely Gardiner, simply skating it out through the open ice on their own. The second has been a D to D pass followed by a quick pass up the middle to a center that cuts low below the faceoff dot; the center then makes the quick decision on whether he should pass it to either winger or skate it up himself.
- The Marlies appear to be skating the puck into the zone more often than not so far this year, but I’m not sure that’s a reflection on the Leafs style of play to be. I’d assume Carlyle’s system is more catered towards his specific lines. In other words, Kessel’s line will probably rarely dump it in, whereas McClement’s will most likely do so regularly.
- One last thing the about the Marlies system worth pointing out: when protecting a lead in the last minute of play they had their center, in this case Zigomanis, stay in the defensive zone near the goaltender and goal line when the opposition had the puck in the neutral zone. This was something even Ron Wilson had the team do in order to prevent teams from dumping the puck in behind the D-men who were standing up forwards at the blue line. It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but it was effective.
- Although it is not exactly news to many at this point, it’s probably time to consider Nazem Kadri a full-time winger. He played wing in the playoffs last year mixed with some center on a line with Zigomanis and Hamilton, and now he’s playing full-time wing to start the year. It’s probably for the best, anyways. There should be a spot alongside Mikhail Grabovski open for him sometime soon.
- On the other side of Kadri has been Carter Ashton. That means they are using his big body to complement skill in Kadri and Aucoin. Where Ashton continues to play will be something to monitor; if he’s going to play on what’s essentially the top line, he’s going to need to produce at a noteworthy and consistent pace. To this point he has failed to really create anything, but again it’s only two games. On the power play he has seen a steady shift as a floating net presence. That means he’ll stand in front of the net, and then float out to the top of the circle as a one-timer option. I’ve always personally felt that net presences work best when they literally just plant themselves in front of the goalie and don’t move, drawing a defender to them and driving the guy in net crazy (Keith Tkachuk comes to mind). A floating presence kind of defeats that purpose. I’ll be paying attention to see if that play continues and if he remains on the top line. Ashton was played as a grinder with the Leafs and that appears much more suited to his skillset.
- Leo Komarov got burned pretty hard against Lake Erie thinking he could pick-pocket Tyson Barrie at the Marlies blue line. The young defender spun around him then went down and scored a beauty of a goal. It’s a good learning experience because, against good players in the NHL, you are going to get burned if you get caught with your hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. And Barrie isn’t even a good NHLer yet. Other than that, Komarov has been finishing all his checks as advertised, which isn’t surprising because he did that in the World Championships consistently. He’s been a pest so to speak, but he clearly has to adjust to the North American game. This time in the AHL will actually be good for him. If the lockout lifts he’s going to be in a battle to win a spot on an energy and/or grinding line.
- D’Amigo is another guy who could possibly win a spot on the Leafs in that kind of role. The tough thing right now when it comes to the Marlies is that they have been rolling their lines when they can on account of their depth, which makes it harder to evaluate a player a like D’Amigo in a shutdown role. I thought this year we might have seen D’Amigo get power play time and used a little more offensively, but it has been penalty killing and defensive assignments so far for him. His role for the Leafs, should he make it, is pretty clear at this point.
- By the same token, Holzer’s role has specifically been a shutdown defender who sees top penalty killing time. Sounds like Brian Burke’s ideal third pairing defender.
- Jake Gardiner has been receiving a lot of attention from fans but he is someone I won’t spend much time on here. We already know he is an NHLer. He was going end-to-end in his rookie season in the big-league, so of course he’s going to be able to do it in the AHL. He’ll grow his offensive confidence and log a ton of ice-time, but realistically, there’s nothing to really say about him. He’s at the point where he needs to be challenged by NHLers. Jordan Eberle and RNH BOTH didn’t even get points in their first two games this season. There’s not much to say about these guys sent down due to the lockout. They’ll turn it on eventually, but it is what it is — they are NHLers in the AHL due to the lockout.
