Photo Credit: Christian Bonin

Marlies’ Stars Thriving In Timely Manner For Leafs Organization

The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to look a whole lot different next fall.

The Leafs have six players set to hit the open market in July–James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Tomas Plekanec, Dominic Moore and Roman Polak–and three restricted free-agents–William Nylander, Andreas Johnsson, and Connor Carrick.

I’d expect the remainder of the RFA’s to be re-signed by the Leafs, while all the UFA’s, however, will likely hit the open market. With that in mind, the Leafs will have plenty of money to spend this offseason (roughly $24 million, with the cap rising) and plenty of assets to trade if need be.

To fill their biggest voids–centre and right-handed defence–they’ll probably look externally, as they should. But, overall, when it comes to filling the voids left by the inevitable mass-departure of six roster players, Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas may look internally to round out the Leafs roster. Of all people, Dubas, who served as the Marlies GM for the last three seasons, understands that the talent that’s been brewing with the Marlies, over the last couple of years, is knocking on the door for NHL gigs.

Through the course of the AHL playoffs, a handful of the Leafs prized prospects have risen up and ultimately, driven the bus for the Leafs AHL affiliate in the midst of their Calder Cup run. By the looks of it, the Marlies core pieces’ are bound to graduate on to bigger and better things with the Leafs.

With Dubas at the helm, that promotion could come as soon as next season.

Andreas Johnsson–Miro Aaltonen–Carl Grundstrom

Johnsson and Miro Aaltonen played on the Marlies top-line for the majority of the season, with Kasperi Kapanen, and a rotation of other wingers, playing on the right side. When Leafs prospect Carl Grundstrom joined the fold in April, it only made sense for the Swede left-shot, who likes playing on his off-side, to slot into that first line right wing slot.

It’s safe to say it’s worked out pretty well.

2018 AHL playoffs

Andreas Johnsson 1.57 P/PG
Miro Aaltonen 0.72 P/PG
Carl Grundstrom 0.63 P/PG

Johnsson’s numbers shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. He’s an NHL-calibre player, and his output through the tail-end of the Leafs regular season, and the playoffs, was proof of that. Johnsson’s game isn’t entirely merited based off points, as he’s great at creating turnovers while also being responsible in his own zone, among other things.

Aaltonen does a lot more than just score points, too. He’s defensively-sound, smooth with the puck and he nearly cracked the Leafs roster out of camp last season. Lost in the midst of all the Leafs promising prospects, it can be easy to forget about Aaltonen–but he’s been an integral component to the Marlies success.

“He’s a key cog of this team,” goaltender Garret Sparks told Marlies TV. “He’s not a flashy player, by any means. In the sense that, he does highly skilled things, at great rates of speed and they seem second nature to him. He’s made plays this year where I’ve been like, ‘how does this guy do this?’ And he maintains a full head of speed and he’s still coming at you.”

Grundstrom, a skilled winger who put up 24 points in 35 SHL games this past season, has fit right in on the Marlies top-line. It’s apparent that the trio has formed chemistry, quickly, and Grundstrom says the three have gelled so well because they each play a similar game.

“All three guys like to play with the puck and prefer to pass, before [dumping the puck],” Grundstrom told Marlies TV.

On Sunday, In game two of their Eastern Conference series against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the trio connected for the overtime-winning goal, as some crisp passing in the offensive zone led to Aaltonen potting home the game winner.

The Marlies top line has really turned things on as of late. Through the first two games of their series against Lehigh Valley, both Aaltonen and Johnsson have three points through two games. Grundstrom only has one goal, and it was an important one nevertheless, as he tied up the game 23 seconds after Lehigh took a brief 2-1 lead in Game two.

Travis Dermott–Justin Holl

Alike Johnsson, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that this is Travis Dermott’s final pit-stop with the Marlies. Dermott had an impressive showing with the Leafs through 37 regulars season games, where he averaged 16:00 TOI/ per game, and he notched an impressive 13 points through that span. He played in all seven of Toronto’s playoff games this year, too.

“You can just tell the difference [from when he arrived]. He came in here, early this year, and he was an NHL defenceman, playing in this league. Then, he got to play in the NHL and he was an NHL defenceman. Now, he comes back here and he’s an even better NHL defenceman,” Sparks told Marlies TV.

When watching Dermott in his current stint with the Marlies, whether it’s the way he plays a 2-on-1, or his defensive reads, not to mention his abilities with the puck–you just know this guy is far too-good to be playing at the AHL level.

Now, someone like Justin Holl, for instance, may not be as noticeable as a Dermott (granted, he’s struggled through this series against Lehigh Valley), he’s certainly someone that could be worth giving a look, next year. He’s not the saviour that the team’s right-hand defence so desperately needs, but he could be a solid stop-gap option.

Since Holl’s two-game stint with the Leafs, where he scored a goal in each game, the 26-year-old defenceman has continued to thrive with the Marlies. Discovered by Dubas as an undrafted college free agent, Holl has been the Marlies most consistent defenceman over the last three years. He’s a responsible defensive-defenceman with great skating ability, who can enter the zone like none other on the Marlies (except for maybe Timothy Liljegren).

Garret Sparks

It’s time for Garret Sparks to be the Leafs backup.

Seriously, what more does this guy have to prove?

This past season with the Marlies, Sparks was simply dominant. He had a 30-9-2 record, along with a league-high .936 SV% and 1.79 GAA and was ultimately named the AHL’s goaltender of the year. Through these playoffs, Sparks continued his brilliance and he’s come up clutch in key moments for the Marlies.

Like this miraculous glove-save he made in overtime of Game 2:

The Leafs need to give Frederik Andersen more rest throughout the season. They need a goalie that can play, say, 20-25 games and while Curtis McElhinney was a superb backup for the Leafs this season (11-5-1, .934 SV%, 2.14 GAA), it’s unlikely the Leafs can get more mileage from the 34-year-old goaltender, going forward.

Sparks has proven, at every level except the NHL, that he can be a dominant goaltender. He had a brief stint with the Leafs back. in 2015-2016, and he even got a shutout in his first career NHL game. While the rest of that stint with the Leafs was a forgettable one (6-9-1, .893 SV%, 3.02 GAA), it’s hard to blame Sparks for his output back then, given the roster in front of him at the time.

It’s time for the Leafs to give the new-and-improved Sparks a serious shot at making the roster.

Other notable names

Trevor Moore: Moore might be on the team’s “fourth line,”  but he’s still found a way to lead the team in playoff scoring, with 11 points in as many games.

The former University of Denver forward has really turned his game on since the start of 2018, and while the talent in front of him has prevented him from moving up in the lineup, Moore could very well be a dark horse to crack the Leafs fourth line in the next two or three years.

Split stats

2017 0.22 P/PG ( 7PTS 31GP)
2018 (including playoffs) 0.77 P/PG (37 PTS, 38 GP)


Pierre Engvall: Engvall, who the Leafs inked to a two-year entry level contract on Thursday, has really caught my eye throughout his brief, yet impactful, Marlies tenure. After recording 20 points through 31 SHL games, Engvall joined the Marlies for their final stretch, and he’s been impressive.

The Leafs 7th round pick in 2014 has adapted nicely to the North American game. He’s been able to produce–15 points in 20 games (regular season and playoffs) while playing mainly on the team’s checking line, alongside Frederik Gauthier and Colin Greening.

If Engvall is ever going to crack the Leafs, he’s going to have to learn how to put his big frame to work in the corners and on the half-wall. Sheldon Keefe seems to have done a pretty good job, thus far, implementing those components to the young Swede’s game.

All quotes are courtesy of Marlies TV.

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