Photo Credit: Christian Bonin/TSGPhoto.com
Many thought that the Toronto Marlies were going to be a contender in the American Hockey League this year, but not many expected them to be this good. I predicted in October that they’d be able to dominate the league and were probably going to score the most goals in the AHL, but a 0.750 record? That’s practically unprecedented.
— AHL Communications (@AHLPR) April 17, 2016
I say practically, of course, because there were two teams that were able to top them and three others in the same stratosphere. Amazingly, Toronto wasn’t far off from going all the way on this one; turning two regulation losses into regulation wins would have moved the needle up to 0.776, and one could look no further than the 2-5-1 stretch in early-mid March following the mass migration of the core to the Maple Leafs as a big reason why they didn’t go all the way with their efforts.
Comparing the “big six” teams is an interesting task. You have the Binghamton Rangers, who had the biggest goal differential in league history thanks to the sheer amount of goals they put into the back of the net. Don Biggs was the real superstar; the man now known as “Tyler Biggs’ dad” broke the single-season points record in this year with 54 goals and 84 assists. The Hershey Bears were the first and only team to win 60 games. The Providence Bruins won a bunch of tight games and made everybody feel silly for not drafting Randy Robitaille (that didn’t last). The Norfolk Admirals did the same with Cory Conacher (also didn’t last), and Jon Cooper led his group to the longest winning streak in pro hockey history, a 15-3 Calder Cup run (including a sweep against the Marlies in the finals) and took many of them with him to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then you have the Cincinnati Swords, who were the gold standard in many regards for decades, breaking the rules in an era where the AHL wasn’t quite a development path and producing a bunch of future Sabres.
Admittedly, it’s hard to look at the raw full-team stats and say that the Marlies are the best team of this group. They don’t have the highest goals for percentage (that’s Hershey’s at 63.3 to Toronto’s 60.6). Binghamton’s GF% was 8% higher than the second best team in the league that year (coincidentally, the St. John’s Maple Leafs). They don’t have the highest goal differential (103 to the top 3’s 146, 145, and 144), and they weren’t the most dominant in that regard (Toronto had a higher GD than 2nd and 3rd combined, but Binghamton’s was higher than the entire rest of the Top 5). Hershey won six more games. Binghamton had three fewer regulation losses despite playing four more games. It’s hard to bet against the two teams above them as the most successful, but you know what? Toronto did it better.
Why? Because the success came as a byproduct of development, rather than as an attempt to win.
Moreso than ever, NHL teams are taking control of their AHL affiliates and running them as development programs. The Marlies were an accidental innovator in this regard when MLSE moved their team-owned asset to Ricoh Coliseum back in 2006, allowing for easy up/down transactions and shared staff. For years, though, the Leafs organization filled the team with veterans looking to get by in an attempt to win games and sell tickets to an alternative pro hockey team in town. It didn’t work too well, so they began to fill the team with hungry fringe players in their mid 20’s, going for one last shot at the NHL. Mix in a few prospects acquired through the Leafs’ nosedives, and you had a half decent team that eventually even became a Calder Cup threat once the likes of Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Joe Colborne and others took control.
But they weren’t quite maximizing their capabilities until last season. In 2014/15, Leafs assistant GM and Marlies GM Kyle Dubas took his chances with the upcoming team transition phase and left himself a team that was was raw, young, and the right mix of hungry to climb into the NHL, but not quite ready to get there. Be it a drafted prospect or signed tryout player, the team was willing to take on any youth that appeared to have some upside. Meanwhile, Brandon Pridham began to exploit the cap benefit of sending waiver-exempt players like Stuart Percy up and down (or, in Practice Facility terms, across the hall) on off days to save a few bucks. Suddenly, more teams than ever wanted what Toronto had, and in the past year you’ve seen relocations (the multi-team California relocation) and acquisitions (the Arizona Coyotes just bought the Springfield Falcons to relocate to Tuscon this afternoon) and hijinks happen en masse.
The new method didn’t bode well for the Marlies to start. They began the season 5-12-2, and the year was quickly brushed off as a lost cause.
They’re 89-31-13 since, despite being one of the youngest teams in the league in both seasons. But here was my question; was the youth movement in 2015/16 Toronto stronger than the other super teams? The answer – absolutely.
To figure out how much every team relied on their younger core, I took the teams’ rosters, eliminated anybody who played fewer than 30 games played, and divided them into three groups based on their age on opening night. You had your “core prospects” under the age of 24, your “project” players between the ages of 24 and 28, and your veterans over 29. I made the following observations.
- Of this group of 30 game players, Toronto’s team was the youngest by a good margin. The Marlies group had an average age of about 22.7 back in October; most of the others would have been between 23.4-23.9. Hershey took it a step further, averaging 24.5 years of age. This is hardly surprising, with their superstars being 30 (Keith Aucoin), 28 (Alex Giroux), and 31 (Boyd Kane), and with the team employing 37-year-old Bryan Helmer for 92 regular season and playoff games. Hershey was a team that swung on both sides of the spectrum; they employed Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matthew Perreault, and Jay Beagle at young ages that year, but filled the team with vets to attempt to go far.
- Further to that point, the kids had more raw games played. While a team like the 1972/73 Swords had just 477 games played by U24 players (just 40% of their core games played), the Marlies had an absurd 801 games played by youth, nearly 150 more than second place. This meant that 69.7% of games played by regulars were by a younger group. I don’t have the data to back this up (it would require a lot of scraping I’m not capable of yet), but I’d guess that that 801 number is one of the higher in league history for any team, let alone one that chased historical dominance.
