Inside the Leafs’ development pipeline: Report from the Rock

Photo credit:Nick Barden
Dylan Murphy
1 year ago
The following article contains excerpts from an interview originally conducted in November 2020.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, like any team aiming for long-term success, have heavily invested in prospect development. And in a flat salary cap world, the versatility of good players being able to slot into a lineup for close to league-minimum is more valuable than ever before.
Following in the footsteps of what the Pittsburgh Penguins established years ago with the Wheeling Nailers, the Leafs made a commitment when they established an affiliation agreement with the Newfoundland Growlers in 2018 that the ECHL club would be seen as a true development program for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies and beyond. This agreement made the Growlers the entry-level point of a true three-tier development system, as opposed to just another ECHL team where careers would go to die, or players banished from an AHL club would wind up to play out their contracts in obscurity.
The process is slow, naturally, but it has begun to bear fruit. Defenceman Kristians Rubins played three games for the Leafs this past season after beginning his tenure within the organization on an ECHL contract with the Growlers in the team’s inaugural season. Timothy Liljegren is technically a Growlers alumni, as he played a single game with the team to ease back into playing after a lengthy injury during the 2018-19 season, and forward Bobby McMann started last season assigned to the Growlers, but was recalled to the AHL after four games and had a breakout 24-goal season with the Marlies, which led to the Leafs offering an entry-level deal.
Within the Growlers offices, Trevor Murphy is the go-to guy for any and all hockey questions. Not only does he serve as the team’s President of Hockey Operations and Alternate Governor, but he also steps out onto the ice as a coach at team-hosted minor hockey camps throughout the year. Murphy has a resume spanning nearly 20 years of working in the game of hockey, including some time with the Edmonton Oilers and the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL prior to that club’s relocation to Laval. He took some time between coaching sessions at a minor-hockey camp to speak on the club’s relationship with the Leafs and shared some insight on the Growlers’ role in player development.
“The Maple Leafs see the Growlers as a big piece of their tier system,” said Murphy. “They view it as a real partnership, it’s been nothing but supportive so far. They seem to be pleased with what we’re doing here in terms of player development.”
While an assignment to the ECHL is often looked at with disdain, as it was long believed to be a nail in the coffin of a career to suit up for a team in that league, the Leafs are trying to change that stereotype. One method of attempting this is through implementing a consistent message throughout all levels of the organization.
“Our coaching staff spend a lot of time speaking with the Marlies coaching staff, who naturally work a lot with the Leafs’ staff,” Murphy explained. “They’re developing systems that are implemented at all three levels of the organization, so when players get a call-up, whether that’s from the ECHL to the AHL, or the AHL to the NHL, they’re already familiar with the systems being used.”
Multiple Newfoundland Growlers players have spoken highly of the coaching staff to media and praised how this consistent systems approach have eased their transitions from one league to another, whether it was a call-up, or a reassignment down. Murphy says the Leafs go above and beyond to insulate the idea in player’s minds that a move to the Growlers is a learning opportunity, as well as a chance to see more ice-time than they would with the Marlies.
“We do a lot of off-ice instruction to emphasize key messages and key areas of focus, that’s all important to the development,” said Murphy. “The Maple Leafs development staff also come down to work with the Growlers directly at certain points in the season, so our players are getting that instruction from the top of the organization, which is fantastic and really helps to reinforce the consistency of it all.”
All of that to say, take a trip to Newfoundland this upcoming hockey season to view a game, and you might see not only a couple of future Leafs stars, but a style of play that’s all-too-familiar to the Blue and White faithful.
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