Photo Credit: Jeff Parsons

ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers matching Leafs’ vision of success

When news broke that Newfoundland Growlers’ head coach Ryane Clowe would be stepping down from the team due to medical reasons, it was a tough pill to swallow for members of the Leafs’ ECHL affiliate.

“We were kind of speechless,” said Growlers forward Ryan Moore. “You feel for a guy like that because you know he wants to be here.”

Clowe, who has nearly 500 games of NHL experience and two seasons as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils under his belt, has been instrumental to the Growlers’ 2018-2019 season. With the Maple Leafs stocking their ECHL affiliate up with 11 one-way AHL contracts, there was no doubt that the team had talent. But having talent doesn’t automatically garner you success. But Clowe got his group to buy in, with a team-first mentality that brought the best out of each player. His contributions are a big reason why the Growlers are 28-18-2 and are good for third best in the entire ECHL.

“He really built the foundation of what we are,” Growlers defenceman Alex Gudbranson pointed out.

As hard as it is for the Growlers (and on a grander scale, the organization) to lose Clowe, the show must go on. And it will. 37-year-old John Snowden, Clowe’s assistant coach for the first half of the season, will now take over as head coach. Snowden brings an interesting perceptive to the forefront, having spent 40% of his 11-year pro hockey career in the ECHL.

“One thing for me is, I’ve lived it,” Snowden said when referencing his minor league days. “I’ve done it. it’s not going to be a shock to me.”

Snowden’s ability to relate to the players isn’t the only thing he can bring to the table. He’s known to be an excellent communicator, with a passion to make his players better. Snowden has been an assistant coach for the Leafs’ ECHL affiliates since the 2015-2016 season, and he’s well-accustomed to how the Leafs want to do things with their AA affiliate.

“[Snowden’s] willing to listen to new ideas,” Orlando Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky, who coached alongside Snowden in Orlando for two seasons, told The Leafs Nation. “He wants to work with people. He doesn’t just want to be the [only] guy. He’s smart enough to realize to listen to everybody around him.”

And Snowden has plenty of resources and voices to rely on. The organization has long been dedicated to developing prospects in not just the AHL, but the ECHL as well.

While a chunk of the Growlers players are inked to AHL, and not NHL, contracts, the team is still under the Maple Leafs umbrella. Leafs assistant general manager Laurence Gilman and the teams development staff, led by Scott Pellerin, make frequent visits to the Rock. The communication lines between the Growlers and the Marlies are strong, with the ECHL club mirroring their AHL-affiliates systems, to make it easier on players going up and down from one level to another.

“I think the coaching styles are the same, no matter where you go in the organization,” Moore pointed out

There are similarities between the way the Marlies and the Growlers are run. For starters, both coaching staffs work overtime to spend quality time with prospects in-need of extra help.

“They put in the extra hours to work with you after practice on stuff that you need to work on,” said Marlies defenceman Stefan LeBlanc, who played 26 games with the Growlers at the start of the year.

But individual skill development isn’t all that the Leafs’ minor league teams have been able to do so well. They’ve also been able to compliment their young prospects with top-end talent.

The Leafs have given the greenlight to signing players that help create a winning culture for clients. For example the team’s leading scorer, Zach O’Brien is an established AHL player and is being paid as one, with a one-way deal ($70,000). The team also dished out the leagues most expensive ECHL one-way deal with the signing of NHL veteran defenceman, Adam Pardy.

“You develop when you win,” Snowden pointed out.

And so far through the Growlers existence, the Leafs have started to see some of their “projects” take steps in the right direction. Especially with players like Giorgio Estephan Brady Ferguson and Ryan Moore.

Estephan, who has recorded 37 points in 39 games, was named to the teams ECHL all-star game in his rookie season. The former WHL-standout is certainly of AHL-calibre, but with the Marlies having so many forwards–the team opted to keep him in the ECHL and give him more time to adjust to the pro game, while being relied on heavily. In three showings with the Marlies this year, Estephan didn’t look out of place and his two-way game was well on display. Keefe even gave him some time on the man-advantage.

Ferguson, who has 32 points in 30 games, has a similar story to Estephan. He’s had his cup of tea at the AHL level too–recording five points in four games at the tail-end of last season along with suiting up for the Marlies twice this season–but there just isn’t room for him yet. Instead of treading in a bottom-six role with the Marlies, Ferguson has been playing at a level below the AHL and getting plenty of ice-time and opportunities. More time with the puck, even if it’s at a lower level, is crucial for a developing prospect.

Moore, who’s 18 points in 33 games doesn’t jump off the scoresheet, is progressing slowly but surely. The 5’8 winger is a lightning-quick skater who was scoring over a point-per-game in his final two OHL seasons. Moore’s small stature makes him a long shot and if he ever does make it to the big leagues, it’s not going to be for a while. But the Maple Leafs are prepared to wait. And with Moore starting to get adjusted to the ECHL, so far, so good.

It’s not always easy for prospects to keep their spirits up in the ECHL. But these Growlers have been spoiled with the support of St Johns hockey fans, who have supported successful AHL franchises dating back to 1991. The Growlers are the hottest ticket in the province.

“Playing in St. John’s was almost like playing in the NHL, to some degree,” said Jason Jaffary, a forward for the St Johns IceCaps from 2011 to 2015 who currently plays for Munich EHC of the DEL. “You were recognized on the streets, restaurants and bars. Newfoundland doesn’t have a lot of pro sports teams so you almost feel like you are playing for the whole province.”

With such a strong culture being created in St Johns, on and off the ice, the organization has started to rely on their ECHL affiliate even more than they have in the past. The Marlies sent prized prospect Timothy Liljegren to the Growlers on a conditioning stint. It’s not common that you see a recent first round pick tread in the ECHL, even for a conditioning stint. But the Marlies trust their ECHL affiliate.

“It’s a reflection of the confidence that we have in the program, down there, and the job that they’ve done,” said Keefe.

The job that the organization has done and will continue to do with their ECHL, is positioning the Leafs to be the team to find the next diamond in the rough.

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