There isn’t just the one single foolproof method for building a successful hockey team. If there were, then everyone would follow that blueprint to a fault until it became outdated and someone ultimately came up with a new one to chase. While the NHL may be a copycat league, if everyone’s doing the exact same thing then it becomes awfully difficult to distinguish yourself from the pack. The key is to follow a couple of fundamental Do’s and Don’ts. Beyond that, it’s up to you to get creative.
The ultimate goal is to assemble as much talent as possible, by any means necessary. Ideally in a way that makes sense in the big picture with all of the pieces fitting together, but that only really comes into the scope after a certain point once you’ve already cleared a few hurdles. Spending big money on a big name from time to time can certainly put your incumbent collection of talent over the top, but the salary cap structure makes it inherently impossible to purely buy your way into success in terms of wins and losses.
That’s why we see the savvy teams take a patient approach, accumulating as many draft picks and prospects as possible over a length period of time understanding that not every single one will wind up hitting. Beyond just the raw number of assets, you’ll also need a couple of them to be of the very high-end variety. Those players typically come as a byproduct of a lot losing.
It’s easy to sit back and tell a team to take those lumps on a nightly basis for the greater good when you’re looking at it from afar, without a personal stake in the matter. It’s a whole other thing to be deeply entrenched in the process and still follow through with it properly while juggling a million other extenuating factors that make it difficult to stay true to the course along the way.
Fortunately for Leafs fans, the new brain trust in Toronto appears to be fully cognizant of that, and also appears to be up to the task. While the parent club hasn’t done much winning this season, you don’t have to look far to see the seeds that are being planted. It’s happening right in the Leafs’ backyard, with the Toronto Marlies.
For anyone that’s been paying any attention, the Marlies have been the best hockey ticket in Toronto through the first two months and change of the season. That’s entirely by design, with the organization ushering in a new era as some of the guys that will one day hopefully be contributors in the Maple Leafs blue-and-white cut their teeth in pro hockey with repeated reps at the AHL level.
The AHL tracks statistics back to their 2005-06 season, providing us with 10 full seasons worth of data to work with. I went back and compiled a list of the most dominant teams not just in the standings, but maybe more importantly in terms of goal differential and offensive proficiency during that stretch of time (note: I prorated the numbers to per-80 games because the league transitioned from an 80 game schedule to the current 76 game schedule in ’11-’12).
|Team||Points/80 Games||Goals For/80 Games||Goal Differential|
|15-16 Toronto Marlies||124*||314*||119*|
|09-10 Hershey Bears||123||342||144|
|11-12 Norfolk Admirals||119||287||98|
|09-10 Hamilton Bulldogs||115||271||89|
|06-07 Hershey Bears||114||305||86|
|13-14 Texas Stars||112||288||81|
|06-07 Chicago Wolves||101||331||79|
|10-11 WBS Penguins||117||261||78|
|05-06 Grand Rapids Griffins||115||323||76|
|14-15 Grand Rapids Griffins||105||262||76|
|07-08 Chicago Wolves||110||300||74|
|07-08 Providence Bruins||117||280||74|
|05-06 WBS Penguins||113||249||71|
|07-08 Hartford Wolfpack||110||266||68|
|14-15 Manchester Monarchs||115||254||68|
|05-06 Portland Pirates||114||306||65|
|08-09 WBS Penguins||104||274||62|
|08-09 Hamilton Bulldogs||102||263||62|
|06-07 Manchester Monarchs||110||242||60|
|13-14 Manchester Monarchs||111||257||59|
|08-09 Hershey Bears||106||296||56|
|13-14 St.John’s IceCaps||104||272||54|
|13-14 Grand Rapids Griffins||104||251||54|
|12-13 Springfield Falcons||104||247||52|
|05-06 Hartford Wolfpack||104||292||51|
|13-14 Chicago Wolves||105||252||51|
|08-09 Manitoba Moose||107||239||51|
|09-10 Chicago Wolves||105||264||50|
|12-13 Syracuse Crunch||102||260||48|
|13-14 Binghamton Senators||101||291||46|
|06-07 Norfolk Admirals||108||301||44|
|07-08 Toronto Marlies||109||246||43|
|10-11 Portland Pirates||103||280||42|
|12-13 Providence Bruins||111||234||41|
Teams like the Chicago Wolves (each incarnation aside from the most recent ’13-’14 squad) provide a good reminder that context is important. Those veteran-laden squads excelled in large part because of contribution from AAAA lifers like the Brett Sterlings and Darren Haydars of the world. Heck, a 47-year old Chris Chelios was putting up numbers in for the ’09-’10 Wolves. That’s of little use to the parent club.
For the most part, though, a lot of these teams that dominated the AHL wound up shortly thereafter graduating a handful of legitimate NHLers that went on to help the parent club.
That Hershey Bears squad at the top boasted the likes of Mathieu Perreault, Jay Beagle, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and a combination of Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth in net. That Norfolk team that won 28 straight games had all three of ‘The Triplets’ on it, to go along with guys like Richard Panik, Cory Conacher, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio to name a few. The ’09-’10 Hamilton Bulldogs were led by PK Subban, David Desharnais, Yannick Weber, and Max Pacioretty (before he was called up). The Red Wings are known for putting their young talent through an apprenticeship program in Grand Rapids, and the best single season crop that passed through there in ’05 included Hudler, Kopecky, Filppula, Quincey, and had Jimmy Howard between the pipes. Look at this absurd collection of talent Chicago’s AHL affiliate had during the ’06-’07 season, before any of them became the household names they are right now. The list goes on and on.
Back to the Toronto Marlies who are currently sitting atop the AHL standings in points, goals scored, and goal differential with video game-like totals… Anything even remotely resembling the staggering numbers they’re currently on pace for by the end of the season would solidify them as one of the best AHL teams we’ve seen in the past decade.
With a nice complement of young prospects like William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown and Brendan Leipsic being supplemented with veterans like MArcobello, TJ Brennan (both of whom are clearly too good for this level of competition, but haven’t been able to nail down jobs in the NHL) and reliable goaltending it’s easy to see why they’ve been lighting the world on fire at such a staggering rate.
What’ll be fascinating to monitor is what the Leafs decide to do with those guys moving forward as even more reinforcements make themselves available over the next few seasons. For example, Dmytro Timashov and Jeremy Bracco could join the Marlies next year, while Travis Dermott will be AHL eligible the following year.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the jump here from point A to point B is a sizeable and potentially treacherous one. While the AHL is a good breeding ground for talent, success there hardly guarantees future success at the next level. And even if it does happen, it takes a couple of years.
Still, there’s a professional Toronto-based team playing some tremendous hockey right now. That’s a good start.