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Leafs leading the race to NHL cellar and top prospect Auston Matthews

From The Globe and Mail – James Mirtle

There is an eerie symmetry to the Toronto Maple Leafs drop-offs experienced last season and again this year.

They have come at roughly the same time. And they have been almost as severe.

From early January to mid-February in 2015, the free-falling Leafs recorded just two wins in 19 games (2-15-2) to drop into the NHL’s basement. By June, they were picking fourth overall, high enough to draft London Knights star Mitch Marner.

Dion Phaneuf traded to Sens: A look at his hockey career in numbers (CP Video)

This year, after a 7-2 implosion in Chicago on Monday night, the Leafs are 4-11-2 in their past 17 games, and fading fast. If the draft lottery were held today, they would have the best chance of picking first overall (20 per cent) for the first time since taking Wendel Clark in the top spot in 1985.

The biggest difference between this year and last is that an incredible run of injuries have played a starring role. Between trading captain Dion Phaneuf away to Ottawa last week and the loss of up to eight players at a time to injuries, the Leafs have had a skeletal roster of late.

In Monday night’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, Roman Polak had the most minutes among defencemen (24). Colin Greening, recently acquired from the Senators, had the most minutes among forwards (17), despite the fact he has spent most of the year in the American Hockey League with Binghamton.

That arrangement didn’t work out so well against the defending Stanley Cup champs.

“We weren’t in the game basically from the start,” coach Mike Babcock lamented, before later adding: “They were just better than us. Period.”

That could be the postgame tale for a while. The Maple Leafs are about to face a run of good teams, with games against the New York Rangers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and first-place Washington Capitals in the next two weeks. There is also the trade deadline looming on Feb. 29, when even more talent will be traded away.

So yes, things can get worse.

This isn’t new. Other teams have pulled their rosters apart midway through the year en route to a good draft pick. Arizona Coyotes general manager Don Maloney admitted in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt the other day that he did as much last season, explaining that “if we were going to be bad, my attitude was, let’s be real bad.”

He then called Connor McDavid, the eventual No. 1 pick, “a pretty big prize for being really bad.”

What’s made the Leafs’ situation unique is the organization has steadfastly refused to recall its best players from the minors. The Marlies are currently the top team in the AHL, with only nine regulation losses in 51 games, and young players such as William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Rinat Valiev, Connor Brown, Nikita Soshnikov and Stuart Percy are better than some of those playing for the Leafs.

Brendan Leipsic showed as much on Saturday against Vancouver, when he was granted his first NHL game and promptly scored his first NHL goal (the winner, no less).

He hardly looked out of place. But he was promptly demoted before their next game.

That’s because Leafs management sees little point in sacrificing development in order to prop up a makeshift NHL roster that was never going to contend this year. Most of the recalls all season have been older non-prospects – Rich Clune, Mark Arcobello and Byron Froese – to the detriment of the NHL roster, and the benefit of Toronto’s lottery chances.

Is that tanking? In the strictest sense of the word, sure. But the Leafs were also only five points out of a playoff spot on Jan. 6 after 38 games, and before all the injuries. They’re still on pace for 73 points, five better than a year ago.

If that’s tanking, it’s Tanking Lite compared with what teams such as the Buffalo Sabres and Coyotes pulled off last season in failed attempts to get McDavid.

In fact, 73 points would be the best finish ever for a last-place NHL team. So if that was Leafs management’s sole intention with the season, they went about it in a curious way.

The way that their year has gone is, in many ways, the best possible outcome. There have been obvious improvements thanks to Babcock. The work ethic is there. And the Marlies have played like world-beaters.

Finishing 30th, thanks to injuries, trades and an insistence on protecting the kids, won’t be a black eye for anyone.

But it does leave the Leafs with their biggest hurdle still to come: beating the Edmonton Oilers in the draft lottery.

Good luck with that.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

Source: Leafs leading the race to NHL cellar and top prospect Auston Matthews

Leafs’ fill-ins fill Vancouver net: Feschuk

From The Star

VANCOUVER—In the handful of days since the Maple Leafs traded captain Dion Phaneuf, head coach Mike Babcock has been putting a positive spin on a less-than-optimal situation.

For an intensely competitive coach who likes nothing more than to celebrate a nightly victory, Toronto’s roster is nightmarishly short on established difference makers. But Babcock has used the state of affairs as motivational fodder.

“It’s an opportunity for everybody,” Babcock has said.

And in Saturday’s 5-2 win over the Canucks, he wasn’t kidding. In the first period alone the Maple Leafs’ pair of power-play opportunities were handed over to a list of names a fan wouldn’t automatically associate with man-advantage situations. Brendan Leipsic, 21, was making his NHL debut as an emergency call-up — he got nearly two minutes of power-play run. Colin Greening and Mark Arcobello have spent most of the season in the AHL; they were both featured prominently.

Babcock was effectively saying, “Here’s your NHL moment — seize it.”

Leipsic certainly did. Along with logging those power-play minutes, he scored his first NHL goal, batting what turned out to be the third-period winner into the net with a waist-high swat from the slot.

Arcobello seized the opportunity, too, potting a pair of second-period goals in a span of 17 seconds to help the Maple Leafs snap a three-game losing streak. On a night when the visitors put on a possession-game clinic, doubling the shots-on-goal total of the playoff-hopeful Canucks, 38-19, Leafs veterans Leo Komarov and Brad Boyes scored empty-netters to pad the total.

“That’s a case study in what we’re capable of,” said Rich Clune, another Leaf better known for his work with the Marlies this year, who assisted on Leipsic’s goal. “Getting a win on the road against a highly skilled team like Vancouver — I think we frustrated them, especially early on. I think our work ethic is our key.”

Indeed, for all the minor-leaguers on their bench on Saturday, the Maple Leafs roundly outplayed the Canucks for most of the evening. On the Canucks’ three cracks on the power play, the diligent work of the visitors limited the home team to a combined two shots. Daniel Sedin and Sven Baertschi scored for the Canucks. But Leipsic’s goal turned out to be the difference.

