What’s Up With The Toronto Marlies?

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The final buzzer sounds at Ricoh Coliseum. Fans, for the most part, are just happy to have their team back in town. After all, they’ve spent the past several weeks on a road trip while their home arena was put to a different use, hosting the annual Royal Winter Fair. The reaction from the players, however, is not as positive. Heads are hung low during the walk from the bench to the room. Men living out their dreams look visibly frustrated.

Perhaps the loud f-bomb that escaped the room, coming from an unidentified player, best describes the Toronto Marlies’ seven game losing streak.

Gord Dineen pulled no punches after Sunday’s loss. “If guys are getting frustrated, and it’s affecting their play, then they better find a different profession” said the head coach. “When you go out there, and lose focus based on frustration, you’re not going to execute what we have to do as a group.”

As much as one would prefer their team not be in this state of mind, it would be hard not to be at this point. The team’s last victory game on November 7th in San Antonio; two and a half weeks away in real time, but it probably feels like an eternity now. The streak ties a franchise record, which also coincides with a road trip; an 0-5-2 run in January 2010. In net for most of that time was Joey MacDonald, who sat on Hamliton’s bench on Sunday. 

That 2009/10 team was the first one coached by Dallas Eakins, who by the end of the year had many questioning his abilities. Two years later, the Marlies won their first of three consecutive division championships and advanced all the way to the Calder Cup Finals. But that’s all in the past. The present has no certainty for a bounce-back while retaining a similar low point.

F*** The Puck

Friend of the blog and Canucks Army contributor Josh Weissbock has done some solid work breaking down a few possession-based team statistics in the American Hockey League this season. The results are pretty telling. As it stands, the Toronto Marlies…

  • Have taken 414 shots on goal. This is the second lowest total in the AHL, with only ten more shots taken than the MIlwaukee Admirals, who have a game in hand. The Marlies are averaging 24.35 shots for per game, the lowest in the league by almost a full shot, and almost ten shots behind Worcester.
  • Have allowed 522 shots on goal. This puts them in the low-mid tier of the league – 30.7 shots per game is not good by any means, but still isn’t as awful as teams like the Binghamton Senators, who have given up six shots more per night. The league average is a shade over 29 shots.
  • Differential is where things really start to slide away for the team. While teams like the San Antonio Rampage are out-performing their opponents by seven shots a night, the Marlies are being outshot by 6.35 every time they step on the ice. Not only are they they only team to be outshot by that many, they’re the only team above six, and the only team above five. Only two other teams are averaging a shots for differential below -4 (Iowa and Lake Erie). Turning this number into a percentage, the Marlies are taking 44.23% of the shots on goal -1.7% behind Lake Erie and almost 12% behind San Antonio.

I asked Coach Dineen if he was starting to feel concerned about the possession gap, and the response was blunt. “Ya think?!” was Gord’s opener, even. “I think it’s a trend.. We’ve talked about putting more pucks on the net. We kept them to a decent shot against total tonight, but we’ve got to get more pucks on the net and get that differential a little smaller.”

Playing The Percentages

Sometimes you can get away with trailing behind in the shots race (looking at you, 2012/13 Leafs), if the pucks are going in and staying out. It’s not something you’d like to rely on, but that isn’t even happening for them.

  • Currently, the Marlies are sitting dead last in the AHL in goals for, with 27 goals. Springfield, who leads the league, have 66. The goals for gap between the Marlies and Falcons, on a relative scale, is bigger than the one between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning, the worst and best in the NHL. The Marlies are the only team in the AHL to have fewer than 35 goals, and have only scored a shade over half the league average of 50.
  • A saving grace has been the fact that the team has been right in the middle of the pack in terms of goal allowance. Their 49 against is just slightly above the average and puts them at the 14th fewest.
  • Bringing these two stats together, Toronto has a dead last goals for percentage of 35.5%. Furthermore, they’re only converting on 6.3% of their shots (last by nearly 2%, league average being a shade below 9%), while the goalies are putting up a below league average 0.906 save percentage.

Applying PDO to the Marlies gives them a dismal 969, the lowest in the league. At that point, it’s not hard to question if the losses are more than just out-performance, but also luck driven. Dineen disagreed with that train of thought. “No, not at all. You create your own luck with hard work. It’s bearing down when you do have the opportunities, we’ve talked about certain players who only get one or two opportunities a game, and when you do, you’ve got to bear down and if their goalie makes a big save, not turning away from the net and going for that second chance.”

The Individuals

Beyond the team, there are some curious issues brewing brewing in individual situations as well.