- Joe Colborne is coming back from surgery and still looks like he has to get his game going, but he has the zip back on his passes. The mustard he put on a cross ice pass to Ryan Hamilton for a tap in goal was something he could not do last year after he got hurt. He is getting predictable with that play, but on the whole it very much looks like the once-raw center project is starting to figure it out. When he was drafted everyone knew he was pretty raw, which really just means a little patience and teaching is required.
- Colborne might actually be the player benefiting most from the lockout in the organization because he isn’t ready to put up good numbers as an NHL center. In the AHL he is getting quality line-mates and buying development time. Like Kadri, he too will soon need a serious look at the NHL level over an extended period of time.
That’s it from me for now. It’s going to be a long season, especially if there’s no NHL, so we’ll try our best here to make it as entertaining as possible. The good news is that there are a ton of players on the Marlies who should eventually become NHLers so it’s not like we’re talking about plugs. What’s also good news is that the Marlies are really good. There are also a few Leafs prospects we’ll talk about throughout the year. Plus, who knows when Burke is going to open his mouth next? In other words, we’ll have stuff to talk about.
As in, Red Dawn. Get it? Yeah, I’m not a fan of the title either. It was either that or “Dallas”, but I don’t have the time tonight to write a complicated and funny Marlies metaphor piece that ends with Bobby Ewing appearing and telling us the Leafs’ disastrous previous season was all a dream. Much as I’d like to.
So, Don Cherry took to Twitter this week and lambasted the Leafs’ ability to develop prospects – specifically, Nazem Kadri. This is a tough issue. Were Don speaking in generalities, he’d be right. Toronto’s track record the last ten years of graduating prospects to impact roles in the NHL is not exactly littered with success. And Brian Burke’s regime, well, hasn’t really been around long enough to fairly measure their results.
But that’s the thing. Don doesn’t seem to care. He’s comfortably using an unfair metric.
Now, I’m not going to start the “Is Kadri ready?” debate. You’ve all got your opinions, and they seem fairly entrenched. Personally, I’m not sure shoehorning him into an NHL lineup before he was physically – let alone mentally – ready could have possibly been a good thing. Arguably, he’s reached the point where that’s now less of a concern.
My real interest lies in Eakins’ response to Cherry’s tweets. (That’s what “Read Don” meant). (And yes, that’s also the world we live in. A professional hockey coach in Toronto must now spend a significant portion of his post-practice media scrum addressing comments made as part of a social media rant).
Put simply: Dallas’ response was…well, ace.
It’s kind of like the KADRI-FAT-FLAP from last week. You read Eakins’ comments in an article somewhere (under a headline that includes the words BLASTS!), and your first impression is that they’re harsh. And that he’s pissed. But then, you watch the video and realize that was one extraordinarily minor sound byte amidst a conversation in which Dallas actually offered a multitude of constructive points and advice, all concerned with the pragmatism of good fitness. He wasn’t screaming at Kadri through the media. He was teaching him.
Which brings us back to Don. Cherry’s comments – you’ve seen them, or can click above – mentioned Eakins specifically, which is likely the only reason the Marlies coach addressed them. Or, it could just be that Eakins is the de facto voice of the organization at the moment with his daily ten-minute media scrums. Here’s what he said. Video.
“I’m a massive fan of Don Cherry. When we’re playing a night game and Hockey Night in Canada is on, I beg my wife ‘Please tape that game’ and it’s not because I want to watch the game, I want to watch Coach’s Corner and I want to watch The Hot Stove. And I always want to see what Don is going to say just like the rest of the nation. The one thing is for sure is Don is an excellent entertainer. He is. He is great at it.
His comments yesterday, I can shake my head at them. I know what the truth is, I know what I believe in. And listen, he’s a strong-willed guy; I’m sure he believes in everything that he had somebody type for him.
I would love for Don Cherry to come down and I invite Don to come down here and sit in my office and hey let’s talk about where we’re at with our players. I’ve never ever seen him at one of our games and I’ve never ever seen him at a practice and he’s never come in and knocked on my door. I invite Don to come on down, ‘You’re more than welcome at any time. You’ve got a lot of fans here’. We’d be honoured to have him.”
