Marlies Mailbag: Who deserves a Maple Leafs callup, what’s next for Bellows, and more

Photo credit:Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
Bennett Jull
1 month ago
A couple of weeks ago we ran a ‘Marlies Mailbag’ on our social media pages. Thank you to those that submitted questions! I’ve selected a few questions that are answered below.
Question #1, submitted by Dan B. “What positive changes have you seen with the Marlies under John Gruden?”
Great question, Dan. I think it’s important to note Gruden’s background. He hails from the hockey state, and after a productive four years in the NCAA he had a 10 year professional career. Gruden played for multiple organizations and was up and down (mostly down) in all of them. He amassed 1 goal and 8 assists over 92 NHL games.
Those details are crucial. He battled to make it to the NHL. He battled to try and stay in the NHL. He not only knows what it takes to get there, but also knows how difficult it is to stick. He was an assistant coach in the NHL for five full seasons before coming to Toronto. His knowledge on the little things is invaluable. Four of those five seasons was with the Islanders, and because of their prior relationship, Kiefer Bellows signed in Toronto and has done very well. Without Gruden, he simply doesn’t come here.
The Marlies are more structured with Gruden and his staff. They have an increased amount of face-off plays from last year, and Gruden added Rich Clune to the staff to focus on the extra man. Clune has got the power play ticking; they are tied for first in the division with 19.2%. He’s got the best out of certain prospects, which bodes well for the future (notably Hildeby and Tverberg).
Ultimately, it wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up in Ottawa next year with Steve Staios and Michael Andlauer. They are extremely familiar from their Hamilton days, and the band is already partially back together.
Question #2, submitted by Chirag P. “Who deserves a call-up that nobody is talking about?”
Well, two weeks ago I might have suggested Marshall Rifai! In terms of current prospects or players signed to NHL deals, there aren’t too many at the moment that are deserving compared with who the Leafs already have. At forward there is a logjam, and Nick Robertson is probably more deserving than anyone else on the Marlies with a two-way or NHL contract. There are a couple of forwards signed to AHL deals that are deserving, which I’ll get to in the next question.
As for dmen, the Rifai call-up was interesting. The Marlies have others that likely have higher ceilings than Rifai (Niemela, Kokkonen, Villeneuve), but he is the most “NHL ready”. He’s years older than the aforementioned prospects (turns 26 in ~2 weeks) and is physically more adept. Rifai can get around the ice really well, and his physicality is an asset. If he can improve his decision making and be a little more assured with the puck, he could be someone that knocks on the NHL’s door in the next season or two more consistently.
Question #3, submitted by Mark L. “Do you think Bellows earns an NHL contract out of this season? Any chance we see him as a Leaf? Are there any other veteran Marlies who could help the Leafs this year or next?”
To answer your first question, yes. I would be very surprised if Bellows doesn’t have NHL contract offers next season. More than likely he will earn a two-way contract, but his play certainly warrants an NHL look. I doubt we see him as a Toronto Maple Leaf, but you never know. For Bellows, he probably wants to find a team/organization with more of an opportunity to play NHL games. Toronto will ice a very competitive lineup once again next season, and his chances at cracking an opening night lineup or being first call-up will be much better elsewhere.
In terms of other veteran Marlies that could help the Leafs, there are definitely one or two. Logan Shaw has played 232 NHL games. He is 6’3, and is a right handed center. Lots of teams could use that, perhaps even the Maple Leafs. Shaw turned down NHL offers to sign a 3-year AHL contract with Toronto. He has a young family, and wanted stability. That being said, there’s no doubt in my mind he could be playing at the NHL level somewhere.
The other name, and I feel pretty strong about this one, is Joe Blandisi. Another player that’s had a legitimate taste, the local product has suited up in 101 NHL games and notched 31 points. That point percentage over an 82 game NHL season would be just over 25, which is certainly more than good enough for a 4th line role. Blandisi is the type of player that pulls other guys into the fight, and his statistics this year have definitely raised some eyebrows. As I’m writing this, Blandisi sits 7th in the AHL in scoring. He plays in every situation and would definitely be a good character guy to have in any locker room. He too should get NHL offers going into next season.
Question #4, submitted by Kate N. “Is Topi Niemela someone the Leafs should be developing or is he more valuable as a trade chip?”
This is a question I go back and forth on with a couple colleagues here. I’m personally not as high on Niemela as others are. That being said, I’ve noticed a couple of little things over the last month or so that I’m encouraged by. He is still very young. He was taken decently high in the draft and has had some notable international success thus far in his career. I’m on the fence. I certainly have not given up on him, and I think he could still develop into a strong 2nd/3rd pair player. However, if there is an offer for a player with term that will help the Leafs, I think he should be considered.
Question #5, submitted by Jon D. “If the Leafs send a few of their Marlies call-ups down, are the Marlies playoff contenders?
It depends on who is a ‘Marlies call-up’, but yes. William Lagesson and Max Lajoie instantly give you an elite AHL pairing on the blue line. Nick Robertson, Bobby McMann, and Pontus Holmberg would all be serious weapons on the front end. Martin Jones would be very useful in net, although Dennis Hildeby is more than capable of commanding the crease. I think Joseph Woll and Simon Benoit have played their way out of the ‘Marlies call-ups’ category, but the other five players would certainly be welcome additions. It will be interesting to see if the Marlies do add anyone else via Europe or perhaps the Maple Leafs acquire people before the deadline. There are many other strong teams, but if the Marlies were to receive those players they could contend.

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