These are not the Marlies who started last season with just five wins in their first nineteen games.
Technically, neither were the Marlies who finished off that season. As players started to gel, and a couple of additional talents were brought in, the team went on a 35-15-7 run to end the year. It was a pleasant surprise to those who just wanted to see the kids play their hearts out, yet after a quick first round elimination, you couldn’t help but feel like this group was capable of a little more.
Fast forward to October. It’s a new season. The core players remain with more experience than ever before, and they’ve been bolstered it with additional talent. Together, the old guard and the new kids on the block appear ready to take the American Hockey League for a wild and crazy ride. Let’s go down the 26 man roster.
Jeff’s Opening Night Lineup
Full disclosure: I didn’t get a chance to swing by any of this week’s practices, so I haven’t had a chance to look at any of the lines that Sheldon Keefe has been experimenting with in the back-half of training camp. So we’re going to follow the method that seven / of / us / used / for / the / Leafs, and draw up my own personal hopes for lines based on the opening night roster, while explaining what these players bring to the table.
Brendan Leipsic – William Nylander – Kasperi Kapanen
The crown jewel of this line, this team, and likely the entire AHL is obviously William Nylander. I went into detail a couple of weeks ago, breaking down why I believe that he could be the league’s first 100 point teenager, and I still feel that the only things that could stop that are injuries, a call up, or if Keefe is super strict about evening up the even-strength minutes and doesn’t give him powerplay time (very unlikely).
Nylander started last season with Modo of the SHL and put up the 3rd highest points-per-game of an 18-year-old in league history. Despite a slow start with the Marlies, he managed to do the exact same thing in the AHL, scoring 32 points in 37 games, and improving his points-per-game in every month played.
To his left, Brendan Leipsic was no slouch himself. Acquired from the Milwaukee Admirals in the Cody Franson / Mike Santorelli trade, Leipsic was 5th in points per-per-game among rookies with 30+ games played. He showed promise in his first 32 games with the Marlies, putting up 22 points.
On the right side, you have Kasperi Kapanen, the highest-touted prospect acquired in the Phil Kessel trade. The nineteen-year-old spent most of last season playing with KalPa Kuopio of the SM-liiga, putting up 21 points in 41 games. That was good for 53rd all time in his age bracket, lining up with the likes of Tuomo Ruutu and his own father, Sami. He fared even better in the post-season, with 5 assists in 6 games, and followed that up with seven points in 11 games with Wilkes-Barre to close the year off.
Putting these three together probably makes the “size matters” crowd a little bit nervous, but with an average age of under 20 years old, this would be the youngest first line in the AHL, possibly ever. They’re also all players with extremely high hockey IQ and fantastic skating ability. In this league, being able to think a step ahead of everyone else while having the foot speed to blow by your opponents is a huge asset. They’ll be able to take the targeting of opponents to; Nylander isn’t an aggressor, but isn’t easy to push around, while Leipsic has been hyped for years to be one of the great up-and-coming pests in the game.
Richard Panik – Byron Froese – Connor Brown
How great is it that Richard Panik cleared waivers? He’s an NHL-ready player at an NHL-ready age, but while the Leafs continue to run an NHL team with Nazem Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk, and a dozen third liners, a couple of people had to be casualties. He’ll slot in on the Marlies just fine, however. From 2012 to 2014, Panik scored 68 points in 80 AHL games, and there’s no reason to believe that 120 more games of NHL experience won’t help him improve upon that.
He gets a fantastic pivot in Byron Froese, who is one of the best forwards in this league. Picked out of the pockets of the ECHL at the midway point of last season, Froese put up 40 points in 44 games while making everybody around him better and playing on both sides of the special teams coin. It was enough to earn him a mid-season contract extension, and eventually, an NHL contract.
On the right wing, you have Connor Brown, who has gone from “fringe prospect” to “future NHL top sixer” in the span of two seasons. Nobody was quite sure how he could follow up a 128 point season with the Erie Otters, but Brown played in every game for the Marlies last year, leading the team and all AHL rookies in points with 61. Only Nylander had a better points-per-game amongst rookies, both on the team and across the league itself.
You put these three together as your line of responsibility. All three can produce, but all three have two-way games. They’re players that you don’t hesitate to place on the penalty kill or the powerplay. Brown likely does more of the passing, Froese likely puts the puck towards the net, while Panik gets the forechecking responsibilities, but really, you could give any of them a role of your choice and reasonably trust them to do it.
