Turning Marlies into Maple Leafs

I saw it being shared around the Twitters, and I must say I couldn’t disagree more with Jeff Langridge’s assertion that to become an NHL player, one must effectively be drafted and seasoned in the minors for x number of years prior to becoming “NHL-ready”.

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There are, at any given time, 540 jobs for skaters in the NHL, and only half of those players should be deemed at a high-enough level above replacement that a player of a similar skill level couldn’t be picked up freely on waivers, like Jussi Jokinen, or close to free via a low round pick, like Mathieu Perreault. That means that when you draft a player, you’re hoping that he’ll wind up in the Top 270 or thereabouts.

Now, it isn’t the fault of the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs that the players appearing on the Toronto Marlies recently haven’t developed into that Top 270. Of the Marlies that have come up and played for Toronto this season, only perhaps Trevor Smith and Peter Holland played at a level that would be considered “above replacement” and even then, they were deployed rarely and sporadically.

Neither Holland nor Smith were drafted by the Maple Leafs either. But Jerry D’Amigo, Josh Leivo, David Broll and Jamie Devane all were. The problem with the Marlies recent postseason run isn’t that the Marlies went on a postseason run, but there are still very few future NHLers who could realistically play in the NHL at a level above replacement.

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During the Marlies run to the 2012 Calder Cup Finals, the team earned contributions from several players under the age of 23: D’Amigo, Matt Frattin, Nicolas Deschamps, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne. Only three of those players thus far have blossomed into regular NHL players and given what the Calgary Flames gave up to acquire Colborne, it’s tough to make the argument he’s a player you couldn’t poach off any minor league roster.

This year, the Marlies went deep into the playoffs, but their contributions didn’t mainly come from those players 23 or under. Holland and D’Amigo were the only sub-23 players to record a point-a-game, with no regular contributors from defence. The Marlies are mostly stacked with ANHL players, the equivalent of baseball’s ‘AAAA players’, deemed to land somewhere between the minors and the pros for skill level.

Now, I’m not Jeffler, I don’t watch the Marlies routinely, but I still can’t imagine that the Leafs have a leg-up on many prospect systems because Carter Ashton, Sam Carrick and Josh Leivo are involved. Those are players that show up in almost any team’s minor league system, and definitely aren’t good enough to make us feel comfortable with the fact that a recent first round pick like Tyler Biggs played just three of the team’s 14 games, sitting out as a regular healthy scratch.

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If the Leafs can start mimicking that development system, they should get better in the long run. Biggs is only 21, perhaps with more development time, he will turn out to be a better prospect than he appears to be at the moment.

Biggs and other prospects the Leafs have need to have time before they can make an impact in the NHL. It’s no surprise the Marlies most likely to make the Leafs next season have been waiting a long time, such as Jerry D’Amigo, Peter Holland and Petter Granberg.

Langford tosses out the Red Wings as the “one team in the NHL that has been known for drafting well and then developing them properly” and that “players didn’t play full-time with the Wings until they were nearly 25 years old”. I find that opinion mystifying, personally. Henrik Zetterberg earned his Detroit debut at 22. Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall were 23. Valtteri Filppula was 22 and Jiri Hudler, after losing a year to the lockout, was 23 when he finally broke in full-time. The thing to consider about the top Red Wings in games played of the last ten years is that they played behind a team that was a regular Stanley Cup contender, which is probably a bigger reason why it took so long for these players to make the NHL than because Ken Holland is insistent on proper development practices. This season, the Red Wings had to fast-track a few players into the league, like 21-year-old Tomas Jurco (taken 13 picks after Biggs), 22-year-old Riley Sheahan, 23-year-old Tomas Tatar and 24-year-old Gustav Nyquist. Note that not a single one of these players are 25.

It may be a thing to preach “patience”, but also remember that most of these Red Wings at age 21 were not healthy scratches in the AHL. Sheahan, at 21, scored 16 points in 24 playoff games with the Grand Rapids Griffins. A marginally-above replacement player like Justin Abdelkader at 21 was the second-highest point-getter on the AHL team. It’s not that Biggs “isn’t in the NHL” that has Leafs fans upset, it’s that he’s nowhere close at this point. Last year in Oshawa, he proved inferior to teammate Boone Jenner in almost every aspect of the game, despite Jenner being a mid-2nd round pick from Biggs’ same year.

I wouldn’t call the Red Wings the only team that’s proven successful at drafting and development, but that’s beside the point. It’s difficult to say that it’s a problem of Biggs’ seasoning that he hasn’t made the NHL yet when about ten players taken after him in the 2011 draft have established themselves in the NHL to some degree. I get it’s also a total crapshoot, but teams need to approach the draft in a “go big or go home” kind of way. It is, frankly, downright stupid to try and draft players that will wind up on your third and fourth lines in five years because good third and fourth line players are almost always available for cheap. Players like Biggs (such as Josh Leivo) are also available by bulk later in the draft if you must take a Gregor Clegane lookalike to appease your boss. First and second line players are rarer, and Biggs has never projected as one of those players. Neither has Frederick Gauthier. The way to find those players is to draft the most skilled guy and hope, and don’t worry about him crashing out of the draft. You’ll get another shot next year.