“Lucky to get a stick on it,” said Leipsic, a 21-year-old Winnipegger acquired a year ago in the trade that sent Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli to Nashville.

Clune, who played on Leipsic’s line on Saturday, gave it more credit.

“The hand-eye coordination, you can’t fake that,” Clune said. “That’s a legit goal. I’m so proud of him.”

Babcock described the five-foot-nine Leipsic as “a greasy little guy who’s got real good skill level, tenacity about him.” Clune, who played with Leipsic last season in Milwaukee, said Leipsic has been largely overlooked by Leafs Nation because he plays on a team with higher-profile assets like William Nylander and Connor Brown.

“William Nylander’s the number one guy, rightfully so. But (Leipsic) is a legit prospect behind him,” Clune said. “Maybe it’s even been better for him to fly under the radar. Maybe some people don’t see him coming.”

Leipsic, who didn’t get the benefit of a Friday practice given the emergency call-up that saw him arrive in Vancouver Friday night, became the first Leaf to score in his NHL debut since Nikolai Kulemin did it in the 2008-09 season opener in Detroit.

While the Maple Leafs are in full rebuilding mode, the Canucks, still led by the 35-year-old Sedin twins, are firmly entrenched in a playoff race, coming into Saturday’s game three points out of a Western wild-card spot and likely Canada’s best hope for a representative in the Stanley Cup tournament. So Saturday was an untimely moment for a flat performance, to be sure.

But the Leafs, though they came into the contest in sole possession of the NHL basement and hobbled by injuries that kept the likes of Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and James van Riemsdyk out of the lineup, deserved the win. If they played what looked like desperate hockey, perhaps it was because Babcock has acknowledged that, for most of the roster, Toronto-based employment is a tenuous thing with the Feb. 29 trade deadline looming.

With plenty of uncertainty in the air, perhaps Arcobello was in his element. The 27-year-old alumnus of Yale University is a burgeoning journeyman; he has played for five different NHL franchises in his most recent two seasons.

“This is a hard league to play in,” Arcobello said. “When you get an open door, you’ve got to take advantage of it . . . You never know when you’re going to get a chance again.”

It was back in the Brian Burke era that the Maple Leafs’ farm team adopted a marketing slogan: “Every Game is a Tryout.” Such is the state of Leafland that the catchphrase suddenly applies on the NHL team, too.

Source: Leafs’ fill-ins fill Vancouver net: Feschuk

The Marlies kept trying to lose and finally succeeded

From Pension Puppets

The Marlies scored one less goal than the Binghamton Senators in their last game before the All-Star break, the kind of lazy good-team problems the Maple Leafs are striving to acquire.

For the Marlies, it’s tough at the top, where the challenge for the rest of the regular season is to stay there.

I feel like I’ve said that before.

A tale of two teams

The Marlies are the top team in the AHL. I could enumerate the ways they are the best: the goals for, the goal differential, this percentage, that measure, this stat, that calculation, but they all come out the same. The Marlies are an elite team that’s had a lot of luck and have won the overwhelming majority of their games so far.

So far.

They have two and a half more months to play.

Frölunda, Andreas Johnson‘s team, is also atop their league and has an amazing goal differential; they shoot the puck like crazy and have four real lines that can all play at a high level. They are elite, lucky, and they’ve won the overwhelming majority of their games. And among that elite team, Johnson, at 21, and Artturi Lehkonen at 20 are the young stars that are working every day to get to the NHL.

The rest of the team may have once dreamed of it, some of them have tried and found their home in Sweden instead, and for them the league they play in is their league; the games are a point unto themselves; the championship is the reward at the end of the season, and leaving is not the mark of success.

Frölunda are showing the signs of a sluggish desire to just get on with it, get to the playoffs, get this year over, win the cup and turn the calendar to next year so they can do it again. They’ve dropped a couple of stinkers lately—big losses, a couple of shutouts where they just skated around bored for 60 minutes. They’ve won a couple like that too.

For Johnson, this is his last year there. He is proving himself, and wants to win, but he has his eyes on a higher goal.

They have a month and a half to go before the playoffs.

The Marlies have a lot more than two guys who are yearning to escape. They have nearly a roster full. They are more than just William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, two guys who hope they will see the NHL this year and every year after.

There is Mark Arcobello, patiently scoring more and more and winning awards.

There is Nikita Soshnikov working on the bottom six and trying to prove what he can do, taking every chance to get on a better line and making the most of it.

There’s Connor Brown, doing a very good job of reminding everyone who he is with points in every game since he’s been back.

There is T.J. Brennan, ripping up the record books and rewriting them anew on this his fourth AHL team. On none of those has he been as dominate over three seasons as he has on the Marlies. He’s tasted the coffee in the NHL, but he’s never stuck, and it’s easy to just decide that’s it, he hasn’t got it, but if the 26-year-old defenceman leading the league in scoring isn’t up to it, are you sure all those kids are a lock?

There’s also Zach Hyman, who didn’t stick with the team that drafted him, nor did Brendan Leipsic or Scott Harrington. There’s a handful of Toronto draft picks in Josh Leivo, Viktor Loov, and Rinat Valiev. And all of them want out. They don’t want to ever again ride five hours home from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And they’re collectively playing pretty bad hockey lately.

The Marlies roared along for the last few games, winning while being outshot and putting on a terrible power play and giving up a league-leading number of shorthanded goals. They have been winning by betting big, risking big, and outscoring their opponents with contemptuous ease.

Lately, the defence has been falling to ruins, the goalies have been working like single mothers with two jobs, and still they win.

Or they did.

An afternoon at the Ricoh Coliseum

Saturday afternoon in Toronto, on the afternoon after that ride home from Grand Rapids, they didn’t outscore their problems. Not quite.

They played the division basement-dweller Binghamton Senators, and they were each as bad as the other. They took 8 penalties each, scored five regulation goals each. They each had a short-handed goal, and the Senators won it on a goal on a breakaway in overtime after one of the Marlies blew a skate on the play in his own end and fell down. A fitting end to a game that cast no glory on anyone.