Josh Leivo – Sam Carrick – Matt Frattin
These guys have been wit the team for the longest and are still very good AHLers. In fact, all of them could realistically have NHL jobs, especially on teams tight against the salary cap. I don’t know if you find a better third line in this league than these three.
Leivo, as we all know, has modeled his game after Joffrey Lupul, and will likely find himself near the slot waiting to pick up loose pucks. He had a bit of a disappointing 2014/15, scoring twelve fewer goals and ten fewer points than the year before, but his six points in five playoff games give hope for a rebound year, where he turns a bunch of rebounds into gold.
If that’s the plan, there might not be a better pair of linemates for him on this team. Carrick is always near the top of the team and in the upper parts of the league in shots taken per game, and as a non-sharpshooter, goes through cold spells that will give Leivo some opportunities to work with. When he’s hot, he’ll be producing those points himself.
If both of these two struggle to contribute, you have Matt Frattin on the right side. He never panned out as people hoped he would but appears to be very comfortable in the AHL. His 26 goals in 59 games lead the team, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him eclipse 25 once again. Now 27-years-old, he’ll serve as a leader on this line, and on this team.
A line like this would dominate the forecheck and create opportunities in the slot. Matched against smaller defensive groups, they could create absolute havoc.
Casey Bailey – Ryan Rupert – Zach Hyman
Bailey and Hyman were Toronto’s college-developed acquisitions last season, and while I’m not as sold on them as some are, I’m more than willing to give them the opportunity to prove themselves.
Bailey, who was signed by the team, led Penn State in scoring last year as a 22-year-old, picking up his age in goals and adding eighteen assists for 40 points in 37 games. Hyman, who the Leafs acquired in exchange for Greg McKegg in June, was even more productive, with fourteen more helpers in just as many games for the University of Michigan.
These two are both bigger bodies; Hyman is 6’1, while Bailey is 6’3, and they both love to skate, shoot, and throw the body. They’re also defensively capable; Hyman, in particular, was used in defensive situations in Michigan.
Between them, I’ve put Ryan Rupert, who is a younger version of what Carrick is on the third line. Energetic, not afraid to push people around, and with a passion for playing with the puck, he can be the little ball of hate to go with the towers on his wing. This is the closest thing you’ll find to a shutdown line on this team though all are still potentially capable of 40 points.
Press Box: Richard Clune, Frederik Gauthier, Nikita Soshnikov, Justin Johnson
I feel bad for these guys, since they’re only scratched due to organizational depth.
I absolutely want Clune to be a part of this lineup moving forward; while many players on this team are capable of defending themselves, the AHL is a lot more… punch-oriented than the NHL, and having a guy who can drop the mitts never hurts. He’s probably a better player than most enforcers as well.
Soshnikov is another one who has a serious skill-set and really deserves a chance to play. The guy put up 32 points in the KHL as a 21-year-old last year; putting up the 9th highest points per game in his age bracket since the league converted from the Super League. He could probably play on any of those four lines, but there’s so many guys.
As for the others, I feel like Gauthier would be best to dominate the ECHL and prepare himself for the professional life, and maybe we see that demotion happen after the weekend. He’s not one of the four best centres here, and he’s not going to develop from the press box. Watching Johnson practice for even a few minutes shows a player who is eager to earn his spot, but I don’t see how he’s any better than Clune, unless you know a team is coming to town to throw fists at you, in which case you consider dressing both.
Stuart Percy – TJ Brennan
Moving to the defence, it’s hilarious that TJ Brennan is going to be back with this team for a full year. He’s been NHL-quality for the past two years, and the Marlies have reaped his benefits on two non-consecutive occasions. He was a point-game-game defenceman in 2014 while shooting with Ovechkin-like frequency. Once they re-acquired him in February, it took him some time to gel with new teammates, but once he did, he picked up where he left off, finishing with 23 points in 24 games in the regular season and playoffs.
Beside him, he’ll have Stuart Percy, who bounced back and forth between the Leafs and Marlies and struggled with injuries later in the year. A healthy Percy is one that is incredibly calm and intelligent with and without the puck, and if Scott Harrington doesn’t come down, a probable mainstay on the first pairing.
