When you’re the best player in the league but can’t legally drink in most of the arenas pic.twitter.com/rxk62qN72M
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 24, 2015
We’ve spent a decent amount of time talking about the top-end talent on the Toronto Marlies. The William Nylander, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen types. When you talk about how good this team could be, it’s easy to point to the big name prospects.
But what gets lost in the discussion is just how many players you can point to as being “too good” to be in the positions they are. If there was ever a night that proved it, it was tonight.
You can almost say it started before the game, when Byron Froese, originally poached eleven months ago from the ECHL when he was a big fish in their small pond, earned a well-deserved call up to the Leafs. It was a move that attested to how well the team had set him up to succeed, but at the same time, would have been a big blow to most AHL teams. After all, that’s a near point-per-game centre being ripped out of the core.
The Marlies not only survived without him, they thrived. By the end of the night, just short of half of the team’s skaters had found the back of the net, and just two were held pointless. But where do you begin?
I guess you start with the opening goal, scored just three minutes in. First-round pick Frederik Gauthier, who could probably play on an NHL bottom-six right now if such a move didn’t risk stunting his development, set up TJ Brennan, who is probably the best offensive defenceman in the AHL and has shown promising underlying numbers in NHL call-ups. Brennan took a shot, and Rich Clune made sure it crossed the line. Clune, while mostly seen as an enforcer, can play a regular shift and is just a year removed from being a regular NHLer. Chalk a goal up for the fourth line.
Here’s Kasperi Kapanen reminding you that the Leafs got back some pretty good young players in the Kessel trade pic.twitter.com/YZaUtKvLr2
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 23, 2015
Fast forward fifty-five seconds. Connor Brown has the puck. Brown is a 21-year-old who lead AHL rookies in points last year and remains with the Marlies in order to get minutes. He can play in the NHL right now in a middle-six role. He sends it to Kasperi Kapanen, a first-round pick who is 19 years old, and despite being one of the league’s youngest players, is already one of the best. He absolutely rips a wrist shot past Nathan Lieuwen. That’s one for the first line.
A few minutes later, Viktor Loov, a 22-year-old who has shown himself to be effective in two men’s leagues in as many years, gets the puck to Justin Holl, who is admittedly the outlier in this group; most expected him to be on the Solar Bears. But nonetheless, he gets the job done, widening the gap even further. Now the third defensive pairing is on the board, and the Marlies are up 7-1 on the shot clock.
Within a few minutes, so were the Rochester Americans. Cal O’Reilly pulled his team out of the landslide, if even a little bit, as you’d expect from a player who was the Captain of a Calder Cup Finalist in the season prior. The Marlies kept pressing and finished the period with the two-goal lead and a 15-9 shot advantage.
The goals continued for Toronto in the second. First it was Andrew Campbell, Toronto’s captain who spent the back half of the season in the NHL. Clune set him up for his second point of the night, and Nikita Soshnikov got on the board as well. The goal was Campbell’s third in five games, which tied a personal best.. for a full season. Maybe he’s found a happy place, or maybe he’s due for regression. Whatever the case, it’s 4-1 and the fourth line is back on the board again.
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) October 23, 2015
Tim Schaller closed that gap a couple minutes later, but Toronto was more than happy to open it back up. Holl and Brown collaborated on a play that sent William Nylander off to the races. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Nylander is the best player in the AHL while being extremely close to the youngest. I’m confident that if Nylander was in the NHL, he’d be the Leafs’ second best forward, and could play in the top two lines of many teams at the highest level right now. But once again, he’s here to develop, and he’s taking over four shots per game, including one to make it 5-2. That’s the first line again.
The third line stepped in to start the third period. Three minutes into the final frame, Loov found Richard Panik, who was a quality NHL player last season and is only with the Marlies because the Leafs didn’t have room for him. He made that obvious with a couple of scoring chances throughout the night, but this time, he sent the puck to Matt Frattin. Frattin has had a few cracks at the NHL and was on a 30+ goal pace with the Marlies last year. On most AHL teams, he’s a first liner and near the top of the call-up list. Here, he’s just a third liner who drops huge snapshots from 50 feet away and scores without hesitation. 6-2.
Less than a minute later, the Amerks burst into the zone. Frank Corrado, who is definitely an NHLer and is only playing with the Marlies temporarily because he hasn’t played competitive hockey since the start of the preseason, easily breaks things up with a poke check. In comes Soshnikov again. Soshnikov was fourth in scoring on his KHL team, Moscow Oblast Atlant, last season. This, while being one of their youngest players. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that playing on an AHL fourth line is selling him short, and when you see him take the runaway puck, scorch down the ice with it, and rip another goal past Lieuwen, that feeling is all but confirmed. Fourth line on the board for the third time.
Rochester switched goaltenders at this point, meaning that every line but the second had scored on Lieuwen. However, they made up for it by being the only ones to beat Andrey Makarov. Zach Hyman, who was one of the best players in college hockey last year, used his NHL-level speed to carry the puck into the offensive zone. He left it for Ryan Rupert, who was a half-point-per-game rookie last year despite being used in largely defensive situations. Rupert sent it to Brendan Leipsic, who was 5th in rookie points-per-game last year, who then sent it back to Rupert for an easy cross-creaser. 8-2. Every line on the board.
All in all, the only players to go without a shot were Leipsic, Gauthier, and Brown. Sam Carrick was the only forward to go pointless, and Rinat Valiev, who is just starting his pro career, was the only defenceman to suffer the same fate. Antoine Bibeau, who many have projected as a future NHL goaltender, held the for 21 saves on 23 shots, including a penalty shot save in the early third period.
While this team probably wouldn’t beat an NHL team or the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best of seven series, a comb through the roster shows a team that has way more talent than you usually see in the American Hockey League. It’s a team of future impact names and present near-misses, without a bunch of 30+ year olds getting in the way. A look at the healthy scratches is almost as impressive; guys like Stuart Percy, Josh Leivo, and Casey Bailey were left out simply because there wasn’t room for them.
Games like this, where they absolutely eat up other AHL teams regardless of what line they send out aren’t going to happen all the time. But as long as this group remains down here, it’s probably going to happen a few more times moving forward. That’s cause for optimism; or, at the very least, it’s fun as heck to watch.
The Marlies return to the ice on Saturday night, to take on the Binghamton Senators.