While Toronto hockey fans watch the standings as their Leafs try to make the playoffs, there’s a team playing just to the west of the ACC that’s also making a bid for the post-season. With 8 games remaining, the Toronto Marlies are attempting to qualify for the first time since 2008-09 and find themselves on the outside looking in.
It won’t be an easy task. In the AHL Western Conference, 7 points separate 3rd from 13th. The Marlies are currently 5th, 2 points from 3rd in the North division. They are 4 points behind Oklahoma, 3 behind Chicago and Peoria who sit 4th through 6th in the West Division. The crossover rule in the AHL allows the 5th place team in the West to bump the 4th place team from the North out of a playoff spot should they have more points. And right now, the Marlies look like they need to be 3rd in their own division if they want to see post-season action.
The task is made that much more difficult by the nature of being a farm club. Every team loses players, usually their most talented, to call-ups. Certainly, the success of the parent club is the primary concern for management. A total of 15 players have spent time on both the Maple Leaf and Marlie rosters this year. Some of these, granted, were typical short-term situations. Mike Zigomanis, Marcel Mueller, Korbinian Holzer, Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi had stints under 10 games with the Leafs, while Jonas Gustavsson played 5 conditioning games in the AHL and John Mitchell was sent down before being traded to the Rangers. Even goalie Ben Scrivens, who began the season with ECHL Reading, spent time on the Maple Leaf bench as a back-up.
The bigger problem for the Marlies is that 6 key players have spent significant time with the Leafs, and a seventh has recently been added to the NHL roster.
Darryl Boyce (134 AHL games) and Joey Crabb (256 AHL games) have played half the season with the Maple Leafs in 3rd line roles, filling in for Mike Brown, Colby Armstrong and the traded Kris Versteeg. Boyce had 16 Marlie points before joining the big club, while Crabb had 11 goals in 34 Marlie games. These 2 players would certainly have contributed to the offence had they spent the season in ‘the A’, likely as second and third line players. Another grinder-type, Jay Rosehill, has seen 20 NHL contests spelling Colton Orr, but had put in 7 goals over 32 Marlie games. Boyce and Crabb remain with the NHL club having played their way into regular NHL jobs for this season at least.
Nazem Kadri, the 2009 first-round draft choice, is in his second stint with the Leafs this season, totaling 21 NHL games. While still finding his way in the NHL, Kadri had played well with the Marlies, second only to Zigomanis in team scoring with 41 points in 44 games (Zigomanis has 47 points, but in 64 games). Another key youngster now in his second call-up is Keith Aulie, who was expected to be one of the Marlies’ top blueliners before being deemed NHL-ready. He’ll spend the rest of the season with the Leafs, as will talk-of-the-town James Reimer. Reimer had wrested the top goalie job away from Jussi Rynnas by winning 9 of 15 Marlie starts before he made his splash with the Leafs.
The 7th key for the Marlies to be called to the Leafs is Matt Lashoff. He’d put in 7 goals and 21 assists with 137 PIM in 69 games, and played well enough he was called on him when Mike Komisarek went out with injury. With Aulie already absent, the loss of Lashoff for the Marlies will make the push for the post-season a much bigger hill to climb.
As with any team, injuries also play their role. The Marlies have been without 3 of their highly-touted young players, Luca Caputi, Brayden Irwin and Jussi Rynnas, injured for extended periods of time, while a 4th, junior-eligible Jerry D’Amigo, was loaned to the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL. On the flipside, trades have brought new faces to the lineup, including Joe Colborne, Fabian Brunnstrom, Aaron Voros and Jake Gardiner, as well as recent college signing Tyler Brenner, who will be reporting to the Marlies.
A March 17, 2011 Toronto Star article quotes Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, saying “Winning is not exactly 1A here, it’s more like 1B, that’s the juggling act here.” Eakins, a veteran of over 900 NHL, AHL and IHL games as a player, knows full well that his job as an AHL head coach is primarily to teach his players how to succeed, and ultimately to prepare them to make the jump to the NHL. “Every player’s goal is to play in the NHL,” he says, “that’s their dream, but right behind that is winning. So in saying that, you do Job A and it makes it tougher to do Job B.”
Job B, winning, has definitely been tougher for Eakins and his charges. His top goalie, 2 of his top defensemen, and 4 of his forwards, including arguably his most talented in Kadri, now toil in a playoff push for the parent club, while his own club is trying to push themselves into the post-season. If the Marlies can find a way to make the playoffs, and the Maple Leafs are unsuccessful in doing the same, Eakins will benefit from the return of at least a few of those players. Aulie, Lashoff and Kadri were on the Marlies’ Clear Day list, meaning they’d re-join the AHL club. It could be a big boost for the AHL team if things play out that way.
Perhaps that both the Maple Leafs and Marlies are struggling to qualify for the playoffs is an indication that the organization simply does not have the depth necessary to contend for championships. That is still going to take some time. But, that both teams are still in playoff races this late in their respective seasons may be an indication that Job A, grooming prospects into NHL players, is on track at Ricoh Coliseum. By most accounts, the Marlies who have played 30-odd Leaf games have acquit themselves very well at the NHL level, especially Aulie and Reimer. There may not be playoffs this year, but there should be optimism that better days lie ahead for Toronto’s hockey teams.