The Marlies outshot the Senators—they aren’t so far gone, they couldn’t do that—37-29, giving Garret Sparks a save percentage of .793.

They gave up so many odd man rushes, turnovers, easy giveaways, and I guess it was buy one get one free day at Ricoh?

This isn’t a one off aberration. They’ve been drifting in this direction for weeks, and some of that is injuries pulling the better guys out of the lineup, and some of it is just the difficulty you have when the team is so good they score more goals than even the good teams most of the time.

Bob McGill the Marlies colour commentator was wondering how you tell these guys to tighten it up, when they usually win even when they play so loose? A good question. Ask Alain Vigneault. Maybe he knows. Not that the Marlies are the hollow-cored New York Rangers. They usually do outshoot their opposition not just out-goal them.

Getting the Marlies back on track may be a harder task than Frölunda has with their team of slightly bored overachievers, however.

It’s not a terrible problem to have, being so good you’re struggling to execute your system well night after night, but it is a problem. And it’s a hell of a skill to bring to a team that’s never had this dilemma before if you learn the trick of it.

A cautionary tale

This is what Nate MacKinnon said about Jonathan Drouin recently:

“Our junior team, we lost five games all year, we had the puck the whole game,” MacKinnon said. “We were playing offense for two years, we didn’t really play any ‘D.’ So that’s tough. I don’t know you can really expect lockdown ‘D’ when you first come into the league. You can always work on your ‘D’ but you can’t just become an offensive force.”

And he’s not wrong. But where do you start to learn that more complete game? Something you can use when you don’t have a team of above average players every night. Something you can use to get yourself into a position to succeed when your coach hasn’t got the means to put you there. Something that will carry you when your cap-strapped team downgrades your linemates or your rebuilding team hasn’t got the horses to win much.

It’s not junior hockey, he’s right about that too.

For MacKinnon it was the NHL. He very much did it the hard way. But the New Toronto Maple Leafs don’t do things that way, they tell us. Not unless they have to, like they will with Mitch Marner.

So it had better be the AHL, the league most guys are trying to leave. And it better be now before they start leaving one way and another.

Nice problems to have

Sheldon Keefe has some things to accomplish. He’s got to bring Nylander back into the lineup; he’s got Connor Brown chomping at the bit to play—and he was as guilty as any guy out there of sloppy defensive errors. He might have Josh Leivo—who had as many shots on goal on Saturday as he had shots of any kind in 4 games for the Leafs—and who made a lot of sloppy definsive errors.

Keefe’s also got Mark Arcobello and T.J. Brennan, who need to see a carrot on the end of the stick or they might stop carrying the goal-scoring burden for the team most nights. (Between the pair of them they have 19% of the Marlies goals. Add in Nylander and Leivo, and you get to 34%. The offence isn’t quite so spread out on this team as we tell ourselves.)

Keefe’s got to get them all to tighten up and play better than they need to. And he has to convince them it’s for their own good. Because it is.

So far, he’s been very good at doing that. Let’s see if he can keep doing it once the All-Star Break is over.

Source: The Marlies kept trying to lose and finally succeeded

Marlies captain Andrew Campbell quietly leads club to greater heights

From The Star

As captain of the Toronto Marlies, Andrew Campbell is paid to lead, to help keep a first-place team on the right path and to note deficiencies in his team’s game when it goes off track.

Saturday’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Binghamton Senators at Ricoh Coliseum was one of those nights where the veteran defenceman did indeed notice such things.

“There can be lots of excuses,” Campbell said after the loss, just the second in the Marlies’ last 14 games. The defeat came after the team had arrived in Toronto just before 5 a.m. Saturday morning after a road victory Friday night in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“But we have to be able to fight through them. We played a team that’s down in the standings and if we’re up to half our potential, we win this game.”

The Marlies head into the all-star break at 36-9-2, the top club in the AHL but not exactly feeling good about their game of late.

The Maple Leafs’ farm club fought to overcome an off-day full of turnovers and defensive responsibility. Centre Connor Brown had a goal and an assist — giving him six points in four games since return from injury — while Josh Leivo, on loan from the Leafs, had a pair of goals with two assists.

Still, the Marlies were sloppy in the neutral zone, giving up too many transition opportunities to the Senators. Their usually solid own-zone defence was off kilter, allowing open lanes and too many easy passes to dangerous areas in front of the Toronto net for Senator forwards.

After the game, coach Sheldon Keefe, William Nylander and Leivo made their way to Syracuse to partake in the AHL’s all-star festivities but the coach wasn’t leaving without a stern warning.

“Some of it you look at it as . . . fatigue, you come in at (four in the morning) and you come up short,” Keefe said.

“But the same mistakes we made tonight we made (Friday) night and the game before that. It’s been disguised a bit by how things have fallen into place (their 12-2 win streak) so you want the team to see this as a sign . . . get to work, we have a lot of work to do.”

Campbell will be called on to stem the problems that have cropped up in the Marlies game. They lost for just the third time in Saturday games this season — 13-2-1 — and added to their sub-par performance by taking two penalties for having too many men on the ice.

But the team remains a talented club with real aspirations of a long playoff run. Campbell seems to be the perfect man to lead this club.

The Marlies have a number of young stars, and 27-year-old Campbell has quietly helped lead them to their current lofty status. He is a mature, quiet presence on the team, one who steadies the dressing room and performs the give-and-take exchanges with the coaching staff, one of the more difficult duties on a captain’s to-do list.

Campbell was signed by the Leafs as a free agent last summer to do exactly that. Drafted in the third round by the Los Angeles Kings in 2008, he spent six seasons in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs before finishing the last 33 games last season with the Arizona Coyotes in the NHL.

Campbell served as captain on a Manchester team that sent stars like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson to the Kings. And while he kept plugging away in the minors, Campbell learned leadership from previous Monarchs captains like Drew Bagnall and Marc-Andre Cliche.