  • People who are quick to point out that they don’t want Colton Orr or Fraser McLaren to get many games due to their inability to produce are definitely in the right for having that opinion, but if they’re to be replaced with the younger aggressors, it hasn’t done a lot of good. Jamie Devane and David Broll are both yet to get their first point of the season through 16 and 17 respective games – particularly crazy in Broll’s case, when you consider he had 16 points on his first full AHL season last year and a point in one of his five games with the Leafs. Broll is at least producing shot volume, throwing 25 pucks on net, but it hasn’t helped much.
  • Rather than being a final step before making the Toronto Maple Leafs, Petri Kontiola’s stint with the Marlies may have created his final, permanent exile from North American professional hockey. Despite showing some skill, he failed to register a point in eleven games before walking away. His skating just isn’t suited for the smaller ice – he proved that he doesn’t have the acceleration.
  • Sam Carrick is still throwing two shots on net a night, which is fantastic, but he’s got no goals and just two assists in fourteen games. I still feel him to be a threat, but this is arguably a colder start than last year.
  • Petter Granberg doesn’t look as good when he doesn’t have a top-end defensive partner with him. John-Michael Liles and Stuart Percy split the time with him last year, and it helped Granberg get noticed by the big club. This year, however, Granberg has become an after-thought in most games.
  • Spencer Abbott has a still respectable ten points in fifteen games, but after what we saw last year, you feel like he could do better. I think he’s missing having a point shot to work with on the powerplay (looks over to TJ Brennan’s shadow) and it’s pretty obvious that the entire unit nosedives without the second presence – they’re dead last in PP%.
  • Speaking of Brennan, there’s nobody to take responsibility for controlling the shot count, is there? Brennan was responsible for about 12% of all pucks the Marlies fired last year, and while Greg McKegg is trying (45 in 17 games!), the offence is much more scattered. This would be fine (encouraged, even), but Toronto hasn’t had the offensive upside to make that worth something.
  • You can keep going down the line, and really, most of the team has some eyebrow-raising number attached to them. Josh Leivo is shooting at 5%. Patrick Watling gets lots of credit for his PK abilities, but is producing next to nothing at even strength. Tyler Biggs may as well not exist. Matt Finn isn’t producing and visually, he’s been getting beat a lot by opposing forwards. Despite a hot start, Antoine Bibeau’s numbers have come crashing down, leaving him at a 0.900 as of Friday.

So, what’s the problem? Or the solution?

Unfortunately, I’ve come this far without having one to give you. 

Some may say that Gord Dineen deserves to be questioned. I think there’s validity to that idea if this trend lasts in the long term, but unlike Randy Carlyle’s “defensive coach, but not at all” tenure in Toronto, the Marlies aren’t horrible at allowing shots – they’re just really, really horrible at taking them thus far. Dineen has proven himself over time to be plenty capable of helping this team defensively – we’ll see if he can take that next step and help them on the other side of the puck.

Something that might have merit is the idea that the team is sorely lacking an offensive presence on the point; Viktor Loov has given them one to an extent, but nobody else on the team suits the role. Maybe it would have been worth attempting to dress Blake Kessel for more than a single game, but that’s just a total spitball.

Or maybe it’s the call-ups? The Leafs are doing some cap tomfoolery by sending players up and down, and it’s great for the big club, but it prevents chemistry from forming.

It’s hard to point at the goaltending and place them at fault at all, even with Bibeau’s numbers starting to dip. The team is further away from the average shooting percentage than save percentage, and really, need to score more before they can worry about other woes.

Lastly, they could just have barren cupboards. Yes, a lot of these guys are good, and of an age that lets them still be considered young – but how much NHL upside do they really have? Is it just possible that the rest of the league has better, faster growing talent?

Whatever the case is, something’s definitely wrong with this team right now. Be it the flow, or be it the bounces, things are far from right for a group of guys trying to make it to the next step. The biggest question is; how does everyone move forward? The past is over with, it’s up to them to address and work on their future.

Photo Courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com

In the process of writing this article, the Marlies suffered a 3-2 regulation loss to the Adirondack Flames, setting the team record for their longest losing streak ever. Toronto was outshot 28-23

  • I think its pretty simple, Last year this team had a ton of production from Brennan. That would be the equivalent of Ottawa losing Karlsson.

    Also, Trevor Smith, Brandon Kozun, and Jerry D’amigo formed a great line last year and thats completly gone. Josh Leivo has been with the leafs a lot, Carte Ashton is gone.

    But most of all, They lost Drew Macintrye. He was a STUD last year for them and losing a great goalie like him killed this team.

    This team simply lost a lot of its core players without properly replacing them.

    Think of the Leafs, what would happen if they suddenly lost Kadri, Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Phaneuf, and Bernier.
    Thats a totally diffrent team, and a very bad team if i might add.

    Bam. Thats whats up with the Toronto Marlies.

  • BubbaLou

    I find it funny how frustrated Dineen is when presented shot differential data. They are like goal differential in that if they get too negative, they tell us something is wrong but they offer zero insight in how to “fix” the trend.

    The big changes I see are the loss of TJ Brennan, macintyre and a downgrade at centre (holland/smithson etc). That gap is just too much to overcome. Coaching will get you so far but you can’t compensate fully for the loss of talent.