By Scott Wheeler
Oct 5, 2019
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
After two minor-league championships in the span of roughly a calendar year, Laurence Gilman stepped out of the Marlies’ locker room three hours before puck drop on a new season to say this was the start of a new era.
This season, Gilman’s second full year in charge of the Leafs’ affiliates alongside his role as the NHL club’s assistant general manager, was “definitely” the first with a true three-tier system, he said.
The formulas that turned the organization’s two affiliates into models for their respective leagues were old news. The Leafs think they’ve found an even better path forward.
“We’ve referred to it as a baseball model where our players will begin their professional careers at the Double-A level in Newfoundland with the Growlers, and good examples of that is with Joe Duszak, Mac Hollowell and Justin Brazeau,” Gilman said. “They’ll start their careers there, we’ll monitor their performance closely, we’ll be there on a regular basis, our player development people will be there, and in time they’ll make their way, hopefully, from Newfoundland to here and eventually from here to the Leafs.”
It all sounded like Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) telling his head scout Grady Fuson (played by Ken Medlock) to “adapt or die” in “Moneyball.” Only the Marlies aren’t the poor team “50 feet of crap” below everyone else. They’re the Yankees.
They’re the team that started with Kenny Agostino, who last year spent a chunk of the season playing on the New Jersey Devils’ first line and two years before that won the AHL scoring title, on their so-called third line.
The new vision is clear: The Marlies will be less of an entry point for the Leafs’ prospects and more of a battling ground for NHL depth. The road for the organization’s prized young prospects will now be a longer one.
“We knew with the construction of the Leafs and the salary cap that we were going to have to find cost-efficient players at the bottom of our lineup, particularly with respect to the forward group. And we felt it was incumbent upon us to find players who could play at either level, whether that’s the NHL on the fourth line or potentially be first- or second-line players for this group,” Gilman said.
The Leafs don’t believe that approach will stifle the team’s prospects, though.
Instead, they hope it helps them blossom in more prominent roles with their respective teams as they progress one level at a time.
“The American Hockey League is a very difficult league. There are veteran players. We have Matt Read who is playing for us, who has played 449 games in the NHL,” Gilman said, pointing to Duszak as a player who will benefit from starting in the ECHL because of the expanded opportunity he’ll be afforded.
“(Duszak’s) going to play power play, he’s going to play five-on-five, he’s going to kill penalties, he’ll be on the ice late in a game when we’re down a goal and when we’re protecting a lead at the end when we’re up a goal. It’s much better that they play more meaningful minutes and larger minutes at that level, get themselves grounded, and then come up and play and are able to play on an everyday basis here.”
The challenge will be making sure the organization’s top prospects are motivated to play at a level that typically hasn’t been their starting point.
Gilman said the Marlies began mitigating against that with the message he and other staff members sent to each of their prominent Growlers-bound prospects when they were sent there to start the season.
He, together with director of minor league operations Mike Dixon and general manager Kyle Dubas, will follow up that message by being present at Growlers games (at home and on the road) and by regularly sending development staff to work with them.
“When you’re present and the players see that you’re there, they know that they’re in your minds and it helps give life to their careers and their process,” Gilman said.
The byproduct of the Marlies’ new approach, though, is significant roster turnover and a challenging bit of juggling the team’s young players against Mike Babcock’s NHL depth.
It’s a reflection of where the Leafs are, according to Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.
“They need NHL depth, they need players to be ready to come up for whatever situation so that they don’t miss a beat. I think the timing is right for all of that. We look at our team, it’s a much different look in terms of what we’ve had in the past in terms of age and NHL experience,” Keefe said.
This summer, the Marlies moved on from alternate captains and AHL veterans Colin Greening, Vincent LoVerde and Chris Mueller to make room for younger players with real NHL aspirations, from defencemen like Jordan Schmaltz to forwards like Pontus Aberg.
They also began rewarding some of those Growlers through the promotion of Hudson Elynuik and Kristians Rubins to the Marlies, and continued recruiting young standouts out of Europe with the signing of Teemu Kivihalme.
“We don’t really know a lot of these players, and we’re getting to know them as individuals, and that’s a critical factor for us. I think there are 13 players today on the roster that weren’t with the Marlies on opening day last year. It’s going to be a work in progress,” Gilman said.
“We definitely know that we have skilled players, we’ve got a pretty good idea of their character, but it’s going to be interesting to see the learning process that takes place both from their end and our end as this group comes together.”
On Saturday, that learning process began with a 4-1 win over the rival Belleville Senators.
Keefe insisted that the use of Egor Korshkov, Pierre Engvall, Adam Brooks, Jeremy Bracco, Timothy Liljegran and Elynuik as “first over the boards” players on special teams reinforces the team’s commitment to its youth.
“We’re going to prioritize the prospects while not disregarding the fact that we have a number of players here that we want to make sure are continuing to progress to be prepared for a call-up,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of guys with great AHL and NHL experience who are sitting on the bench for some time, so we’re going to balance that, and that will be my greatest challenge in the coming weeks.”
The new era for the Marlies is something Keefe is confident will pay off more than it has in years past, pointing to the Growlers coaching staff’s involvement in everything the Leafs did with their rookie camps and tournaments this summer.
“I think it’s going to benefit the organization greatly. It gives us an opportunity to get a lot more ice time for real young prospects that are kind of tweeners in terms of their ability to impact the AHL right now,” Keefe said.
“But that’s also just an extension of our organization there. We keep our eyes on everything that is going on there as well, and the player development staff will be tied in with what’s going on.”
For the best players, there will always be opportunities to advance. But those who enter the Leafs organization will now do so with the knowledge that they don’t operate the way every other NHL team’s development program does.
Newcomers like Read and Schmaltz have already learned that much. Schmaltz pointed to the damage he felt the Marlies could do because of the sense of competition that has been created by the plethora of NHL depth options.
“There’s a lot of guys that have played a lot of games in the NHL or the AHL. I would say from all three top three lines, they could all be called up at any moment,” Read added.
“It’s a very deep forward group. We’ve got great defencemen back there that most of them have played NHL games.”
If the Marlies have to fight preconceived notions of what the AHL and the ECHL should be used for along the way, they’ll do just that.
“There’s a certain stigma to playing in the ECHL that’s probably the biggest thing for us to get over, and for the players to get over, and for their representatives to get over. But it’s on us to set them up for success down there and make it clear that they’re important and they’re not forgotten about,” Keefe said.
“I’m going to be keeping an eye on what’s happening. It’s very much a part of what we’re doing. It’s not just an ECHL team, but it really is part of the Leafs program.”