From The Star
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
Friday, January 29, 2016
You know who’s back. You know.
Sheldon Keefe and William Nylander talk about his first game back:
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:
Bailey – Arcobello – Hyman
Findlay – Nylander – Brown
Soshnikov – Gauthier – Morin
Leipsic – Rupert – Frattin
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.
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.
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.
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 Comets (@UticaComets) January 23, 2016
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.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 23, 2016
Arcobello added one on the power play, and Kapanen made it 3-1 before the second intermission.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 23, 2016
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:
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 24, 2016
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 24, 2016
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 24, 2016
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.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 24, 2016
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.
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.
From Pension Puppets
This was a heck of a night to recap the Marlies game.
Fighting in the AHL
There’s a video many people have watched of AHL player Brian McGrattan getting knocked out in a fight. It’s a tough view for many, and the fans’ behaviour is troubling.
McGrattan has played for a laundry list of teams and last had something like a full season in the NHL in 2013-2014. He signed on to the Anaheim Ducks this year as a free agent and has played 36 games for their AHL team. He has 8 points, a decently legitimate number of shots on goal, and 94 penalty minutes.
There is a perception, partly based in reality, that the AHL has a fight every game. That’s not really true, but it depends on which teams you watch as to how many you see.
This chart is the work of @NHLtoSeatle and you should give a follow if you have any interest at all in NHL expansion or western hockey.
There are, of course fights in the NHL too. There was one last night where Dion Phaneuf took on Brayden Schenn, perhaps confusing him with his brother who is more known for engaging in that sort of thing. Mike Babcock had this to say after:
“I thought the Phaneuf fight was a big deal for us. We got competing and controlling a lot of the game from that point,” said Babcock. “If you have people in your lineup that are capable of looking after themselves, it’s a real positive.
“It just keeps the flies off a little bit. It’s nice to have guys who are capable of looking after your teammates.”
Is it worth it? And who gets to decide? And if we’re worried about the concussion protocols and attitudes in the NHL, then what is happening in the AHL where they are supposed to be following NHL rules?
McGrattan said this after (It has been reported that coach Dallas Eakins sent him home from the road trip.):
Thanks for all the msgs. Everything is fine i am not dead and will be back shortly!! Been around a long time and know the risks!!
— brian mcgrattan (@bigern10) January 20, 2016
Rich Clune is the man known for fighting on the Marlies, and he does; he was involved in the most recent Marlies fight on January 9. Other guys on the team have had fights too. But Clune makes a valid point here. Even he walks away sometimes.
— Rich Clune (@richclune) January 12, 2016
Justin Johnson had the one before Clune’s on January 3, and he’s much more a pure enforcer than Clune. Clune’s usually busy playing with serious, offensively-minded guys. Johnson has 8 games so far with 1 point (anyone can get an assist on the Marlies) and 36 penalty minutes. Johnson was literally signed to be good in the room, it should be remembered.
But if even the low, low fighting Marlies have more than one guy to take on the role of tough guy or adrenaline booster or fly shooer, when will it ever go away on it’s own? Or do we expect guys like McGrattan and John Scott and Johnson to just move down to the ECHL like Eric Neilson did when Scott bounced off the IceCaps roster.
And then we ask what the concussion protocol is there, I suppose.
When discussing the incident with Elliott Friedman, McGrattan talked about the fan reaction.
…as McGrattan said, it looked brutal. There was the injury, and there was the cheering.
“The fans here, they don’t know any better,” was all he said about that.
Maybe it’s time we all did.
Syracuse at Marlies – January 20, 2016
Last weekend we played Where in the World is John Scott. This time, it’s Jonathon Drouin’s turn.
Unless you’ve been really out of the loop, you’ve likely heard that the Tampa Bay Lightning sent their talented young forward, Jonathan Drouin to the Syracuse Crunch amidst statements from his agent that he’s unhappy with his usage and wants a trade.
A trade seems almost certain, but Steve Yzerman was not hurrying. As a result, the crunch games are buzzing with scouts, more so than usual. Drouin has 2 goals and 1 assist in 7 games so far and 16 SOG. That’s not Nylander or Arcobello territory for shooting, but it’s not bad.
And then before the game started, the bomb dropped:
Jonathan Drouin has been suspended indefinitely without pay after failing to report for tonight’s Syracuse Crunch game vs. Toronto.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) January 21, 2016
And then the countering statement:
Allan Walsh statement on Jonathan Drouin pic.twitter.com/mBA4txQIJN
— Renaud Lavoie (@renlavoietva) January 21, 2016
So no Drouin for the scouts to watch. I don’t think the Marlies will be unhappy with the scrutiny of all those bored scouts. Watch for our own take on the Marlies UFA players and their trade prospects coming soon.
There are some new faces in town!
Defenceman Eric Baier and forward Rylan Schwartz were called up from the Orlando Solar Bears and signed to PTO contracts so they can play. Both have some AHL experience, but if they draw into the lineup, they’ll be making their Marlies debut. Baier is the captain of the Solar Bears, and they are a small squad spread very thin right now without these two and Éric Faille who is already with the Marlies.
