Heading into the 2018-2019 season, Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe knew, if given the opportunity, Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco could evolve into an offensive threat at the AHL level in his second pro season.
But it wasn’t going to happen overnight. He knew it would happen, though, in due time.
The 21-year-old forward made steps in the right direction during his rookie AHL campaign, but they were overshadowed by the fact that he was hardly deployed during the teams Calder Cup finals. Despite recording 15 points in his final 13 regular season games, Bracco only suited up for four playoff games during the Calder Cup run and was a healthy scratch for Game 7 of the finals.
It just wasn’t Jeremy Bracco’s time, yet.
After a strong showing at Leafs training camp and with the Marlies bidding adieu to star players such as Andreas Johnsson, Ben Smith and Miro Aaltonen, opportunity arose for Bracco. He was a year older and he understood what he had to do, on a consistent basis, to stay in the lineup and play at the AHL level.
Because of that, Keefe made it a point to put Bracco in a position to succeed right from the get-go of his sophomore season.
All year long, Keefe has deployed Bracco alongside Chris Mueller, the teams most consistent offensive threat, at even strength and on the power play. Even when he struggled at the start of the year, recording eight points in his first 18 games, the Marlies coaching staff continued to keep Bracco on a long leash. They made it a point to let him know that they believed in him.
“Confidence is a big thing for a guy like Jeremy who is trying to find their way,” Keefe said.
They knew he would soon take that next step and they were going to continue to give him every opportunity to do so. And as of late, Bracco’s talent has come to fruition.
He’s recorded 16 points, 14 of which being primary points, through his last nine games. His recent hot stretch vaulted him into the the top-20 of AHL scoring and the 25 points he’s tallied his season pegs him third amongst all U-23 skaters in the AHL.
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“I think he’s really just getting started,” Keefe told reporters after the team’s 7-2 shellacking of the Manitoba Moose on Friday night.
Bracco’s game has evolved, though, from a one-dimensional distributor, to an offensive threat. While his passing is his best attribute, his vision is a close second. Keefe and the Marlies coaching staff have preached to Bracco to use that vision to attack the inside of the ice more, and shoot the puck, something that he’s reluctant to do.
“I don’t look to shoot the puck,” admitted Bracco. “I always look for that extra pass—it’s the way I’m wired.”
In his last eight games, Bracco has scored six of his seven goals on the year.
“He’s very much been a penetrating passer from the permitter and setting up other people. We want him, when it’s his turn, to drive to get on the inside,” Keefe said. “We want him to be that guy. In doing so, you’re going to put yourself in positions to shoot.”
Another evolvement in Bracco’s game has been his dominance on the power play, with 12 of the 16 points he’s recently tallied coming on the man-advantage. While one may look at that in a glass-half-empty way (with Bracco only having four even strength points), the Marlies are looking at it as the glass-half-full.
They see it as a promising step in Bracco becoming a game-changing threat on the power play, where he’s able to utilize time and space to his advantage. Bracco recorded a point on each of the five power play goals the Marlies scored this weekend against the Moose.
Above all, though, what has impressed Keefe the most is how Bracco has improved his all-around game. It’s something that he had to do. Whenever a hockey player tries to climb up the ladder of pro hockey, whether it’s midget to Junior, Junior to the pros, or what have you, you can’t be a liability defensively or away from the puck.
Bracco has done just that and as a result of that, he’s gained more trust from the coaching staff.
“He’s taking advantage of the confidence that we’re showing in him as a coaching staff to put him on the ice, consistently. He’s rewarding us with how he’s working and his effort and his skill gets to come through within that,” said Keefe.
Bracco has one of the highest ceilings amongst all the prospects within the Leafs organization and seeing him elevate his game is an encouraging sign.
Another guy that Sheldon Keefe has put in a position to succeed all-season-long is Dmytro Timashov.
Timashov has been on a line with Mueller and Bracco for the majority of the year and while he has recorded a respectable 16 points in 24 games, he was a healthy scratch for three straight games before this weekend.
“We didn’t really want to take him out of the lineup, to begin with, to be honest,” Keefe said.
But Keefe was left with no choice for a couple of reasons.
For starters, the Marlies have added even more depth up front as of late–in Michael Carcone and Morgan Klimchuk–and someone had to become the odd man out.
Secondly, Timashov was taking way too many penalties. The 22-year-old forward was averaging a minor penalty per night in the six games before he was first scratched. Making matters worse for Timashov is that half of those penalties were coming in the third period of games.
But the third and most significant reason of all is that the coaching staff was looking to send a message to Timashov, who has struggled to establish consistency at the AHL level. With Timashov being in the final year of his entry level contract, it’s truly a make-or-break year for Timashov within the Leafs organization.
“I don’t think he’s taken the step that we would like him to take and [that] we were hoping he would take,” Keefe revealed.
Timashov did in fact get back into the lineup this weekend and looked rather pedestrian, as usual. With the Leafs management–lead by Kyle Dubas and Marlies general manager Laurence Gilman–hardly afraid to make transactions, one has to wonder if Timashov will be the next player to be shipped out.
With it being all-but-certain that Timashov won’t be a Maple Leaf in the near future, it’d be interesting to see if Leafs brass cuts bait on their 2015 5th round pick in an effort to clear up a roster spot up front and give other prospects more opportunity.
Perhaps another team could take a flier on Timashov.
Marlies Acquire Steve Olesky
When the Leafs traded Adam Cracknell to Anaheim Ducks, the organization acquired a familiar face in return.
The Marlies welcomed back Steve Olesky to the fold this week. Olesky suited up 20 games with the Marlies during the 2016-2017 season and was known as a leader amongst the room.
“When they told me Toronto, I was pretty excited,” Olesky said with a beaming smile. “I developed some great relationships here with the players and the staff and maintained those relationships [even when I left]. To come back, and see those guys in person, rather than text message—it was something I was really looking forward to.”
The Marlies are just as ecstatic to have Olesky back.
“The biggest thing is adding a nice personality to our room, that, can help us at a time like this. When we could use a bit of a boost, in terms of team morale,” Keefe said. “Having a familiar face, that has a comfort level with the staff and how we like to do things, helps us here.”
Marlies Goalies Come Up Clutch Against Moose
It’s no secret that the biggest thing holding back the Marlies from being a top team in the league is their goaltending. But this weekend, their goaltenders were a key reason why they picked up a clean four points on their trip to Winnipeg.
The Marlies travelled to Winnipeg without Kasimir Kaskisuo, who was away from the team due to what Keefe deemed as a “personal leave.” That led to the Marlies recalling goaltender Michael Gartieg from the Newfoundland Growlers to back up Eamon McAdam.
McAdam would go on to record a 26-save win against the Moose on Friday night, and while one would think Keefe would have riden the hot hand going into Saturday, he decided to give Michael Gartieg a shot. Gartieg, who was named the ECHL’s goaltender of the month for November, has been a driving force for the first-place Growlers, and he earned himself a look between the pipes on Saturday.
He didn’t disappoint.
Gartieg answered the bell, leading the Marlies to a 5-1 win over the Moose.
“He’s what we need. We need everybody to step up,” Mueller said post-game. “We need everybody to play better.”
News and notes
– The Marlies advanced to 12-10-3-2 over the weekend. They’re currently fifth in the North Division.
– The Marlies went 5/10 on the power play this weekend.
-Over the weekend, Elliotte Freidman reported that he heard the Toronto Marlies were signing enforcer Tom Sestito. The Marlies have not released anything yet, but one source close to the situation did confirm that Sestito is indeed Toronto bound.