“They were always the hardest working guys on the ice, but I’ve been fortunate to be around hard working people my whole life. My father (Roger) is a steelworker for Lake Erie Steel (in Nanticoke, Ont.) for like 30 years and my mother (Cindy) taught Grade 3 for 30 years,” said Campbell, who hails from Caledonia, Ont.

Source: Marlies captain Andrew Campbell quietly leads club to greater heights

William Nylander hits the ice in Grand Rapids for the Marlies

From Pension Puppets

After a month off due to his concussion and an illness, William Nylander was back and almost looked ready for action.

The Marlies went on a two game road trip to Grand Rapids Michigan this week to face the Griffins. The first game was a school-day game on Wednesday morning with the second going Friday night.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

For the first game there were the now-usual roster adjustments:

Defenceman Justin Holl was back in off of a minor injury, which meant the Marlies have both their right-shooting D back!

The bad news is Kasperi Kapanen isn’t on the trip to Grand Rapids, and has some kind of injury. My impression is it’s not a big concern.

The Griffins came out fully awake at 11:00 am, but the Marlies took a little time to catch up. Once they got going, they just didn’t stop during the first period.

Mark Arcobello opened the scoring by stepping around the D, and casually flipping the puck in on the backhand. Easy peasy. He’s played the least number of games of any guy in the top ten in scoring, by the way.

Arcobello’s a guy who shares though; he won an offensive-zone faceoff and sent it over to Frattin and in the net it went. Arcobello was still in fifth place in scoring after this game, but he’s breathing down the neck of the guy in fourth.

Zach Hyman has been looking good as his winger. He’s fast, works the full game, knows what he’s doing offensively and is in the right place. The same can be said of Frattin; they’ve really stepped up in the absence of higher rated prospects.

The shots were 13-7 Marlies, and they had essentially won the game with a 2-0 lead, they just needed to play out 40 minutes.

In the second period, Connor Brown made it 3-0 after a good stretch of Griffins play. That took the life right out of the Griffins, and the rest of the second was a very chippy period, with two teams who don’t like each other much and officials who couldn’t control the game well.

Shots were flipped 14-7 for the Griffins, and Sparks had a work out.

The third period was all the Garret Sparks show, and he got his third shutout of the season. Good thing he was the man in the net for this one. Antoine Bibeau has been good lately, but this game needed that extra level of flash for some of the saves.

The Marlies have a very bad habit of riding the goalie once they put up a few goals. They took a too much man penalty, a delay of game penalty for flubbing faceoffs on purpose, and while that made a change from the roughing penalties of the second, it was sloppy play.

It took too long for them to figure out how to effectively fill up the neutral zone and stop the Griffins offensive push. But Frattin got one during the very, very early goalie pull by the desperate Griffins, who were working on their second straight scoreless game and just wanted a goal. They didn’t get one.

Shots at the end of the game were 39-23 for the Griffins And the final score was 4-0. You can see all the Marlies goals at the start of this highlight video, and stay around for some Griffins interviews if you like:

[embedded content]

Friday, January 29, 2016

You know who’s back. You know.

Sheldon Keefe and William Nylander talk about his first game back:

[embedded content]

The roster was shuffled some more prior to this game, as teams all over the NHL sent guys down to the AHL over the All-Star break to pinch pennies on two-way contracts. Josh Leivo arrived, mostly so he could play in the All-Star game on the weekend, and to make way for him and Nylander, Éric Faille and Rylan Schwartz were sent back south to the Orlando Solar Bears.

The lineups for this game were the subject of much anticipation. Sheldon Keefe had some decisions to make, and it was one of those nice problems to have, remaking the lineup to hold as many as three of his top players—Nylander, Brown and Leivo.

So far, he’s experimenting with Nylander and Brown together with Nikita Soshnikov on the other wing. With Kasperi Kapanen out for a few days, this was expected to be the top line for Nylander’s first game back.

The final answer for the last away game in January was:

Forwards

Bailey – Arcobello – Hyman
Findlay – Nylander – Brown
Soshnikov – Gauthier – Morin
Leipsic – Rupert – Frattin

Defence

Campbell – Valiev
Loov – Percy
Brennan – Holl

And Antoine Bibeau was in net.

This was an interesting choice for Nylander’s first game. These two teams have a history from last year’s playoffs, and it showed in the first game of the series.

The first period featured a lot of back and forth action, and on one of the earliest plays, Brown stopped to put a bow on the puck and hand it to Nylander so he could get his first shot—bit of a weak flick of the puck toward the net, but the seal was broken, as they say.

The Marlies gave up a couple of turnovers that led to rushes the other way, and their offence was slower paced than it often is. The shots were even for the first half, the Marlies killed one penalty, and were staying in the game courtesy of Bibeau.

In the Marlies first power play of the game, Andy Miele picked the puck off a bad pass in the Griffins zone, and off he went, and in it went for the Griffins—first goal in over two games.

By the end of the period, shots were 16 – 7 for the Griffins and the game looked more like the end of the previous one than the start of it.

The second was largely a repeat of the first, with one big difference. The shots were even for the first half, the game started to slip more and more into the Griffins control, and then Nylander got the puck in the offensive zone, handed it off to Brennan, and the Toronto Marlies defenceman was leading the league in points. Tie game.

Nylander had a shift shortly after where he finally looked like himself, with his very distinctive skating style on full display.

Shots were 29 – 17 Griffins after two.

Five minutes in, Nylander lost the handle on the puck in the neutral zone, and Anthony Mantha took it and whipped behind the net and made it 2-0 Grand Rapids on a neat wrap around.

Toronto was playing just barely well enough to keep up with a team whose top scorers are barely in the top 30 in the league. The Griffins don’t have much up front, and the fact they do as well as they do is a testament to their tighter system.

By this time Seth Griffith (I don’t think this name is a co-incidence) had had a four point night for Providence and taken the AHL points lead again.

