John Michael Liles finds himself starting the year on the Toronto Marlies. Though nobody will come out and say it, its seems more than likely that he is a casualty of the salary cap, and that the assignment isn’t indicative of his on-ice ability. Most players would take the knock down to the American Hockey League as devastating, but, with a combination of situational awareness and a positive attitude, Liles is taking things in stride.
"It’s never easy. Its not something that you plan on, but for me, it’s about making the most out of the opportunity." said the 32 year old defenceman, who will wear #17 with the Marlies. "I think we’ve got a great of guys here, a young group, and hopefully I can bring something to the team. For me, it’s just about working hard every day, and to keep plugging along."
Also key in his demotion was the defensive depth that the Leafs have. "I think we have quite a few really good defencemen in this organization and its never a bad thing to have. It just makes for a couple of odd guys out every now and again." He’s far from wrong on this one, with seven D currently on the Leafs roster. Even the Marlies, who are about to to make their ECHL assignements, currently have 10 men on the roster, many of whom seem ready for at least a call up, if not regular NHL minutes.
He also spoke a bit about the timeline surrounding the move. "They informed me that they were going to put me on waivers on Sunday. I cleared on Monday with a couple of other guys, so we hopped on a bus to Muskoka to meet the team for our team building and practices up there. We were up there for a couple of days, got back yesterday, and we’re out here today." much like the other final cuts, it’s been a quick turnaround, as the Marlies have already played their two preseason games and open the season on Saturday afternoon.
Liles isn’t the first big Leafs contract to be cleared by demotion. Jeff Finger his last season of his contract with the team in 2011/12. Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek had stints with the team last year. Liles has been in touch with Komisarek to get some advice on the whole situation. "I talked to Komisarek before the season, and after everything went down. I think we share the same attitude, in the sense that you can control what you can control, and ultimately, it’s what you can do on the ice. For me, that’s being on the Marlies, going out and working hard every day."
Komisarek didn’t find his way back to the Leafs, and was ultimately bought out under the compliance exemption, but his attitude and willingness to play in the AHL was instrumental in getting a new contract with Carolina in the summer.
When asked about the cap having an effect on mangement’s decision, he shyed away from the matter. "I’m not the one to ask on that one. It’s an interesting year, in terms of the cap going down, something that the NHL really wanted. It’s a situation that, with the lockout, that’s how everything unfolded."
Leadership is going to be an important aspect of his time here. Seeing the players around him, he’s accepted this challenge.
"For me, it’s about trying to pass on some knowledge to the young defencemen. What to expect, how to take care of yourself, nutrition, rest, whatever. Any little thing. I was really fortunate that when I came into the NHL, I had some good guys to talk to and bounce things off of. They took me under their wing. It’s no different in the NHL, AHL, whatever. If anybody has any questions, I’m happy to talk to them and pass on what I’ve learned over the course of my time."
He also seems to be aware that he’s the oldest skater on the team by nearly five years, showing just how young the core is right now. "Hopefully I’m able to contribute and pass on a little bit of ‘old man knowledge’."
As for who he’ll play with, that’s out of is hands, but that isn’t a concern. "I’ve been paired with Petter.. Granberg?" He said with a laugh. "There’s a lot of new names coming at me right now. I know his name is Petter. He’s a really talented young defenceman, big and he sees the game pretty well. So far, that’s who I’ve been playing with, but beyond that, you have to ask the coaches what’s in store."
This isn’t Liles’ first time in the AHL, playing with the Hershey Bears for 5 regular season and 5 playoff games in 2002-03. The biggest difference he’s noticed so far? "I think I get my own seat on the bus now, so that’s a little different." Beyond that, he recognizes the league’s value. "It was a good learning experience, a step up from college in terms of the pace. Making Colorado the following year was another step up. It’s a great proving ground for a lot of guys, and a stepping stone into the NHL."
Meanwhile, head coach Steve Spott was very enthusiastic about the injection of talent his roster has received. "It’s invaluable for a lot of reasons. His presence on the ice, his ability to play with pace, to run our powerplay and obviously in the dressing room and how he handles himself. He’s a true pro."
Spott is also impressed with the attitude Liles has come in with. "I talked to Dave Poulin and Claude [Loiselle] about him and really, he’s everything they said he would be. He’s handled this extremely well, as a challenge, and every player in this lineup wants to play in the National Hockey League. The fact that he’s with us right now, I think he’s really excited about the new challenge and looking forward to playing to his best hockey so he can get back to the National Hockey League"