Tomorrow afternoon, the Toronto Marlies will return to Ricoh Coliseum to face the Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins. This will be the team’s first home game in twenty one days, with six road appearances wedged in the middle. Why? In typical minor league hockey fashion, the arena had other use, like being used as a lake for the Toronto Boat Show. A drastic transformation, which is fitting, as the team coming to play tomorrow is rather different from the one that left.
Before going into all of the differences between then and now, it’s worth pointing out why this is the case. You see, the Marlies have been gone for so long, that when they left, the NHL lockout still hadn’t been solved yet. I’m not talking about opening puck drop, or ratification, we were still at the point of "they’re really going to lose this entire season, aren’t they" thought on January 5th. Since then, we’ve seen contracts signed, camps completed, and NHL hockey played. Here’s the aftermath:
- While Jake Gardiner was already out of the lineup thanks to his concussion-like symptoms, he was called up the second such a possiblity was available. He’s since played one game with the Leafs. He’s been since sent down to the Marlies this afternoon, but I only expect him to play tomorrow’s game before being called back up.
- Ben Scrivens, Nazem Kadri, and Mike Kostka were all called up, and found regular roles with the Leafs. As it stands right now, it’s safe to assume that none of the three will be back with the Marlies. Even if their play falls off, Scrivens and Kostka have to clear waivers, and another Kadri demotion would probably cause enough outrage to power a small town.
- Mark Fraser remains on the Leafs for now, but is playing limited minutes. He’s also subject to waivers, but is more likely to clear, so I could see the Leafs take a chance on demoting him at some point if deemed unnecessary.
- Korbinian Holzer saw time with the Leafs, but thanks to his waiver-exempt status and poor debut game, returned to the Marlies this week.
- Keith Aucoin, Ryan Hamilton, and Greg Scott were invited to Leafs training camp. I had speculated that inviting Aucoin would be a bad idea, as he wouldn’t make the team, yet would get claimed on waivers. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. All three players were sent down, Hamilton and Scott cleared, but the New York Islanders claimed Aucoin, who actually scored against the Leafs last night.
- After Joffrey Lupul fractured his forearm, Matt Frattin was called up to take his place. This likely ends his time with the Marlies, as he has just two more games of waiver eligibility, and would definitely get claimed.
- Unrelated to the roster shuffle, Paul Ranger suffered an injury
So, with all of that said, the Marlies are missing their top goaltender (Scrivens), three top forwards (Kadri, Aucoin, Frattin), and three of their top four defencemen (Ranger, Kostka and Fraser. Include Gardiner and you’ve got four of five). It’s a very awkward position to be in, and makes it unsurprising that the team dropped four of their six games on the road trip.
That said, all hope is not lost. Wanting the team to continue its on-ice success, the Leafs have worked on ways to try to compensate. To start, Mark Owuya was called up from the ECHL. With Jussi Rynnas having a solid year of his own, the current tandem isn’t a significant drop off from having Scrivens in the lineup, and allows for all the goalies in the Leafs system to have competitive ice time in the city.
Next up was replenishing the defence, leading to a couple of signings from a different directions. Mike Mottau was brought in to attempt to make the Leafs out of camp, but upon failing to do so, was sent down to give the Marlies a steady defensive presence, something the San Antonio Rampage saw earlier this season, and several NHL teams in years prior. Ryan Grimshaw and Corey Syvret were added on tryout basises from the ECHL, and have looked decent in their first few games. Tyler Brenner was called up from the ECHL today to allow for forward lineup rotation.
The biggest impact of all of these, however, is a more indirect one. Tim Connolly had fallen out of favour with the Leafs, not being able to keep up with the top six expectation of him, and it was felt that he was better off finishing his last year elsewhere rather than getting in the way of younger, more long term players. Case in point, Kadri has taken the third line centre spot that Connolly would probably be occupying, and leads the Leafs with 5 points in 4 games from there. Connolly was sent through waivers, and when left unclaimed, assigned to the Marlies. Was this the result the Leafs were hoping for/? It remains to be seen for sure, but I doubt it. At the same time though, Connolly provides a transfusion of offensive talent where the team had lost it, and has provided two goals in as many games. Playing to prove he’s capable of being an NHLer once again, you can be sure that Connolly will, if nothing else, be putting in a strong effort throughout the year.
That’s six roster subtractions, one injury subtraction, and six replacements. A spot hasn’t quite been filled, but this is a relatively easy fix. Odds are, it means more games for Greg McKegg, Kenny Ryan, and Brad Ross to work with. They may not currently have the talent of an Aucoin, Kadri, or Frattin, but the best way to improve is to keep playing, is it not?
As well, this allows for more regular players to get opportunities. Joe Colborne has played his best hockey in a while over the past few weeks, and will now be looked to as a core player. Spencer Abbott showed a lot of similarities to Aucoin throughout the year, so it’s possible that he takes over his role. Guys like Carter Ashton, Nicolas Deschamps and Jerry D’Amigo may be pulled out of utility roles and looked to to score again. There’s lots of possibility.
It goes without saying that the Marlies that left Ricoh Coliseum on January 5th are probably a better team on paper than the ones that have come back. But this is the process. At the end of the day, the AHL is still a development league. To lose a chunk of players to the NHL is a positive, not a negative, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who will say otherwise. That said, there will be a definite adjustment period with a practically new roster. It could be two games, it could be two weeks, it could be two spots in the division standings. Time will tell what the end result is.