The Marlies not very good power play—13th in the league—was not very good, and they were at risk of giving up short handed chances more than once. This is an area they could tighten up on, and they would be in a much better position heading into the playoffs. They’ve given up the most shorthanded goals in the league.

But when you can just keep scoring, maybe you don’t tighten up where you should. Justin Holl made it a tie game again shortly after a nice cycle got started by Arcobello.

And when you can just keep scoring, maybe Bibeau doesn’t need to be quite as good as Sparks. Zach Hyman made it 3-2 on a nice play from Arcobello with less than 2 minutes to play. Bendan Leipsic got the empty net this night, to make it 4-2.

Final shots were 40-28 Griffins. Two straight games of giving up more than 35 shots is not sustainable hockey, but it’s two straight wins.

Nylander was not all the way on his game, but he’ll get there in good time. The Marlies next game is tomorrow at 5pm at home against Binghamton, and Nylander is not expected to play.

Source: William Nylander hits the ice in Grand Rapids for the Marlies

Connor Brown returns to Toronto Marlies with a bang

From The Star

Connor Brown did more than create a memorable afternoon Sunday when he potted two goals in his comeback from a two-month injury layoff for the AHL’s Marlies in their 7-1 steamroller of a win over the Utica Comets.

With all the fan adulation at the Ricoh Coliseum after the game, the chats and the selfies, Brown seemed like he was also creating something of a love affair with local hockey fans.

While the 22-year-old Toronto native may not be aware of it, there’s plenty of room for a new local hockey hero here in Toronto. Fans want to have a favourite player to cheer on but haven’t had a lasting opportunity since the sun set on the popular players who laced up during the Mats Sundin era.

So can Brown rekindle that kind of interest and emotion?

“He does a lot for our team,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said, after his club improved to 34-8-2. “But you are never sure what you’ll get from a player first game back from an injury. We all know how hard Connor worked while he was injured, and he’s always been very popular in our room. He worked hard to get back, and it all shows what he means to our group.”

Brown was happy to simply carve out a good game in front of 6,756 fans, whose Marlies are in first overall in the American Hockey League, harbouring real aspirations of a deep post-season run.

That belief in a championship season is justifiable; the Marlies have stayed atop the standings with Brown, the AHL’s top scoring rookie last year, and William Nylander, the league’s leading scorer before suffering a concussion Dec. 26 at the world juniors, on the sidelines.

Brown is back from an ankle injury and looks to be in tremendous form and Nylander is close to being cleared for contact in practice.

The Marlies set out on a mission for a championship back in early July, when much of the roster was already defined. Captain Andrew Campbell led the buy-in to the new systems and expectations under the Maple Leafs’ new management group.

Brown, who suffered his ankle injury in early November after just his eighth game of the season, was among the leaders on Toronto’s farm club. After his successful rookie campaign, he partnered with Stuart Percy and several other Marlies at the MasterCard Centre and began working with development coaches in the Leafs’ new sports sciences division.

Many hours were spent on the ice with Barb Underhill and Mike Ellis working on skating, and then with Brian Marshall in the Journey to Excel strength training program at the MCC.

“Not being able to walk for the first five weeks or so was difficult,” Brown said of his ankle injury. “But maybe that was a blessing in disguise, because it helped me put some weight on and keep it on.”

Brown now weighs in at 180-plus pounds, a big jump from his 145-pound weight on his draft day in 2012 (sixth round, 156th overall by the Leafs).

Should the Marlies win the Calder Cup, they could very well graduate up to 10 players to the Leafs or other NHL clubs. The 2013-14 Calder Cup champion Texas Stars, for example, sent eight players to the Dallas Stars who either spent time with the AHL team that season or participated in that championship run.

For now, Brown seems to be an obvious fan favourite, his red hair and Irish ancestry a definite part of that equation.

“It was just good to get going again, especially after struggling to put the puck in the net when I was playing,” said Brown, who was held scoreless the first eight games of this season.

“You get that monkey off your back, then you look to improve every game out after that.”

Source: Connor Brown returns to Toronto Marlies with a bang

Connor Brown, David Kolomatis, and the Marlies welcomed the Utica Comets

From Pension Puppets

Guess who’s back? Brown, in action after missing most of the season with a broken foot. He showed the visiting Comets a real good time. Read about that, and meet the newest Marlie, Kolomatis.

Roster News

Before the game on Saturday, the Marlies made some roster moves. They’d sent Eric Baier, Éric Faille and Jack Rodewald back to the Orlando Solar Bears a few days before, and they called Faille back up on Saturday. There’s no word how much progress he made through a snow storm that rerouted flights and cancelled games in both the AHL and the NHL, but Faille is somewhere in transit.

The Marlies also announced that they had signed David Kolomatis to an AHL contract. Kolomatis is a 26-year-old American, right-shooting defenceman who has had a strong AHL career that’s taken some unusual turns. Twenty-five seems to be the year of great changes in a hockey career. You’re either going up or you move laterally.

Kolomatis, a former member of the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL, was drafted by the Kings and played for their AHL team, the Manchester Monarchs, along with Rich Clune and Andrew Campbell. He had extremely consistent results there for years, and maybe that’s the problem.

In his rookie year he put up similar points to the Monarch’s other top defencemen, Vyacheslav Voynov and Alec Martinez. The next year, Martinez was with the Kings, Voynov had shot up to almost double the points, and Kolomatis was just the same.

We all know how that turned out, Voynov is in the KHL, Martinez scored a storied goal that won a cup and Kolomatis, well, he’s much more interesting.

He signed on to the Washington Capitals organization for a year as a free agent, maybe looking for a better opportunity, and he was just as he always was with 7 goals and 30 points in the AHL. So he went to Finland last year. It’s not an uncommon thing for guys to do, particularly guys gifted with a listed height of 5’11”. But it’s not something that always works out.

Kolomatis struggled to score much in Finland, and he came back to America and took a job with the Manchester Monarchs again. Coming home in a way, but the Monarchs are not the King’s AHL club anymore, they are the ECHL club, and the level of play has been obviously below his ability; he’s scoring at twice his old AHL rate.

