Photo Credit: Christian Bonin

Cutdown Day: The Maple Leafs’ Cast-Offs Have Made the Marlies Much Older. Is This the Right Move?

That Matt Read chose to stay in Toronto, even if it meant riding buses for the Toronto Marlies, shows exactly how he views the Maple Leafs organization.

We don’t know if Read turned down any NHL deals for the AHL pact he signed this morning. We likely never will, really. Nevertheless, Read earned this new commitment on his own merits, doing just about everything you could ask from a PTO invitee and effectively (read: surprisingly) forcing himself into the Leafs’ roster conversation, if only for a moment.

Now, Read has a home. And that home is on a Marlies roster currently undergoing massive turnover.

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Prior to training camp, the Marlies were projected by most, myself included, to enter the 2019-20 season as one of the most youth-centric groups in recent franchise memory. Teenaged duo Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren were likely to return, while early expectations foresaw Mac Hollowell, Joseph Duszak, Jesper Lindgren, Brady Ferguson (who is 24, to be fair) and Egor Korshkov expanding their cameos from last season into featured roles this year. Add a batch of youthful newcomers in Justin Brazeau, Joseph Woll, Colt Conrad and, possibly, Ian Scott to the mix, and the Marlies’ group of U-24 assets was set to explode.

That youth invasion won’t happen now, obviously. Rather, in the aftermath of today’s final cuts, seven of those ten names have been expelled from the Marlies’ roster; replaced now by eight (two of the injured non-roster variety) with recent NHL experience.

Such is the price of vast organizational depth, it seems.

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Both Sandin and Liljegren are still up the Leafs; the latter sticking around for salary cap reasons while the former appears to have earned himself a real NHL job. That outcome was more or less expected — if not, in Liljegren’s case, only as a possibility. But the relative lack of waiver claims around the NHL this year has created a logjam within the Leafs’ pipeline, particularly among those teetering on the NHL/AHL cutoff.

Despite playing a part in the Marlies’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals back in May, both Duszak and Hollowell will begin their seasons in ECHL Newfoundland. Ferguson will, as well, with Conrad and Brazeau set to join him. In a more under-the-radar move, Scott Pooley, whom the organization has consistently spoken highly of, will be a Growler, too.

On the surface, this approach seems fine. It might even be preferential to the overall organizational plan, really. Kyle Dubas has spoken extensively on his intent to craft the Maple Leafs’ affiliates into something reflective of the MLB’s “Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A” model. Rather than viewing an ECHL assignment as a death sentence, Dubas prefers for each level to serve as an internal ladder, with prospects beginning in Double-A before working their way up from there.

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It’s odd, still, to watch so many young players who each spent time — and for some, significant time — in Triple-A last season begin this coming year at the level below. Internal logjams are understandable. They happen, particularly to teams that sign seven players at once. But it’s who these prospects are being pushed down for — mid-20’s, quadruple-A tweeners — that begins to raise a few questions.

Namely; why?

The Marlies strive for contention year after year for two primary reasons: 1) hockey teams (unless you’re Ottawa) should always prioritize winning, and 2) subjecting prospects to deep playoff runs allows them to grow within the highest-leverage situations available.

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The results of this “trial by fire” blueprint have been immediate, too. Liljegren’s defensive game grew leaps and bounds across the four full rounds of top-six usage he saw in 2018; Sandin isn’t on an NHL roster today were it not for the elimination games he spent logging 30 minutes throughout on the Marlies’ top pair mere months ago. That experience matters.

The Marlies will contend this year. That is of little doubt. But asking what purpose a “winning environment” for prospects serves when there are barely any prospects around is worthwhile, too

Yes, the Marlies still have the development paths of Jeremy Bracco, Adam Brooks, Mason Marchment, and Pierre Engvall to focus on. Those players still have room grow. That being said, each one was on the Marlies’ roster for the Calder Cup ceremony back in 2018. Three of them, even, played key roles throughout that entire playoff run while all four proceeded to turn into pillars for their team’s postseason success the following year, as well.

Will this new batch of veteran firepower be what tips them over the edge? It might. But you can wonder if the Hollowells and Duszaks of the world might actually benefit from it more.

This “issue”, however, is all relative. When it comes to organizational problems, teams would choose an excess of good players over not having enough of them ten times out of ten. The Marlies are lucky to be grappling with the former. And while their primary function is that of a developmental machine, the Marlies still exist to provide the Maple Leafs with reinforcements in the event that one (or more) is needed.

The 2019-20 Marlies are set up splendidly, then. Were the injury bug to hit, fill-ins like Pontus Aberg, Tyler Gaudet, Garrett Wilson, Jordan Schmaltz, Ben Harpur (relax), or even Teemu Kivihalme — and possibly a few more, barring how waivers play out tomorrow — sit just one streetcar ride away.

That is a luxury few other teams can claim.

Yet, the Maple Leafs almost certainly didn’t foresee this. They likely conducted their business under the assumption that a few final cuts — Aberg or Schmaltz being the most likely — would get snatched on the open wire as last-minute depth.

That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, Toronto’s entire crop has managed to sneak through to this point, strapping the Marlies with more tangible experience than they can actually legally deploy — the AHL’s veteran rule limits nightly lineups to a maximum of 5 players with 260+ professional games; the Marlies currently have 6, if you include Rich Clune, who will sit most nights.

That veteran squeeze would be worthwhile if it didn’t come at the expense of prospects.

Admittedly, starting the year as a Growler is far from a worst-case scenario for these players. For those on the rawer end of the spectrum, even — namely, Brazeau — it might be what’s best for their development. In Newfoundland, Duszak and Hollowell will log actual top-pair minutes compared to the 10-15 the Marlies would have given them. Ferguson will likely be John Snowden‘s number one centre in lieu of Sheldon Keefe‘s fourth or fifth. Conrad can build upon his impressive late-season tryout and encouraging development camp as a fixture of the Growlers’ top PP unit.

These are good things. Frankly, some might advocate for letting a comparatively big fish swim in a comparatively small pond as a better growth plan than simply dropping a minnow into a shark tank. But that plan loses water (pun intended) if said minnow has already proven that sharks don’t scare them, if only for a brief flash.

Would the smaller pond not box them in? That’s the risk Leafs management seems willing to take.

Regardless, AHL rosters are ever-evolving. And with October 5th still a few days away, change may still be yet to come. If the plan is to play the kids, it has to.