This is a leader. This is a coach. Dallas Eakins demonstrates an intelligence, perspective, ability to articulate, and sense of humour that many men in his position can only dream of achieving. I love this response. It’s PR perfection, and a definitive “How To” guide for dealing with, essentially, an internet troll.
I can’t even say I entirely disagree with Don. Yeah, Kadri’s management has been questionable. And yes, Eakins addressing his body fat percentage in an earlier interview was kind of questionable unless it was intentioned to put a little media pressure no the kid. But Eakins’ solution to this vicious Cherry Picking is so evolved, so logical, so informed that inspires me about the man himself.
What’s a coach’s job? Is it to discipline, or teach, or organize? Not just. It’s to motivate.
Dallas Eakins just seems to…have it. I know that’s a wildly uninformed and non-technical analysis, and that I’m extrapolating an awful lot about the man’s professional ability from a few sound bytes. But if character’s all this speaks to, that’s a good enough place to start.
A coach motivates by first generating loyalty in a player, and that loyalty is earned by reassurance in the player’s mind that a coach knows what he’s doing. Eakins’ ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and fairly is a key factor in demonstrating to a player that his coaching cause is one worth fighting hard for.
Furthering Eakins’ affability is his evident lack of an ego for the job he does; another man might bristle at the idea of Randy Carlyle hovering around preseason offering insights, or being forced to teach players another coach’s defensive system. But Eakins willingly and happily commits to these organizational mandates, highlighting the positive effect Carlyle had on the younger Dallas himself, as a player, further entrenching the sense of camaraderie and trust that needs to exist in any successful management group.
Add to that his history as a player fostering understanding of their perspective and his evident passion for the role he has, and you’ve got the ingredients for a man that will have a long and prosperous career as an NHL coach.
No slight to Randy Carlyle, who’s still very early in the role – but Dallas’ future is in Toronto.
Thursday morning links!
-Vesa Toskala has, mercifully, retired. I know that might be difficult to understand, since he’d previously appeared to have retired while wearing a Leafs’ sweater and playing regularly at the Air Canada Centre. If you wish to send congratulations or condolences, Toskala’s agent has requested you personally drive to his house in Finland and drop them off. Apparently if you send something at him from really, really far away, he has trouble getting it.
-Y’know when Jay Leno does that ‘dumb criminals’ skit? There’s another Jay who should apparently be on the list. That fact, of course, doesn’t make the linked story not awesome.
-Via TLN, Cam Charron talks about some Don Cherry rant stuff too.
-Also at TLN, Ryan Fancey asks if we’ll be watching KHL hockey. (Nope).
-The Leafs’ hiring of Rick St. Croix as their new goalie coach prompted Gord Stellick to write down a bunch of memories for the CBC. There’s a lockout on, by the way.
-Via Busted Coverage, “84 KHL Russian Ice Girls To Celebrate ESPN Lockout Hockey“. (“Amazing.” – Declan Kerin). That link won’t seem like much until you click through. And witness it. And then view the slideshow. And then watch the video. Starring a guy who might be Nikolai Kulemin’s twin brother, with glasses. This exchange actually happened:
Matt: Am I allowed to include this in tomorrow’s Mashup? Because it’s awesome. And hilarious. And there are a lot of very tactfully censored boobs in it.
Alec: It would be silly not to include it, really.
Whether or not there is any sort of NHL season this year, there is one thing we do know: there will be an AHL season.
The Toronto Marlies will go into the season looking to defend their regular season division championship and their Western Conference playoff championship. The online odds at canada.betfair.com show they are among the firm favourites, but at this stage it’s based on last season’s glories, so there is still a lot to prove this year and a long way to go yet.
Even with that kind of target on their back this season, the Marlies will be well-primed to at the very least win their division yet again.
They are set to return most of their core from last season but there will also be some significant changes.
First and foremost, Ben Scrivens will more than likely be gone. Even if the Leafs do end up eventually bringing in another goalie to tandem with James Reimer at the NHL level, Scrivens is waiver eligible next season, so the chances of him going unclaimed are slim to none.
