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How the Leafs developed a strong ECHL development system

Although Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has received plenty of credit for his past work with the Toronto Marlies, the way in which he’s got the organization to utilize the team’s ECHL affiliate is one of the most impressive things he’s done during his tenure in the Leafs front office.

Typically in the ECHL, which is one level below the AHL, team will have maybe two or three NHL prospects on their team. The rest of the roster is usually comprised of aging pros or players that haven’t given up on the dream, just yet.

Chances are, those few NHL prospects on an ECHL team’s are goalies as 40% of the 57 ECHL alumni currently on NHL rosters today are net minders.

“At one time, the ECHL was just known as a great spot to put a goaltender,” NHL player-agent Paul Capizzano of QUARTEXX Management told The Nation Network.

But when Kyle Dubas became the Maple Leafs’ general manager in 2014, he made an effort to utilize the team’s ECHL affiliate, who at the time was the Orlando Solar Bears, as so much more than just a place to pluck the organization’s fifth string goalie.

Dubas believed the Solar Bears could serve as a training-ground for some of the team’s late-blooming prospects. A place where prospects that are classified as “projects” (prospects that are a couple years away from being a couple years away) can ease into the professional game, slowly but surely.

Dubas and the team’s development staff, led by Scott Pellerin, set out to make the organization’s top-notch development recourses–such as skill development training, film studies, sports science and advice etc— available to the Leafs prospects in the ECHL.

“Development, as I’ve said before, is very individual. It’s very unique,” said Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe at the team’s training camp in late September.

Some prospects take more time than others and for an organization like the Leafs, that looks to be a contender for the next several years, it’s crucial to invest in the ECHL, and more particularly, late bloomers.

“In a salary cap [league], it’s incredibly important to develop players so that you have a young pipeline of efficiently salary players that can come in [to your lineup,” Marlies general manager Laurence Gilman told reporters on Monday afternoon, when asked about the importance of the teams ECHL affiliate, which is now the Newfoundland Growlers.

So, has all the work that Dubas has put in worked?

Let’s dive in.

The Orlando Solar Bears

From 2014 to this past summer, the Orlando Solar Bears were the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate.

The Solar Bears are one of the higher-class clubs in the league and Dubas and his staff made a point to ensure the team’s prospects in the ECHL didn’t feel forgotten about, seeking to create an enjoyable environment for prospects.

“It was a great support system. A couple times a year, they’d send their guys down here and run a couple of practices for us,” Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky told The Nation Network. “It was nice to have them come down and work with our guys and for [our players] to see that, maybe [the Solar Bears coaching staff] knows what we’re talking about–because the NHL guys are doing the same thing.”

Throughout the season, Berehowsky would be in constant communication with not only Dubas, but also Scott Pellerin, the Leafs Senior Director of Player Development. Dubas and Pellerin had great interests in the development of some of the clubs “projects,” making frequent visits to Orlando throughout the year.

The most well-known success story of the Solar Bears/ Leafs affiliation is the development of Mason Marchment.

Marchment, now a regular in the Marlies lineup, was as raw of a prospect as you could find when he joined the Leafs fold in the spring of 2016. The son of former NHLer Bryan Marchment didn’t even break into Major Junior hockey until he was 19-years-old. But once he broke into Junior hockey, the 6’4 winger would go on to evolve into one of the top power forwards in the OHL, garnering the interests of several NHL/AHL teams.

The Leafs were one of those teams interested in Marchment. It was clear he’d need some time to develop, though. In conjunction with Capizanno (Marchment’s agent), the two sides decided on a two-year AHL deal. In the first-year of the deal, the goal was clear–get Marchment’s development up to speed.

“In Marchment’s case, we were able to identify a player that had  specific needs, that we didn’t think we could meet at the AHL level, with him being an everyday player,” said Keefe.

So, in an effort to further his development, the Marlies sent the late-blooming Marchment to the Solar Bears for the 2016-2017 season.

“You could tell he had all the tools, he just had to figure out how to put it all together,” said Berehowsky.

Through 35 games with the Solar Bears that season, Marchment recorded 20 points and began to adapt to the grind of professional hockey, along the way. He stayed in constant communication with the Leafs player development staff throughout the year, with the organization closely monitoring his progress.

Heading into the second year of his AHL contract, Marchment was poised to crack the Marlies roster, and the organization’s player development staff was there to help. He continued to train with the Leafs development staff in the summer, spending time in the weight room with the team’s strength and conditioning staff, along with partaking in skating sessions with Barb Underhill,  the organization’s skating consultant.

When the Uxbridge Ontario native entered the Marlies training camp in 2017, he looked like a bona fide AHL payer. He’d go on to crack the Marlies opening night roster, and he started his season with a bang– recording 12 points in 13 contests and taking home the AHL player of the week honours on November 6th— leaving little doubt that he was a legitimate NHL prospect.

Marchment’s efforts would go on to earn him a two-year entry level contract with the Maple Leafs.

“I think when you work with an organization that has the recourses that Toronto has, as they seem to have every level [equipped] with a development coach or some specialist, everything’s there for you [to get better],” said Capizzano.

Another forward that started his professional hockey career by paying his dues at the ECHL level is Marlies forward JJ Piccinich.

The 22-year-old forward was selected by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, but when it came time to sign him to an entry-level contract in the summer of 2017Toronto didn’t offer him a contract.

Despite not offering an entry-level contract to Piccinich, the organization offered him a two-year AHL contract. For Piccinich, it was a no-brainer to stay within the Leafs system.

“Playing in Toronto is probably the best place to play [in the AHL],” Piccinich told The Nation Network. “It’s no secret what’s going on around here.”

Unfortunately for Piccinich, though, last years Marlies team was one of the deepest the organization’s ever had and there wasn’t a spot for him on the roster, so he was sent to the ECHL.

Piccinich, who was over a point-per-game player throughout his two-year OHL career, benefited from playing on the team’s top-line–producing 43 points in 69 contests. Piccinich also got to develop his penalty killing and power play ability, too.

“He’s one of the guys that had no problems coming down [to the ECHL],” said Berehowsky. “In his very first game you could tell he was a player and he wanted to work. He wanted to work his way back up there.”

His efforts last year, combined with a strong showing at the Marlies training camp this past September, helped Piccinich crack the Marlies 2018-2019 roster.

The Newfoundland Growlers

After a strong four-year partnership with the Solar Bears, the Leafs wanted to move the Marlies’ primary affiliate closer to home, announcing that thew Newfoundland Growlers would be their new ECHL affiliate.

Moving the ECHL affiliate to St John’s, where the Marlies use to be located, allows the Leafs to have even more control of their ECHL affiliate. The organization themselves hired Growlers head coach Ryan Clowe and assistant coach John Snowden and the team’s training staff, too. The Growlers coaching staff spent much of the summer with Sheldon Keefe and the Marlies coaching staff during development camp, rookie camp and the Marlies training camp.

“We had a good relationship with Orlando, in the past, but I think it’s gone to another level with the Growlers [affiliation].”

11 of the 19 players currently on the Growlers roster are on contracts with the Marlies, or Leafs.

“The fact that the organization is taking a greater role in what’s happening in Newfoundland, I think is giving us more confidence, and more ability, to control whats happening down there with our players, and staff.”

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