He will be, for the Marlies, insurance. Justin Holl, their only right-shot D, is out with an injury, so Kolomatis provides cover there, and fills a role that they are light on. He is a veteran AHL-level player who knows the game and has succeeded on one of the best teams in the league. The Leafs organization may be contemplating trading some of their defencemen, some prospects or both, and having a guy like Kolomatis, makes it all easier. Now, the Solar Bears may get to keep their captain, Baier, where they need him too.

Kolomatis is not going to excite anyone like the potential of Nikita Zaitsev has, but the team can’t function without guys like him.

The Games

Saturday, January 23

The Marlies with their amazing record of 32-8-2 are now the team every other team wants to knock off like David did Goliath:

Utica came, they saw, and they…got pretty easily beat even though they controlled the play more than most Marlies’ opponents.

The Marlies had chosen a lineup that put Kasperi Kapanen with Mark Arcobello and Zach Hyman as the top line, and they were very good. There’s been a lot of talk lately about Kapanen and how many points he has since the WJC, but to my eye, he’s been cooking since early December, and the WJC was of a piece with that, there is no cause and effect, no gold-medal bump, only a guy feeling good and showing it on the ice.

Rylan Schwartz, still up from the Solar Bears and playing on the fourth line, opened the scoring with his first AHL goal.

Arcobello added one on the power play, and Kapanen made it 3-1 before the second intermission.

Scoring effects had everyone in an iron grip in the third, and luckily for the Marlies, Garret Sparks was more on his game than he had been in the first two periods, where he’d got away with some sloppy puck handling.

The Comets made it 3-2, but Nikita Soshnikov got an empty net goal to seal the deal at 4-2, and that was the win. Not very pretty, but good enough.

Arcobello’s two point night moved him to fifth in the AHL in scoring and ahead of William Nylander. T.J. Brennan was still in contention for the lead, one point out of first place. Kapanen’s two points moved him up about 50 places in the points standings, and I will not be surprised if he finishes the year at least in the top 20.

The best news of the day, though, was that Connor Brown was expected to start on Sunday.

Sunday, January 24

Let’s just get the important part out of the way first:

So that’s Connor Brown with his first goal of the year on his second shift, and then David Kolomatis with his first goal in the AHL this year and as a Marlie and then Brown with another, and deep breath, and that was all before the first period was more than half over.

Next up T.J. Brennan got one and then made it two, which made him the AHL points leader, but wait there’s more!

Leipsic got a shorthanded goal that was lovely.

And with under two minutes to play and on their fifth try at the power play because face it, the Marlies were bored, Utica busted the shutout and after two periods the score was 6-1.

In less fun news, Stuart Percy was boarded hard in the first period and did not come out for the rest of the game. The perpetrator got five and a game, which is the best way to punish that kind of crap. No fines or suspensions, take them out of the game they’re in.

In between goal three and four, Utica pulled Richard Bachman for Joe Cannata, and that obviously did them no good.

Brown spent the afternoon with Findlay and Soshnikov and they were obviously delightful together. The top line of Arcobello, Kapanen and Hyman were very good too, but they just didn’t need to try much after Brown and the defencemen took care of racking up all those goals.

After two, Jeremy Morin was leading the team in shots on goal, as he did in the Saturday game, but again had no points to show for it. It will come. Keep shooting, and it will come.

Utica handed Arcobello a turnover in the third, and while he might have preferred a cherry one, he skated it up the ice and made it 7-1. The rest of the game was a lot calmer with fewer penalties, and the Comets went home with an empty slingshot and Goliath alive to fight another day.

The next game is Wednesday, January 27 at 11:00am in Grand Rapids. We know who we want to play guess who’s back with next, but patience is in order. Not before he’s ready.

Source: Connor Brown, David Kolomatis, and the Marlies welcomed the Utica Comets

PPP Midseason Roundtable, Part 3: The Future

From Pension Puppets

We’ve looked at the 2015-16 team, and the 2015-16 players. What about what lies ahead?

See Part 1 here.
See Part 2 here.

Today on the PPP roundtable, we talk about what to expect of this team’s future here and beyond.

(10) Saturday was Game 43, which means the clock on William Nylander losing his UFA eligibility finally stops ticking. Obviously, he suffered a setback with a concussion at the World Juniors, but once healthy, he will be the subject of questions as to whether he will play for the big club this year.

Do you see Nylander joining the Leafs this season? Why or why not?

KATYA: Yes.  They should get a look at him in the NHL when he’s 100%.

ELSELDO: I’m for sure repeating myself from the start of the year, but I would only bring up Nylander if the Marlies are locked into the playoffs.

SCOTT: Had he not suffered the concussion, I would have said yes. If he rejoins the Marlies quickly and continues his strong play for 10 more games, I’d still say yes. But if his health keeps him off for an extended period of time, then they’re not going to throw him into the NHL and there’s a good chance he finishes what little of the season he has left on a Calder Cup run.

FIDDY; If hes back to 100%, I see no reason not to get him in some games, especially if roster spots begin opening up after the trade deadline.

ACHA; Nylander needs to take his time with the concussion protocol, finish out the season with the Marlies, and join them for their playoff run.

JP: Let him recover from his injury at a level of play he is already prepared to handle. The mood around the Leafs’ dressing room is bound to get darker as players get traded. He’ll have the rest of his career to play for the Leafs and the team doesn’t need any hot streaks screwing up their draft pick.

11) Fill in the blanks, RFA Edition!

Nazem Kadri should get ________________.

SCOTT: Nazem Kadri should get between 4 and 5 million per year, and term.

ELSELDO; Kadri should get 4 years, $22 million.

FIDDY: 5 years, $5.25M AAV.

JP: I have no idea. $5M over four years? Five years? Would that get it done? Maybe $5.5M.

Morgan Rielly should get ________________.

FIDDY; 6 years, $5.75M AAV.