With that in mind, goaltending represents the biggest question mark for the Marlies in the upcoming season. They are currently slated to go into next season with Mark Owuya and Jussi Rynnas as their top two goaltenders. The good news for the Marlies is that Owuya technically had better numbers last season than Scrivens (1.94GAA compared to 2.06GAA, and .929sv% compared to .926sv%). The difference is that Ben played 20 more games. Owuya holds promise and there is absolutely no doubt he can play at the AHL level, but the challenge will be whether or not he can carry the load and be “the guy.” Rynnas is no slouch, either. He’s shown flashes in his time in Toronto, but he’s also been inconsistent and injury prone.
Somewhat like the goalie battle for the Leafs (should it end up being between Reimer and Scrivens), both candidates have shown they can play at a high level, but they need to show now whether or not they can do it over the course of a full season while knowing there isn’t a work horse like Ben Scrivens to bail them out should they struggle or go cold.
The good news for both goalies is that no matter who is starting, they will be doing so in front of a very strong roster.
In the playoffs the Marlies iced a defense of Fraser-Holzer, Gardiner-Blacker and Gysbers-Mikus when healthy. Gone from that top six are Gardiner and Mikus without question as one will be in the NHL and the other signed in Europe. As of right now Korbinian Holzer is also in the Leafs top seven for defensemen. At the very least he should be on the NHL roster, if not playing, for the NHL season.
Over the summer Toronto has added two 26 year old’s to the back end in Dylan Yeo and Mike Kostka (who is turning 27 this year). Kostka is the more intriguing of the two as in the last two years he has had 55 and 38 point seasons, along with 12 points in Norfolks 18 game championship run. Yeo is more of a steady defenseman who can play a regular shift. Neither have played an NHL game yet in their careers.
That leaves the Marlies defense looking something like this at the moment:
Obviously there is still some work to do when it comes to the defense as there are two openings available and no prospects who are eligible to play for the Marlies next season except for Petter Granberg, who according to Jim Hughes via Kyle Cicerella is going back to Sweden for the year. Josh Engels is not signed but he is a player the Marlies have had play defense so he could definitely be a candidate to fill one hole. Matt Lashoff has signed in Switzerland. There’s two holes to fill on the Marlies defense still, that’s the bottom line.
The forwards on the other hand are filled with possibilities and face some tough cuts.
Of the players returning that are guaranteed roster spots, there is Mike Zigomanis, Ryan Hamilton, Keith Aucoin, Carter Ashton, Jerry D’Amigo, Greg Scott, Nicholas Deschamps and Joe Colborne; all of whom will be on the roster barring one of them making the Leafs roster unexpectedly (or getting traded, obviously). You also have to account for who could potentially be sent down to the Marlies after Leafs camp. Nazem Kadri is, of course, the main guy to keep an eye as certainly he seems primed to play with the big club this year, but right now there really is no room for him. Even if he does make the roster and management decides to send a veteran down to the minors to make space for him, that is still another roster spot to account for on the Marlies.
There’s also Leo Komarov and Colton Orr to consider. In an ideal world for the Leafs, Komarov wows at camp winning a spot on the fourth line alongside Steckel and Brown while Orr does enough to be the 13th forward. If either struggles, that is yet another roster spot to account for.
This is important when you consider all the young players who are gunning for a roster spot with the Marlies this year. There is Brad Ross, Tyler Biggs, Greg McKegg, Sam Carrick, Jamie Devane, Kenny Ryan, Andrew Crescenzi, Will Acton, and Spencer Abbott all vying for spots on the team on top of the eight roster locks we have already accounted for.
The Marlies have a positional strength and surplus at center ice. They feature Keith Aucoin, Mike Zigomanis and Joe Colborne. Other potential center candidates include Crescenzi, McKegg, Carrick, Acton and Ryan.