- This group also managed to score 63.7% of Toronto’s core goals for, trailing only the 1998/99 PBruins (65.9% in that regard).
- Most impressively, they smashed that games played total while having their players get called up at an insane rate. Under-24 core players played an absurd 110 combined games for the Leafs, more than any of the other franchises. Keep in mind that the core (30+ GP) designation means that we’re not counting players like Frank Corrado, Scott Harrington, Garret Sparks, and Tobias Lindberg, who all played games with the Leafs, and that it doesn’t include 24-year-old Byron Froese, and it gets even more impressive.
What matters now is what the team does with this, in the playoffs and beyond.
The long term is the trickiest part; obviously, it’s easier for a bunch of kids to get some playing time after their 30th-place parent club guts themselves before the trade deadline, but how easy is it to keep these guys in your group? In this regard, the Admirals and Bears are the gold standard. Norfolk turned the 651 AHL core games played by their youth into 947 NHL games played by the same group (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, etc) in the same season and three years that followed; the most of the bunch despite just 23 of those games coming in the year that they were ripping it up.
Similarly, Hershey turned 581 AHL games into 884 NHL games over the same stretch, a 152.2% return on investment. Amazingly, despite having their run in the early 1970’s, Cincinnati had similar success, not delivering much as far as superstars went but getting 722 games in that time span out of players who contributed 477 appearances.
Toronto would need to see 837 games played over the next three years (279 per year) to equal Norfolk, and that doesn’t seem like an impossibility. Players like William Nylander, Zach Hyman, and Nikita Soshnikov should be full-time NHLers next year. While nobody is a guarantee, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Josh Leivo, Frederik Gauthier, and Rinat Valiev all seem on the likelier side of getting a full season in by the time 2018/19 comes around, whether it’s with the Leafs or another NHL team. Worse players than Sam Carrick, Stuart Percy, and Viktor Loov have had cups of tea if not legitimate careers. That’s not including a ton of other viable prospects who simply didn’t play enough games to count in this group. Not everyone will come up to the NHL and not everyone will be successful, but if this is a game of Russian Roulette, a lot of chambers seem to be loaded.
Something that I found interesting, though, was how these teams approached the playoffs. They began to rely more on their veterans, playing the core youth for a lower percentage of their postseason games. It wasn’t just one or two of them either; every single team did it, with the Bears coming closest to being at least neutrally trusting. Based on the goals-for numbers, though, that might have just been a swapping out of fourth-line rookies for shutdown veterans, seeing as the youth core’s percentage of goals for went up in the postseason on three of the five teams.
What will Toronto’s approach be? From the looks of it, they’re going to stick with what got them there, if not double down. Here were today’s practice lines:
Zach Hyman (23) – William Nylander (19) – Colin Smith (22) / Tobias Lindberg (20)
Josh Leivo (22) – Mark Arcobello (27) – Connor Brown (21)
Brandon Leipsic (21) – Sam Carrick (23) – Ben Smith (27) / Matt Frattin (27)
Richard Clune (28) – Frederik Gauthier (20) – Nikita Soshnikov (21)
Stuart Percy (22) – Connor Carrick (21)
TJ Brennan (26) – Justin Holl (23)
Andrew Campbell (27) – Rinat Valiev (20)
Viktor Loov (22) – David Kolomatis (26)
Garret Sparks (22)
Antoine Bibeau (21)
Kasimir Kaskisuo (21)
If you were to make the assumption that 19-year-old Kasperi Kapanen will be in this practice lineup once he recovers from his ailment, and that all players will get an equally proportionate allotment of Games played, the Marlies would run through the playoffs with 73.1% of their games played by Under-24 talent.
The bad news is that equal proportions don’t often happen. The good news, however, is that could lead to these numbers being padded even further; I doubt Kolomatis sees much time unless necessary, and as both Frattin and Ben Smith are pending UFA’s, I’d expect at least one of them to be scratched if a younger player earned their place. This could leave just Arcobello (one of the league’s most productive players), Clune (a staple on the checking line), Brennan (the league’s best defenceman) and Campbell (the team’s Captain) as the only players remotely resembling a veteran presence in the regular lineup; a lineup that will still be the scariest on paper in the league.
From there, it’s up to the Marlies to prove their salt and go on a deep playoff run. Thankfully for them, history is on their side; four of the five super teams went on to win the Calder Cup, in runs where all of them pulled off at least one best-of-seven sweep. The exception to the rule? The 0.775 Binghamton Rangers, who coincidentally were built entirely around the puck luck of project players and saw the fewest long-term graduates to the NHL of the bunch when all was said and done. If it wasn’t for an initial possession of Sergei Zubov and conditioning stints for Alex Kovalev and Mike Richter, it would barely be worth mentioning the team. They were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Rochester Americans, who finished 37 points behind them in the standings.
Even if Toronto can’t pull it off, though, it’s hard to argue that this season should be the new bar for NHL teams to attempt to cross. Few have ever been this dominant, and nobody has ever been close to this dominant while primarily being used as a development program rather than a second-tier team trying to claim bragging rights. All signs point to this being a group that makes waves not just now, but in years to follow, and that’s a feat that should be embraced and approached with pride.