JP: The Jake Gardiner deal. Rielly has had moments of brilliance this year, but I’m less and less certain that he’s going to be the top-pair defender that we hoped for.

ELSELDO: 3 years, $12 million. A bridge type deal that still under pays him because we haven’t bought out UFA years. He’s 24 when it’s over and can cash in on a 6-7 year deal then.

SCOTT: Morgan Rielly should get whatever Morgan Rielly’s little heart desires (within the confines of his first non-ELC contract and the CBA).

(12) How many rookies will be on the Leafs’ 2016-17 Opening Night roster? Who?

FIDDY: There will be at least two, but it could be as many as five.

ELSELDO: Four – Marner, Nylander, Brown, Johnson.

ACHA: agree with El Seldo: Marner, Nylander, Brown, Johnson, with the hopes that Marner is not the Leafs’ Jonathan Drouin.

SCOTT: Locks: William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

FIDDY: William Nylander and Mitch Marner are almost certain locks to make the team next fall.

JP: Nylander and Marner, for sure.

JP: Connor Brown if he can get healthy and do some damage in the end of the season, and maybe one defender. Kapanen is likely to get a few games next season, but he hasn’t done enough so far to show that he’ll be ready to make the roster out of the gate.

FIDDY: It wouldnt surprise me if Connor Brown could make this team out of camp, and I think Brendan Leipsic may get a look in a depth role.

KATYA: Nylander, Kapanen, Marner, Patrik Laine.

ELSELDO: Whether Marner stays after 9 games is the question. I can see them dragging his 9 games out to the World juniors, then sending him down afterwards.

(13) (EDITOR’S NOTE: in honour of Mats Sundin, this question has been left blank. Please do not write an answer here)

ELSELDO: OKAY

ACHA: OKAY

KATYA: Du är inte chefen över mig.

(EDITOR”S NOTE: you’re all jerks.)

(14) Finally, the big one: will Steven Stamkos be a Toronto Maple Leaf in 2016-17?

KATYA: Nope.

SCOTT: Nope.

ELSELDO: Nope.

ACHA: Eyes dot gif.

JP: The odds are against it, I think.

FIDDY: I think it’s possible at this point. If he doesn’t stay in Tampa, I think playing in his hometown for MIke Babcock and a ton of money is a big sell.

JP: There are just too many other good options for Stamkos, though the Leafs probably have the best chance of any team other than Tampa to have him on the roster come October of next year.

ELSELDO: He either stays in Tampa or somehow ends up a Hab.

Source: PPP Midseason Roundtable, Part 3: The Future

Five reasons why Toronto Marlies are leading the AHL

From The Star

The numbers add up to something very impressive for the Toronto Marlies.

Entering their Wednesday-night home game against Syracuse — which also happens to be the mid-point of their season — the Marlies (31-8-2) are first overall by a wide margin in the American Hockey League, with 64 points in 41 games. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (28-9-1) is seven points back.

The Marlies own the league’s best goals-per-game average (3.85) and fifth-best goals-against average (2.44).

They have a strong candidate for the mid-season MVP in defenceman T.J. Brennan, as well as rookie coach Sheldon Keefe being acknowledged as an early candidate for coach of the year. Five of the players rank in the top 20 in plus-minus while five are in the top 35 in scoring.

And Toronto has accomplished this despite injuries and callups over the past month to some of its best players.

Here’s a look at five reasons why the team is in first place:

Top sniper

T.J. Brennan was perched as the league’s leading scorer over the weekend, but has since dropped to second overall. The NHL.com, and other critics, mentioned him as a strong candidate for the first-half MVP. With one of the best shots in the AHL, he anchors the power play and is recognized as one of the league’s best puck movers.

Coaching

Sheldon Keefe insists the team’s success is based on talent, work ethic, leadership, and other details; but he’s turned heads in his rookie season in the AHL by bringing a talented group, led by a veteran defence, together for the league’s current best record. His roster has recently been struck with callups, and injuries to his top two goalies, penalty-killing forward Sam Carrick and key defencemen Stuart Percy and Justin Holl.

That’s forced the team to call upon four players from Orlando in the ECHL and sign two AHL veterans to PTO contracts this week. Expectations, though, remain very high.

High flyer

William Nylander was well out in front of AHL scoring at Christmas, before he suffered a devastating injury on a hit to the head during the opening game of the world junior championships for his native Sweden, Dec. 26. Nylander also had a shot at history — a chance to become the first 19-year-old in league history to reach 100 points; he has since dropped to sixth in league scoring, but recently returned to skating. Toronto has weathered his absence, along with that of Connor Brown, the AHL’s top rookie scorer a year ago, who has been injured (foot) since November.

Leadership

Andrew Campbell flies under the radar as one of the top leaders in the AHL. Coaches and teammates say the captain set the tone for work ethic way back in the summer, when most of the roster and the coaching staff was set, and adopted a belief that they could be the best team in the league. Campbell leads the league with a plus-26 (rookies Rinat Valiev, Zach Hyman, Holl and Nikita Soshnikov join him in the top 20). He’s also the driving force behind a league-leading penalty kill.

Penalty kill prowess

That penalty kill owns a top rating on the road and fourth overall in the league. Frederik Gauthier has teamed with Campbell, Percy, Carrick, Brennan, Hyman and others, to form a reliable PK unit, directed by Gord Dineen, who coached last year’s team and has returned this year as an assistant. Gauthier’s specialty on the penalty kill also reflects a dedication to two-way hockey useful at the NHL level with the Leafs under coach Mike Babcock.

Source: Five reasons why Toronto Marlies are leading the AHL

Toronto Marlies: weekend in St. John's

From Pension Puppets

The Marlies went off to St. John’s to face the strange IceCaps, the team that has a very good record against them: 3-1-2 going into this weekend’s games.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The way Montréal has been bouncing guys up and down to the IceCaps lately, it’s good the team is so conveniently close. They’ve done a lot more than just make the trade which got everyone’s dander up since the last time the Marlies played them.

