The Toronto Marlies have already started to look ahead to next season, by the looks of their latest transaction. This morning, the team signed former Leafs draft pick JJ Piccinich to a two-year AHL contract.
Piccinich was drafted by the Maple Leafs 103rd overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, though the team did not decide to escalate his services to an entry-level deal. Piccinich, a native of Paramus, New Jersey, got his start in the American ranks, playing his draft year in the USHL before spending a single season playing for Boston University, who won the Hockey East conference in 2014/15 but left his role limited.
Not finding much success as a freshman, Piccinich jumped over to Major Junior, joining the London Knights, who held his rights after drafting him back in 2012. In his rookie year, the Right Winger put up 30 goals and added 36 assists, playing a support role on a Mitch Marner-led team that won the OHL Championship and Memorial Cup.
This year, Piccinich returned to the Knights as their Captain, scoring 26 goals and adding 46 assists, exceeding the point-per-game threshold.
Thanks to his time spent in the NCAA, the Leafs actually maintain Piccinch’s unsigned rights for the first year of his contract (until August 2018), at which point he becomes fair game for other teams to speak to regarding an NHL entry-level deal. The reason for the Leafs being okay with this being an AHL deal, with that considered, is compounded; Toronto knows that the odds of him being more than a very good minor leaguer, at least as it stands right now, are on the lower side. They’re also very close to the 50 contract limit, and this lets them skirt that while keeping players associated with them.
Association is key here; your average player still seems to be keen on loyalty, and in a situation where they exceed expectation, odds are that Toronto isn’t doomed to lose them by default. Offering an AHL salary competitive to what a player would get on a two-way entry level deal and an opportunity to be in a top-of-class development hub is a big incentive for players who are trying to make the next step, but are aware that a call-up to the big club isn’t necessarily the nearest benchmark in their timeline. The Leafs and Marlies have used to this to sign players like Colin Smith, Tony Cameranesi, Brett Findlay, Shane Conacher, and a handful of others over the past few years. Similar has been done with Byron Froese and Justin Holl, who turned AHL deals into NHL deals, though both players were a couple of years older when those wheels were in motion.
Piccinich also gets the security of not having to plead his case to other teams a month and a half into free agency next season by signing for two years now.
As far as what Piccinich can be for the Marlies, expect him to take on more of a bottom six role with the team, though further development could lead to him becoming an offensive contributor at this level too. I wouldn’t throw all my eggs into the basket of him making the NHL, and clearly, the organization hasn’t either, but it’s always nice to have another young, no-risk lottery ticket who can help your AHL affiliate in the process.