Defencemen Stuart Percy and Justin Holl were both injured on the weekend and are unlikely to play.
The game opened to some furious action. Both of these teams are fast, hard-playing sides that play to win. Kristers Gudlevskis, in net for Syracuse, had to work, making some key saves right away.
Both of the new callups were in the game for the Marlies, and along with Faille and Brett Findlay, that made four Solar Bears in the lineup. None of them looked terribly out of place, but the drop from Marc Arcobello at 1C to Ryan Rupert on the second line was pretty steep.
The up and down action continued for 10 minutes, with the Marlies leading 9-4 in shots on goal. The Marlies took a classic, fairly foolish, holding penalty on a Syracuse rush. Antoine Bibeau dumped a Crunch player in his crease on the delayed call and got away with it, but on the power play itself, he let in a dribbler that did not make him look good at all.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 21, 2016
The goal was Loov’s first of the year, and the pass from Brennan put him on top of the AHL scoring list. It might not last, but he’s a defenceman and he’s leading the league in points. Amazing.
At the end of the period the shots were 14-11 for the Marlies, with a tie game.
The Crunch came out and took over the first half of the second, evened up the shot clock and hemmed the Marlies in. But they took a penalty for roughing.
The Marlies played a great power play with lots of chances, and as it ended, Faille had a very good scoring chance when the penalty killers got stuck on the ice. The Marlies had found their feet again.
The play stayed dead even in the second, and Kasperi Kapanen got all out hearts pumping when he turned on the turbocharger and outskated a Crunch D and made Gudlevskis come out to play the puck. It’s obvious in hindsight–like most things are–that he was really not well at the start of the year.
The Crunch got the go-ahead goal in the last minute of play on a rush by Cameron Darcy, when Bibeau seemed to be expecting a pass.
In the third, the Marlies were getting a little sloppy, and three goals came in a minute an a half. Arcobello got the first on an excellent shot, but two for the Crunch put them up 4-2.
Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman, who were playing with Arcobello and were fantastic all night, got it to 4-3 with a great move by Soshnikov to keep control of the puck and shoot it in for Hyman to get a goal off the rebound.
This top line started to get a lot of icetime in the last few minutes of the game. They had a frantic flurry with Brennan working as the fourth forward, and Gudlevskis was under seige, but he weathered it.
The Marlies were not having a good time of it near the end of the game, and I was resigned to seeing them drop this one, when the Marlies interrupted a Crunch pass, and then Arco! Bello! came over the boards, outskated the D (not quite as fast as Kapanen), took the puck in and no doubt, that was going in. Beautiful game tying goal.
Bibeau made a sort of lazy play on the puck into the corner a few seconds later which the Marlies didn’t clear, and he had to make a couple of very good saves when the Crunch picked it up and got off two good shots. To OT.
— Toronto Marlies (@TorontoMarlies) January 21, 2016
OT was short and very sweet, with Brendan Leipsic coming out on the first change obviously ready to dish and dance with the puck. He tried one move, was denied, and then Rupert without a stick behind the net kicked the puck out and Leipsic spun once, shot the puck and in. Game over. Marlies win 5-4. Don’t they always? It seems like they do.
The next games are a weekend afternoon series against Utica. Hopefully, nothing other than hockey occurs, but you never know. Maybe Vancouver will send down a Sedin or something.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
From Pension Puppets
Antoine Bibeau in action with the Leafs. – John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Marlies are good enough to win without their star William Nylander, or Josh Leivo. But some other familiar faces are back and helped the team stay perfect in the shootout.
Look Who’s Back!
Also back on the Marlies is the now healthy Garret Sparks, who sat in backup to Antoine Bibeau. This left Ray Emery a healthy scratch, and it will be interesting to watch the Leafs and see how long they keep him on his PTO as insurance against more goalie injuries. And of course, no lineup shuffle would be complete without Mark Arcobello switching teams. With Byron Froese healthy, he’s back on the farm.
The Marlies are a very good team, there is no question of that, and the way they’ve played without a bunch of their top guys has proven it. But if Andrew Campbell having a career year in scoring isn’t enough of a clue that there’s some luck at play, this PDO chart of the AHL should prove it. The Marlies have had very good goaltending, but they also have the highest shooting percentage in the AHL.
This is the creation of Sean Tierney and he’s worth a follow if you’re interested in AHL, NHL or NWHL stats.
Toronto Marlies 3-2 over Utica Comets in a thrilling shootout
The Marlies played a rare low shooting game–for them. The Comets had 37 shots to the Marlies’ 22. They started out well with Arcobello back as the top centre, Kasperi Kapanen back as his winger, and Jeremy Morin filling out the other side. Morin knows Arcobello from the bronze medal winning USA team at the 2015 IIHF World Championships. Arcobello impressed in that event, but Morin, playing down the lineup, did not.
