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Marlies prioritize development of players but remain focused on competing for playoffs next season

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Photo credit:Thomas Skrlj / Toronto Marlies
Nick Barden
6 months ago
The Toronto Marlies will begin next year likely the same as they did this season — as a development team with a growing intention of getting to the post-season.
Toronto missed the playoffs this season for the first time since 2010-11, and while many fans might not think that’s good, the Marlies still had a great year.
When looking back, there were a number of players who got their shot to play with the Maple Leafs because of injuries, and a few others received NHL contracts after being signed to AHL deals last summer.
It seemed like there was a lot of displeasure from fans with the way Marlies head coach Greg Moore ran things at the AHL level, whether it be lineup decisions, in-game choices, and at times, just decisions in general. While there might have been more focus on him than some of the players this season, there was still plenty of development from him, too.
“I saw a lot of growth in him (Moore) this season,” said Marlies GM Ryan Hardy on locker cleanout day. “I think a lot of times from an outside observer, you recognize the games and the outcome and everybody wants to make the playoffs, and that’s certainly a part of the job.
“But here, the main job of our head coach is fostering environment for the development of our players so that we can continue players on the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
It’s incredibly difficult to be a coach at this level, especially in this organization, because of the balancing act you need to have for both winning and developing players. Put that together with the magnified scope that each of the two Toronto pro-hockey teams have and you might find a bit of displeasure from the fanbase.
Toronto had 49 players on their roster throughout the season (not including goaltenders) and it was the coaching staff’s job to decide who comes in and out. It’s a difficult product to manage when you have that many players going both up and down between the NHL and ECHL if injuries occur.
“I think just with the incredible amount of roster turnover and the balancing act of, you know, I can’t really think of any level of hockey that I’ve been at before where the primary focus is in the development of the players,” said Hardy on what his biggest learning point was this season. “You’re trying to create an environment and a culture where you certainly want to win and certainly want to have success, as everybody wants to win, that’s why you engage in any form of competition. But just balancing that development piece with the winning and making sure we’re getting the right amount of opportunity for our young players who are the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs, first and foremost, so I’d say that was the biggest adjustment.
“But, led by Rich Clune and the players that we have and the staff that we have here, it wasn’t an overly difficult transition in that way. I think we laid out in the beginning, when we all met here at the start of the season, that we wanted to invest in young players, we wanted to develop them, we’re going to rely on Rich Clune, and we wanted to create a culture where players wanted to be and players felt they were valued and felt they were getting better, and I think as you talk to players here on their way out of town, it seems to be a real common thread that runs throughout the group is that people did feel that.”
One of the biggest pieces of development that young players at this level can find is in the Calder Cup Playoffs, having their team compete for the AHL’s ultimate prize. Looking at a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning, there were plenty of players that came from their AHL team and went onto win a cup.
Discussing this year’s Marlies team, there was always plenty of players raving about how comfortable that locker room was for everyone who entered it. Each player, whether it be a rookie or a veteran like Clune, was accepted into the team with essentially open arms.
And while that may be a good thing from a personal standpoint, it might have an impact where the team could feel a little bit complacent throughout the season.
“I would say, one of the things reflecting on the earlier question — as we lean into next year, maybe it’s dialing back that level of comfortability and finding a greater degree of intensity and consistency day-to-day,” said Hardy. “But, there’s a lot of pressure on young players — mental, emotional, physical — especially transitioning into pro hockey, coming from junior, coming from college, and I think it does start with Dicky (Clune), it does start with Greg (Moore) and our coaching staff.
“We want to have an environment where people are feeling valued as human beings and are feeling valued that their going to come in, they’re able to make mistakes, and made a lot of them throughout the season but they’re opportunities to grow, and so you make a mistake, you meet with the coaching staff, you meet with the development team, we continue to work on the individual development plans that we have outlined for the players and we have open dialogue where we treat them like human beings and they come in, they’re able to say anything that they want to say, and speak candidly on items.”
The Maple Leafs organization has shifted to being a more open place for players ever since Kyle Dubas became GM. It became even more open when they added Moore and Hardy to the developmental side.
But next year will be a massive year for the development of players, the success of the team, and the growth of each individual whether it be a player, the coaching staff, or the GM.
“This is a very difficult league in that, quite frankly, every player that’s on the team aspires to be on another team, and there’s no where else that that type of thing exists.
“So, to get through a 72-game season and hopefully next year, make a deep run in the playoffs, you have to have a place where people feel valued and where they want to come to work and really enjoy the work that they’re doing and enjoy the people that they’re working with, and that’s something we try to instill in them every day.”
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