First they got forward Max Friberg in a deal for their surplus goalie Dustin Tokarski. They sent Jacob de la Rose up to the Habs, and got Daniel Carr and Sven Andrighetto back. Stefan Fournier was traded to Arizona, and they sent one guy down to their ECHL team and released Eric Neilson from a PTO–Neilson was a big penalty minute, non-scoring guy.

The plus/minus on all of that adds up to -1 goalie, -1 forward, and then you add in John Scott and it’s all back to how it was. Neilson barely played, so Scott is very fit for that role. If he ever reports to the team. He did not for Saturday, so instead the IceCaps welcomed Nikita Sherbak, a top draft pick from 2014 who’s been out with an injury. I know who’d I rather have in my lineup.

Meanwhile, Rich Clune is with the Leafs on their road trip, so the Marlies recalled good Orlando Solar Bear’s forward Eric Faille. He had one game with the Marlies so far this year, where his goal led the comeback against the Utica Comets who were up 3-1. The Marlies took that one to OT and ultimately lost.

The rest of the Marlies changes happened before this set of games, but to refresh memories, Connor Brown is still out with and injury, Scott Harrington has been scratched lately and may be injured, Kasperi Kapanen is back, and checking the status of the Marco Yo-Yo: currently with the Marlies.

Toronto Marlies at St. John’s Ice Caps

Saturday, January 16

This game was about one thing: Goals, goals, goals.

Some were gorgeous.

Some were frustrating, like when IceCap’s Charles Hudon, who has a way with the Marlies, ripped the puck right off of Jeremy Morin’s stick while he was fiddling around trying to decide what to do with it, and roared off and tied the game.

Brandon Leipsic’s second goal of the night chased Eddie Pasquale, a goalie the Marlies have a way with, and Zach Fucale took over. Trouble is, the Marlies have a way with him too.

The wheels came off completely for the IceCaps in the second. They started taking penalties by the tonne, and the ref wasn’t interested in playing any even up games. The ref in question is Terry Koharski who the IceCaps play-by-play man Brian Rogers does not care for at all.

The Marlies are not a team that sits quietly on a lead, however. They ended up with a 5-on-3, and just as the IceCaps killed the first penalty and it switched to a 5-on-4, they had a serious short-handed attempt. Antoine Bibeau was up to it, but he wasn’t a brick wall, since he’d already been done for 2 goals.

Leipsic quieted everyone down with the only goal in the second period, it gave him the hat trick, the team a 5-2 lead, and the crowd, evenly split as always between Marlies and IceCap fans, had nothing left to cheer for on either side.

The IceCaps continued to press hard in the third as they had all game, and the final score was 6-3.

At the end of the third, Hudon took a boarding penalty plus an unsportsmanlike like misconduct, and he was frustrated at the game, the officiating, and likely just being on the team when he’d like a chance at the NHL. I think we can all relate to that. He’s 5’10” and around 200 pounds. And I couldn’t help thinking what would have happened if John Scott were out there. He’s the biggest guy in the AHL right now at 260 pounds, and is never on the ice to handle the puck.

Rogers was also frustrated, and he went off a rant about how the IceCaps couldn’t by a frigging thing out there, and that was virtually a Canadian Heritage Moment and a reason why AHL games are so much fun.

T.J. Brennan’s three assists put him ahead of William Nylander for the team scoring lead and within one point of the league lead. Maybe he’s more than just the best defenceman in the AHL?

See Maple Leafs Hot Stove for a more indepth recap.

Toronto Marlies as St. John’s Ice Caps

Sunday, January 17

The day dawned with the news that the meme had landed.

There were rumours he was on the roster or in the lineup, and it was a big buzz or anticipation, but in the end, the IceCaps iced a hockey team. No John Scott today.

More, importantly, Garret Sparks was back in net! It started out as a tight game, with no goals coming in the first period, and the Marlies just barely outshooting the IceCaps. (In the AHL, that always means shots on goal, as that’s all that’s tracked.)

In the second, the troubling trend from Saturday continued with the IceCaps outshooting the Marlies. They had better control of the puck today and the Marlies didn’t.

But the IceCaps have some real defensive failures from time to time, and early in the second they left Soshnikov totally alone in the slot, and you can’t do that. 1-0 Marlies.

The Marlies took a penalty shortly after and chased their tails for most of the PK and paid for it. Tie game.

Less than a minute later and an easy tic-tac-toe goal for Casey Bailey from Brett Findlay who made the play with Faille in the right spot to be the tac. 2-1 Marlies.

The IceCaps got another power play goal, the Marlies PK unable to do anything to prevent it. Tie game again.

The third period was where the heroes got separated from the goats. Problem is, sometimes they’re the same guy!

Lucas Lessio took a penalty for the IceCaps, which is bad, but then Markus Eisenschmid outplayed T.J. Brennan to get his first pro goal. And it was a shorty.

A bit later it was Morgan Ellis from out in the weeds, and it was 4-2 IceCaps and they seemed like they could roll home on that lead.

But the Marlies don’t quit. An excellent rush by Rinat Valiev who made the play possible, led to Arcobello and Morin combining to get it in the net by rushing in and winning the battle for the slot. 4-3 IceCaps.

The hero turned into the goat when Valiev, just trying to move the puck up in front of Sparks, got done by Lessio who snuck up and shoved it off of Valiev’s stick and right past a startled Sparks. 5-3 IceCaps.

The Marlies pulled the goalie really early, and there were two goals: one from T.J. Brennan from a shot from the blueline, and one a few seconds later where the IceCaps put the game away. 6-4 was the final score, and the Marlies got beat by the team that played better.

Too many penalties, too much defensive slack, too much lack of speed against a tough team that had found their cohesion, and the lazy Sunday game went against them.

T.J. Brennan is now tied with the AHL points leaders with 38 points, pending the results of later games.

The Marlies next game is Wednesday against Syracuse. Will Jonathan Drouin appear?

Nylander won’t, but it’s getting closer:

Source: Toronto Marlies: weekend in St. John's