Viktor Loov – James Martin
Viktor Loov is going to be an NHL defenceman at some point because he’s not like every other “big, heavy hitting Swede” the team has tried to acquire over the past few years. In contrasts to the Petter Granbergs and Jonas Frogren’s of the word, Loov is extremely mobile and is a definite NHL-quality skater, allowing him to contribute on both sides of the red line.
James Martin, admittedly, is only in this lineup because he’s on a PTO, and I expect that they want to take a look at him before making a decision. He seemed like an interesting player when I saw him at training camp, though a practice and a scrimmage is a small sample for the eye test. The 24-year-old played 60 games for the Fort Wayne Komets of the ECHL last year, picking up 41 points.
Andrew Campbell – Rinat Valiev
Campbell is the new captain of this team, and he brings with him 33 games of NHL experience from last year. All signs pointed to him being a good relative possession player, though not a terribly productive one. Realistically, he’s good for about fifteen AHL points.
While Valiev is two inches shorter than the 6’4 Campbell, he’s not exactly small himself. He would be the offensive compliment of this pair, as shown by his 46 points in 52 games with Kootenay last year. He’s going to be pretty raw coming into his first pro year, however, so it would be nice to have a mentor like Campbell next to him.
Press Box: Justin Holl, Petter Granberg
Holl, like Martin, is likely only getting a look until the Leafs drop one more defenceman down, or until the weekend is over. The 23-year-old played his first pro season last year, picking up 34 points with the Indy Fuel of the ECHL. The former second-round pick of the Blackhawks doesn’t project to be a high-end player but likely helps out the Solar Bears while being a decent call-up option if the Marlies are at any point short.
Granberg is recovering from an injury suffered during the offseason though I struggle to find a spot for him in my persona lineup. He was well liked in his rookie year, but I feel that a lot of that came from playing with Brennan. His struggles in both the NHL and AHL last year exposed him as a player who gives up a lot of opportunities, yet generates next to none in return. With the Marlies adding other big bodies that are more mobile, I’d probably keep him out of the lineup unless needed.
Starting in Goal: Garret Sparks
Many thought that Sparks was getting a death sentence when he dropped out of the Marlies lineup last year, spending the bulk of the season with the Orlando Solar Bears. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for himself and the organization.
In spending down a prospect of his calibre, the Leafs got to experiment with the idea of using the ECHL as a development tool; a move that they’ve bought into heavily this year, filling the team almost entirely with their own assets. At the same time, Sparks made the best of the injuries he suffered early in the season to completely change the way he played between the pipes, opting for a more hybrid style.
To say it helped him out was an understatement. On top of stressing his body out significantly less, he became one of the best goalies not in the NHL overnight. Sparks put up a 21-7-3 record with the Solar Bears, had five shutouts, and had an insane 0.936 save percentage. In his brief call-up to the Marlies during the winter, he had a shutout in his first game and allowed just one goal in his second appearance.
It’s his time to take the net. If he can repeat what he did last year in a slightly better league, there’s a very real chance he’ll get thrust into the NHL before he knows it.
Backing Up: Antoine Bibeau
Consistency was a big issue for Bibeau last year, but when he was on his game, he was fantastic, leading the Marlies with four shutouts in 31 games last year. At the same time, though, if you caught him on a bad day, getting five or six past him wasn’t out of the question; hence his decidedly average save percentage.
It’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed his game heading into this year, and what he can do to compete with Sparks on a game-by-game basis. he likely has the highest upside and athletic ability of the two, and as the younger one will be given opportunities to grow himself. This should be a very fun battle to watch throughout the year.
Heading Down: Rob Madore
Madore is another one that I’d expect to be sent back down to Orlando at the end of the weekend, and to be their go-to guy throughout the year, unless management pulls a play out of left field and sends Bibeau down to do what Sparks did last year. I don’t see that as overly likely. Madore had a 0.905 SV% with Cincinnati over 46 games, and is the second player in the past calendar year to be signed from the Cyclones (Froese being the other).
A Team Worth Watching
The Marlies have an unprecedented amount of depth, and it comes a very young group. Their two best forwards are teenagers, and their grizzled vets are 27-year-olds who could probably play on NHL teams.
It would be of no shock to see this group lead the league in goals for, and if the goaltending stays steady and the defence stay healthy, that should lead to lots of wins. This is a team designed to develop into the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but as it stands, they have an opportunity to absolutely dominate the AHL’s present.
The first puck drops in two hours.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com