The Toronto Maple Leafs’ three-tier development system is starting to bear fruit
Photo credit:Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
By Dylan Murphy9 months ago
When Kyle Dubas was named general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018, he almost immediately implemented a development system that would focus on overall organizational growth from the top down.
That summer, the Newfoundland Growlers were established as the Leafs’ new ECHL affiliated club, and the team immediately found success- winning the ECHL’s Kelly Cup due in no small part to the investments Dubas and the Leafs put towards their ECHL team, which is not traditionally the case among NHL teams.
“I think if you don’t have support from the top down for whatever initiative you’re doing within an organization it’s not going to reach its full potential,” Dubas said in 2019 during the Growlers’ run to the Kelly Cup. “And for us this is an important endeavour because we envision this being a very key point of entry for our development people for both players and staff alike… And I think you’re seeing the results of that here this year so far. So it’s been great.”
In past eras of professional hockey, the ECHL was seen as the dead-end of a player’s career, being sent to “The Coast” was equivalent to being told it was time to hang up your skates, because your chances of ever playing in the NHL had just evaporated.
In the past decade or so, some NHL teams have begun to change that perspective and instead view the ECHL as a true development league, where players have a real shot at graduating to the AHL, and even the NHL.
To date, five players who have suited up for a single game with the Newfoundland Growlers have also put on a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater for at least one game: Timothy Liljegren, Kristians Rubins, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, Mac Hollowell, and most recently, Bobby McMann.
Liljegren played one game in the ECHL on a conditioning loan after returning from a lengthy injury in the 2018-19 season. Rubins, the Latvian defenceman who played three games with the Leafs last year, played 56 regular season games and 17 playoff games with the Growlers in 2018-19 before graduating to the AHL for the ’19-20 season and beyond. SDA was a veteran of three ECHL regular season games and nine playoff games in the Growlers’ inaugural season. Hollowell only had the chance to appear in 19 games with the 2019-20 Growlers before he was called up to the AHL and never returned. And McMann appeared in four Growlers games at the start of the 2021-22 season (as well as 18 games with another ECHL club the year prior when the Growlers did not play due to the pandemic) then he was called up and dominated the AHL all the way to a Marlies’ rookie goal-scoring record.
With McMann in particular, (leaving Liljegren out of the conversation because a player of his pedigree would not play ECHL games under normal circumstances,) the Leafs seem to have themselves a player who can (and probably still should be) an everyday NHL player going forward. McMann did not score in his first 8 game stint with the Leafs, but with mostly neutral or defensive zone starts, McMann helped generate 21 high-danger scoring chances and put up a 5.56 xG rating. He looked and played like an NHLer, a late bloomer for sure, but a player who can provide the Leafs with good minutes and a bit of depth scoring going forward.
Likewise, Mac Hollowell was a pleasant surprise during his brief stint with the Leafs earlier this season, he posted up a couple of assist and didn’t look out of place defensively, despite his reputation as a pure offensive-defenceman. For both McMann and Hollowell, the organization’s development philosophy can be seen in their play, as well as any player who has stepped up from the ECHL to the AHL for an extended stint like defenceman Tommy Miller, who is now the Marlies’ top right-handed defenceman.
That development philosophy is one of a consistent approach, the Growlers play the way the Marlies do, and the Marlies play the way the Leafs do.
“Our coaching staff spend a lot of time speaking with the Marlies coaching staff, who naturally work a lot with the Leafs’ staff,” Trevor Murphy, a former executive with the Growlers said in 2020. “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. 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.”
The Leafs’ minor league organizations are both full to the brim with talent who have the potential to make some impact on an NHL roster, it has taken a while to get to this point, but the process is paying off, slowly but surely.
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