Nikita Soshnikov opened the scoring for the Marlies with an unassisted beauty of a goal where he plucked the puck out of the air and took off with it. The Comets tied it up at the last minute on a power play goal after the Marlies had taken two somewhat foolish penalties in a row.
Utica tied it up again midway through the third, and the Marlies finally poured on the high-octane offence they are known for. When they are going all out to score, the result is fast and furious and results in the occasional heart in the throat moment as the other team grabs a breakaway or an odd-man rush.
Antoine Bibeau saw more of those than he likely wanted to in his first game since January 3, but he’s been looking at NHL players coming at him in practice while he was sitting in backup for the Leafs; he was very up to this task and was the player of the game for the Marlies.
Overtime didn’t decide it, and the Marlies weren’t fantastic at 3-on-3, but they were flawless in the shootout again. The Utica broadcasters mentioned that the Marlies have not given up a single goal on the shootout all year. The Comets nearly broke that streak on their last try–Bibeau was beat and out of position, but Curtis Valk managed only to put himself in the net, the puck went wide.
Soshnikov had the goal for the Marlies as the first shooter, and he was very good all game as was his centre, Frederik Gautier. The depth is showing itself very well on this team as they move up to fill the void left by the injury to William Nylander and the loss of Josh Leivo to the Leafs.
Kapanen looked fast and full of energy for his first game back, and his line funnelled all their shooting through Jeremy Morin. That’s not a terrible thing to have happen, but if they stick together as a line, I would hope to see more shots from Kapanen and Arcobello. They have a lot of potential as complimentary parts.
Check out Soshnikov’s goal in regulation. It doesn’t quite show him plucking the puck out of the air in the neutral zone, but the goal is lovely on it’s own. Sorry for the quality of the footage.
— Comets In Game (@CometsInGame) January 14, 2016
From Pension Puppets
T.J. Brennan seeing some gloveless action with the Leafs in 2015. – Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
The Marlies beat the Moose 4-1, and AHL All-Star T.J. Brennan is now tied with William Nylander in points. Just how good is he?
Is T.J. Brennan the best defenceman in the AHL?
To have a defenceman in sniffing distance of the top of the points race in a league is very unusual. As of this morning there’s two guys at 36 points, and then there’s Brennan and Nylander at 34. He could end up leading more than just his own team.
I took a look at the top defencemen in the league in even-strength points per game to weed out power play specialists and to be fair to the guys who haven’t played as many games. I imposed a minimum of 12 games played to keep out the one-game wonders, and I also included goals and primary assists to see how each guy is getting his points.
A couple of things stand out: Brennan has a lot more goals than most guys, and he does have a high shooting percentage, but to get those goals, he has to be doing more than shooting from the point to get things started. Also, the guy in second place has played in the NHL this year and in the past, as have many others on the list.
If you put the forwards back in the mix, Brennan is 54th in the league right now. Which means he’s scoring at a rate better than most of the top six forwards.
So what if he is the best defenceman in the AHL? Without any shots against data, it’s really hard to say. He’s had a few goes at NHL time, none of it significant enough to mean anything, so it’s hard to guess how he’d fare with regular NHL minutes. But with so many bodies ahead of him on the depth chart, perhaps all he’s managed is to vault over Scott Harrington. And bring Andrew Campbell with him.
Much love to the people behind prospect-stats.com
Marlies: 4 Moose: 1
Saturday January 9, 2016
The Marlies, coming off their win the previous night over the Moose started the game as they meant to go on. They outshot the Moose 13-7 in the first, and Ray Emery, getting another start for the Marlies was solid in net. Antoine Bibeau and a reportedly healthy Garret Sparks have been sent back down from the Leafs, so he might have to wait for another chance.
The teams kept on at that pace in the second period, trading goals and finishing tied. Toronto’s goal was scored by T.J. Brennan with an assist by Jeremy Morin, playing again on the top line, giving him a second point in his second game with the team.
In the third, it was as if the Marlies had solved the puzzle of good rookie Moose goaltender Eric Comrie, and the goals piled up like they often do when the Marlies have their full roster, which they definitely didn’t.
All-Star Josh Leivo got a power play goal as the game-winner from Brennan and Brett Findlay, Morin got his first as a Marlie, also on the power play, from Findlay and Nikita Soshnikov, and Soshnikov capped off a very good night with a goal from James Martin.
Leivo—star of the night to my eye, barely edging out Brennan—led the team with 7 shots on goal, while Casey Bailey, held off the score sheet had 6.
Emery had some work to do in the later stages, made some good saves, and may have had his best outing this year. Shots on goal were 45-22 when it was all done, so it wasn’t exactly hard work.
Brennan’s goal and an assist moved him into a tie for third place in AHL points with William Nylander. They each hove 14 goals and 20 assists, but Brennan managed it in 37 games to Nylander’s 27.
With Nylander expected to be out for some time as he recovers from what is believed to be a concussion, Brennan will have some time to take over the team lead. He’ll have some competition from Mark Arcobello, who was sent back to the farm on Monday.