The Toronto Marlies started out rather well this weekend, with a pair of wins (4-3 on Saturday, 5-1 on Sunday). Lots of reasons can be given for their success, be it Drew MacIntyre’s stellar performances between the pipes, Trevor Smith’s early leadership, or the strong penalty kill. But most glowing were a pair of offensive defencemen, who were united on the first powerplay unit (which, despite going ‘just’ 3 for 16, was littered with shots and scoring chances). John Michael Liles was expected to dominate. T.J. Brennan showed preseason promise. Together, they were the catalysts of a surprisingly potent offense to begin the year.
I probably don’t have to tell you how good T.J. Brennan was this weekend. The American Hockey League will do that for you; naming him AHL player of the week to open the season. Playing with Stuart Percy during even strength, and John-Michael Liles with a man advantage, Brennan has four goals and two assists in a pair of games. Not bad for a defenceman.
"I think that’s a first for me there," said Brennan of his hat trick in the first game. "Now that I’m in my fifth year of pro, I just want to start the season off simple. Sometimes you try to do a little too much, but when you’re playing with really good players, you just want to get the puck to the net. Things seemed to be going our way."
Games like that will come as a statement of NHL readiness to Leafs management, but with the depth that the entire organization has in the position, he knows that there’s more to prove. "I just want to show that I’m not a liability defensively. Being more offensive, its a give and take, that defence isn’t a first priority. But that’s not my thing. I want to show that I can do well defensively as well, and be put in any situation. Once you go up to the NHL, I’ve had a taste of it, guys are quicker there. I just really want to keep the puck out of our net."
Brennan’s first goal on Saturday was a wrist shot from just beyond the hashmarks, and was followed by a very, very patiently taken slapper from the point. The last goal? A little wackier, a puck thrown towards the net that somehow landed in it (I thought David Broll tucked it in at first glance, personally). "It seemed like Broller was going to the net, and it was kind of a hope play, you know? You’re not expecting that, but you throw it to the net and good things happen."
T.J. is another player that was excited to join the organization when he signed in July. "I’ve played against these guys the last couple of years, and we’ve always had good battles. Last year, having a good season and being called up to the NHL was huge. The minute they came up to me in free agency, it was my first choice. It seemed like a good fit."
Brennan’s biggest advantage, from my perspective, is his shot. His slapshot is hard, and accurate (with a similar technical motion to Ilya Kovalchuk’s; though Brennan says he has no influences). His wrister is far from world class, but more than respectable for even an NHL defenceman. As he said himself, improved defensive play will make him into a regular NHL player, and this may be the right environment for him to work on that side of his game.
As I talked about a few days ago, John-Michael Liles is taking his salary-not-hockey-driven demotion to the AHL in stride. Speaking of strides, he’s about four of those ahead of the rest of the American Hockey League. While he only had one point this weekend, it was very obvious that he was on another level from both his teammates and his opponents. I didn’t get a chance to speak with him after either game, but his teammates were quite happy with him.
"It’s huge. We were moving around well in practice, and he just knows what to do. I’m just trying to read off of him. You always know he’s going to make smart plays. I’m kind of the lucky one, I’m trying to get open, and usually he’s making great passes." said T.J. Brennan. The time that Brennan has spent with him has been almost entirely on the powerplay (with the exception of a 5-on-3 penalty kill), and he thinks that Liles plays a huge role with the man-advantage. "That’s the thing about PP’s. If you have a lot of guys that are threats out there, especially a guy like him, nobody knows who to go to. Johnny’s an All-Star in the NHL. Having him down here is great, he’s a huge threat. He’ll be great for the team."
Trevor Smith was also pleased with him. "He’s great to have. He’s very sturdy on the back end. Looking for plays, he’s talking, he’s a true leader out there for us. That’s big for our young d-core."
"What he does, is he’s always talking on the bench. He’s calming down the guys that are on that back end, and he really is a surrogate coach." said Steve Spott of his player. "His experience and his leadership is invaluable for us right now."
Even strength, he is playing with rookie Petter Granberg. Granberg’s play is has been standard fare for how he’s been scouted; steady, positional defence. This allows for Liles to jump up and instigate the offensive play, whether it’s playing as a third winger or getting a head start on setting up a traditional play. His skating shines the brightest. Already great at the NHL level, it’s almost unfair to watch here. Skating ability is the biggest gap between the two leagues, and it shows when he hits the ice.
I expect that Liles will be back in the NHL before he knows it. In what respect? It remains to be seen. Maybe a team is so impressed with his play that they make a low-risk trade. Maybe the Leafs call him back up if they send Morgan Rielly to Moose Jaw. Maybe he becomes the go-to replacement during defensive injuries for the blue and white. Or maybe they try to assign him and re-waive him on a monthly basis until somebody claims him. No matter what the case, if he keeps playing like this, he’ll be back in the NHL soon. He certainly deserves it.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com