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To tie it all together, it’s not Leafs fans fault that Leafs management has proven to be pretty inept at drafting from that middle round position. I think Dave Morrison does a very good job and the Leafs have found a few later gems in recent years such as Carter Verhaeghe, Andreas Johnson, Connor Brown, Petter Granberg, and D’Amigo as a sixth rounder in 2009 who has proven to be at least a very good minor league player. The problem is that the Leafs system still lacks game-breaking offence and hasn’t had that player in the system for the last decade other than Nazem Kadri. I get that Brown was the top scorer in the OHL, but at his age, that doesn’t really prove much. He still has a ways to go before being in an NHL Top 6.

With the 8th pick, the Leafs have a pretty good chance to at least add a player who could be a top scorer on the Marlies at age 20. We can be patient about that guy, like we were patient with Kadri.

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  • Lupul4Captain

    Yes we had patience with kadri, who is our most skilled youngster and now at the ripe age of 22 he’s involved in every trade discussion out there. Poor guy put up 50 points with linemates that were a revolving door.

    • Okay well I’M patient with Kadri.

      Despite having pretty negative views of the Leafs here at TLN, I think support for Kadri becoming a regular top sixer (even top liner) has been pretty steadfast for the years I’ve been here.

  • “Now, I’m not Jeffler, I don’t watch the Marlies routinely, but I still can’t imagine that the Leafs have a leg-up on many prospect systems because Carter Ashton, Sam Carrick and Josh Leivo are involved.”

    I think you have to watch more games and look more closely at all the statistics and what the Leafs staff have too say. You are painting in too broad strokes and missing many subtleties.

    Carter Ashton, Leivo and Sam Carrick should be thought of very differently. They are not prospects of nearly the same value, so it is not useful to put them in the same group.

    Carter Ashton is older at 23 . He has played 47 NHL games and has 3 points. He is starting to look like that guy who will be a star in the AHL, but can’t quite put it together in the NHL. Perhaps things will change, but I doubt he can become much more than a third or 4th line guy in the NHL, most likely 4th line.

    Josh Leivo is very different and looks to be quite a good prospect. At 21, he is younger than Ashton and he did exactly what you would hope for in a guy trending toward a second or third line role in the NHL. This year, as a rookie, he got 23 goals in 59 AHL games, 8 points in 12 AHL playoff games. He played 7 games in the NHL and got 2 points. If he gets 2 more points, he is ahead of Ashton in NHL production in far fewer games.

    Carrick projects to be a 3rd or fourth line player, but he could be very good in those roles. At 22, in his first full season with the Marlies, he had 35 points in 62 games but he was plus 17! He showed up in the playoffs with another 9 points in 14 games. He has some good speed and size (207 lbs) His two way game is good enough that he might make an easy transition to the NHL in just one more year and be a trustworthy player.

    I also think you are missing some subtleties about the Red Wings. Part of what I admire about the Red Wings are their Justin Abdelkaders and Darren Helm type players. These guy are not stars, but they got over 100 games in the AHL, honed their two-way game, make few mistakes in the NHL and give the Wings quality minutes. When I see them in a game with Colton Orr, I think “why can’t the Leafs develop guys like the Red Wings?”

    I think some of our Marlies are a bit like Abdelkader and Helm. When we play more of these Marlies, (rather than Colton Orr) and get a real 4th line, so that the other three lines aren’t gassed by the end of the season, then the Leafs will be a more competitive team.

  • You use “PPG in the AHL playoffs” as a qualifier for good players on the Marlies, and then inexplicably lower the bar later in the article by quoting Sheahan’s 16 points in 24 playoff games as a good thing.

    • To answer both questions, Yes.

      Here is what you’re probably missing, Toronto isn’t Chicago. Toronto doesn’t have the depth to be able to put in a Holland and … while we didn’t have another guy to name this season that could have been a third liner like either. But also you named two guys from two teams, so I guess yes we have Holland…which Randy sent down in favour of face punchers…

      When you have Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa….Brown, Kopitar, Gaborik, Carter, Richards it is easier to implant a Saad or Toffoli.

      You also have deep defence behind them instead of Ranger, Gleason, Franson. Two third pairing guys and an extra taking up 3/6 spots with Gardiner in the press box…

  • I agree Cam.

    The Marlies were carried all year by guys like Abbott and Smith and Brennan while getting decent contributions from some of the younger guys like Leivo and Ashton.While those players did produce, it seemed like they had unsustainable shooting percentages that aren’t likely to translate to much at the pro level. I could see Leivo, Ashton and Holland all contributing between that 2-3 line type forward role depending how their defensive game turns out.

    It’s be interesting to look at AHL league wide PDO – I would bet the Marlies would be near the top.