During the playoffs last year, Eakins had centers Kadri, Zigomanis, Colborne and Dupuis to play with, and in order to get them all ice time he played Kadri and Zigomanis on a line together with Ryan Hamilton. Should two of the above center prospects impress, it’s possible Eakins once again puts together a line like that. If they don’t, then expect the Marlies to role three lines very evenly (depending on how each is playing that game) while mixing in a fourth line shift every once and awhile.
On the wings, the Marlies are looking at having Hamilton, D’Amigo, Ashton, Deschamps make up their top six (unless, as said, they shift one of their centers to the wing), with players like Scott and Abbott knocking on the door. Scott in particular is a guy who could play top six minutes in the AHL, but is a guy Eakins rotates all over the roster. That leaves only two or three roster spots for wingers such as Ross, Devane, Biggs and any of the other center prospects who could just be moved to wing.
Of the prospects eligible to play for the Marlies, Sam Carrick, Brad Ross, and Andrew Crescenzi could be returned to junior for overage years. Tyler Biggs could go down to junior as simply a 19 year old (and also play in the world juniors).
Carrick is one guy to keep an eye for going back down as even though he had a great season in Brampton as their captain, it was really his first dominant year and it might not be a bad idea to send him back down to do it again and possibly even lead the Battalions on a lengthy playoff run this time around.
Conversely, Brad Ross doesn’t really have anything left to do in the WHL as he’s pretty well maxed out his ability there for awhile now, playing on a dominating line with top five picks Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter and then showing this year he could produce without them.
According to Brock Otten, (who is a pretty well informed guy that gets around OHL rinks), there are rumours the Leafs have informed Kitchener Andrew Crescenzi will play pro this year in either the AHL or ECHL. Even with that though, he would have to beat out incumbent Will Acton for that fourth line center. That might not seem like much, but Acton is an established AHL player at this point who knows how to play his role successfully at this level. He will be tougher to beat out for that role than people think.
At the end of the day the Marlies could begin the year looking at a roster that resembles something like this:
(Lines are not meant to be exact, this is more to show who will make the team)
Crescenzi- Begins year in the ECHL
Carrick- Back to OHL
Biggs- To the OHL
Orr/Kadri/Komarov- Leafs make room for them, otherwise Devane is probably losing his roster spot
*Please note the roster will change dramatically should there be a lockout and the Leafs have to send down guys like Frattin, Gardiner, and Kadri to begin the season.
As always with an AHL affiliate, success won’t solely be measured by wins and loses. With a roster featuring prospects such as Colborne, Ashton, D’Amigo and Blacker, a big part of what coach Eakins and his staff do this year will have to be focused on getting the kids ready for the next level and hopefully even graduating some players to the NHL during the year.
Last season was the first year under Eakins that he was told to win first and foremost. Leafs management has preached about creating a winning culture with the Marlies and translating it to the Leafs gradually, and it’s understandable, but at some point you have to look at the roster and question the fact that Zigomanis and Aucoin are probably both better AHL centers than Joe Colborne, but only one of those three has the potential to become something special with the Leafs.
There are these types of questions all over the forward unit. Yes, young kids like McKegg and Ross will have to work their way up the lineup, but each of them would have to pass some pretty established quality players to get substantial ice-time. Some will inevitably say Eakins should sit career AHLers in order to get the kids ice-time, but sitting better players so worse players can play is one of the quicker ways to lose everyone’s respect in the dressing room and alienate your players from what you are trying to teach.
Injuries will of course happen and players will eventually be moved up or down the lineup due to their own play or outside circumstances, but Eakins has a tricky year ahead of him when it comes to getting players ice-time, and walking the line between playing his veterans and developing the kids.
Further to this all, the Marlies roster only highlights another reason the Leafs still need to clear space on their NHL roster. If Kadri and Komarov, for example, have to be sent down because the big club has no space, that could mean prospects such as McKegg and Ross lose their AHL roster spots and have to be sent down to the ECHL. There’s technically nothing wrong with the ECHL, but if you’re Brian Burke, you want your prospects developing in Toronto, with Eakins, and a solid Marlies team.
We’ll see how it all plays out. Fortunately and most importantly, as the lockout looms the Marlies assure us there will still be hockey in Toronto worth watching.