Tomorrow is the day, Toronto Maple Leafs Toronto Marlies fans. Opening day in Toronto has arrived and this year, the team that will don the blue and white is a championship contender.
No, the championship referred to here is not the Stanley Cup and yes, the game scheduled for tomorrow between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens has been scrapped due to the second NHL lockout in eight years. For now, forget about the ill-conceived labour impasse that has put the upcoming Leafs season in mothballs and get excited about a Toronto Marlies team that is poised to improve upon a season that culminated in its first AHL Calder Cup Final appearance.
The Marlies will host the Rochester Americans tomorrow at 5:00 PM ET at the Ricoh Coliseum with all the action being televised on Sportsnet One. Joe Bowen is even taking the play-by-play duties. Not bad, right? If you have still yet to be enthused by the opening of the AHL season in Toronto, try not to be so quick to judge. There is plenty more to be excited about when it comes to the Marlies.
Take a look.
The Marlies are loaded with promising Leaf prospects and NHL-ready youngsters. This already impressive group is bolstered by the retention of such players as Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Korbinian Holzer, Leo Komarov, Carter Ashton, Joe Colborne and Ben Scrivens, who will at the very least remain in the AHL until (or if) the Maple Leafs’ training camp commences. For a look at what to expect from these prospects, see this previous MLC entry.
There is also a wealth of good young players on the Marlies who would have remained on the team regardless of the cancellation of games in the NHL. These are players who buy in to coach Dallas Eakins’ philosophies and are beginning to show signs of maturation and two-way efficiency.
Last season, Jerry D’Amigo, Will Acton and Greg Scott formed a particularly effective unit that was instrumental in the Marlies’ playoff success. Look for these three to remain contributors to the AHL’s top-ranked penalty kill while also providing secondary scoring and the odd shorthanded goal.
The 21-year-old D’Amigo has come along nicely since a disappointing first season in the pros two years ago. Jonas Siegel discusses the maturation of the former sixth rounder here.
Of particular interest will be seeing how winger Leo Komarov adjusts to the North American game, having finally decided to travel overseas to realize his dream of playing in the NHL. Unfortunately for Leo, his timing was a little off and he will begin the season with the Marlies. Regardless, the Leafs’ sixth round pick from 2006 will look to agitate opponents and provide his team with some sandpaper. Also, he is wearing number 87, which is awesome.
On defence, former second round pick Jesse Blacker looks to improve upon a solid rookie season that saw him put up 16 points and a plus-eight rating. He will get power play time and the opportunity to play with some excellent AHL defenders.
There is a lot to be said for the experience gained by last year’s Calder Cup finalist squad. The key players involved on that team join a number of solid additions this year to form a team once again worthy of championship consideration.
For a club that already has the defensive fundamentals nailed down and had the AHL’s top penalty kill last season, the addition of a player of Keith Aucoin’s calibre can work wonders in rounding out the offensive side of the game. Aucoin will surely help a Marlies power play which ranked second last in the league last year.
Aucoin has put up god-like numbers at the AHL level throughout his career with 106, 99 and 96 point seasons already under his belt. He also played 14 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season for Washington, signifying that the 33-year-old will challenge for a spot on the Leafs when they return to action.
Mike Kostka represents a significant addition to the Marlies’ blue line, coming over from the Norfolk Admirals squad that swept Toronto in the Calder Cup Final. Jonas Siegel sees Kostka as a late-bloomer and genuine dark horse to ultimately make the Leafs.
Kostka is joined by former Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Paul Ranger, another veteran blue liner who makes the Marlies a better team on both sides of the rink. A lot has been written about Ranger’s arrival with the team and his return to pro hockey. Ranger is ecstatic to be playing in Toronto, as is evident in this interview from the start of training camp.
Returning to the club are incumbent leaders such as Mike Zigomanis, Mark Fraser and team captain Ryan Hamilton, who will have no shortage of help this season when it comes to leading a young club to success.
With no limits on roster sizes in the AHL, the Marlies have a wealth of capable bodies that could help the club win on any given night.
“We might keep two or three guys on fifth line to start and the other guys might go play [elsewhere],” said Eakins, “but that doesn’t mean you’ve made the team, it means you’re going to start with the team. You’re going to have to play well when you get in or we’ll be changing things around.” – Dallas Eakins, October 2012
It will certainly be intriguing to watch how chemistry develops on the club. As Siegel points out, Aucoin has already found chemistry with Nazem Kadri, as the two skilled players are eager to help out offensively and on the power play.
Paul Ranger and Jesse Blacker have worked well together as a pairing that was put together in training camp. This was the pair the Marlies started the game with in their opening pre-season game.
With the returning shutdown pairing of Holzer/Fraser playing the hard defensive minutes, that leaves Kostka, Gardiner, Simon Gysbers and Dylan Yeo to round out the top-six on any given night.
Mike Zwolinski of the Toronto Star sees the forward lines shaping up as follows:
Carter Ashton-Keith Aucoin-Nazem Kadri
Greg McKegg-Mike Zigomanis-Ryan Hamilton
Nicolas Deschamps-Joe Colborne-Leo Komarov
Jerry D’Amigo-Will Acton-Greg Scott
And how’s this for a fifth line: Brad Ross-Kenny Ryan-Spencer Abbott, easily a second or third unit on many clubs.
Saturday will be our first true indication of how this team will come together and it will be interesting to see how Eakins manages the team’s minutes moving forward.
It has been confirmed that Ben Scrivens will be in net when the Marlies take to the ice tomorrow and he will be the team’s starter for the foreseeable future. This represents another upside to the lockout for the Marlies, allowing last season’s top statistical goaltender in the AHL to return as the starter.
Scrivens is joined in net by fellow free agent signings Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya, both of whom, like Scrivens, are disciples of former Maple Leafs goaltending coach Francois Allaire. It will be interesting to see how all three of the Marlies’ goaltenders respond to working with the organization’s new goalie coach Rick St. Croix.
The goalie to keep an eye on might just be the 21-year-old Swede Owuya, who put up microscopic numbers last year for the Marlies (1.94 GAA, .929 SV%) and the ECHL’s Reading Royals (2.63 GAA, .930 SV%). Upon conclusion of the NHL lockout and Scrivens’ subsequent departure, Owuya will be given the chance to become the starter, whenever that may be.
Of all the intrigue and potential story lines surrounding the Marlies right now, fans may be most appreciative of one simple factor: winning. The Marlies won 44 games last year to lead the North Division and 11 more in the playoffs to capture the Western Conference Championship.
While the AHL will be rich with NHL-calibre talent this season, the Marlies will remain a top team. They boast one of the deepest lineups in the entire league and the potential to remain the top defensive squad. They are an improved team from last year and anything short of a second consecutive Calder Cup Final appearance should be considered a disappointment.
So when you head to the Ricoh or sit down on your couch tomorrow to catch the home opener, forget about all the NHL lockout talk, public relations wars and nonsense spewed by Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. Take comfort in knowing you are about to watch Toronto’s championship-contending professional hockey team.
There is plenty of time when the lockout ends to revert back to the pessimistic realities of Leaf-fandom.
Follow Stephen Berzins on Twitter @sberzins.