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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

Wheeler's mid-season Top 25 Under 25 ranking update

From Pension Puppets

Christian Bonin | TSGphoto.com

The top-10 is… unchanged.

At the end of August, when our staff’s collective Top 25 Under 25 ranking began to wrap up, I chose to release my individual ranking and explain my reasoning.

With the All-Star Game come to a close, and February starting, I thought it would be prudent to update that ranking and justify the movement that has occurred.

In order to get a better understanding of how I ranked the players, here’s an updated version of the criteria I included in my August ranking:

My Criteria

There were several ways in which I approached the ranking, but due to the age and established nature of some of the players, it was a decidedly different approach than the one I take when evaluating a draft class or pool of non-NHL prospects.

Not all voters used the organization’s status as a criterion. I did. The Leafs rebuild factors into the value each player has to the organization moving forward. The present isn’t nearly as important as the future, and that gives huge value to a Mitch Marner or a William Nylander over an established Nazem Kadri. Future star power will make or break the end result of this Leafs rebuild, and Kadri may well factor into it as a key player (he already is), but he’s not a piece that changes a franchise.

I didn’t approach the ranking as one that was strictly a meritocracy. As evidenced through my non-ranking of Byron Froese, a player’s NHL status doesn’t guarantee him value. Byron Froese is replaceable. The Marlies roster this season includes several players who could play a fourth line role in the NHL.

The lottery tickets that the players I ranked near the bottom of the T25U25 represent hold more value than a Byron Froese does. The chance that Martins Dzierkals can be more than a replacement level NHLer holds considerable value to a team like the Leafs. Nothing plagues NHL franchises more than the idea that picks are expendable. If you draft for upside, you will find real value, not Byron Froese value.

Dzierkals’ footwork and skating ability, as well as the low kick to his release and his knack for getting it off in stride is a real, identifiable stylistic trait that translates well at the next level. And there’s a very good chance he never becomes an NHL player, but the value in acquiring players like him is worth more than any value Byron Froese holds to the Leafs, at least for a rebuilding team.

The top 11 players remain unchanged. The prospects within the group have progressed as expected, Jake Gardiner has blossomed (yes, he’s 26 but for continuity’s sake I re-included him in the ranking), and after faltering out of the gate Peter Holland and Nazem Kadri have returned to form. I nearly moved Jeremy Bracco back a spot in favour of Dmytro Timashov (who has risen more than anyone except Garret Sparks) but Bracco elevated his play after being snubbed by Team USA and he’s really beginning to find his game after leaving the NCAA for the OHL.

Sparks wasn’t ranked in August in part because I regarded Chris Gibson as the Marlies starter, which would have limited Sparks’ ability to get the starter’s load he needs to really progress. Both were narrowly left off of my August list, though Gibson was ranked 25th on the overall PPP ranking.

Travis Dermott also rose substantially thanks to some impressive play as one of the OHL’s best defensemen this year, though I still worry about his skating limiting his upside when he becomes a pro.

Rinat Valiyev also moves into the top 25 — his skating has held up more than I expected it too as an AHL rookie — and is joined by two players who weren’t available to be ranked in August in AHL scorer Jeremy Morin and Frank Corrado (who should play more than he does).

Stuart Percy and Frederik Gauthier have fallen the furthest, but not because they haven’t had good seasons. Gauthier has played really well defensively — as expected — and his results are the dividends. For Percy, it’s just a matter of timing. The clock is ticking and despite up-ticks in his offensive production, Percy’s window for establishing himself in the Leafs organization will come to a close before we know it. Mostly, for both Gauthier and Percy, the dip in their ranking speaks to some strong seasons and new faces.

Despite an excellent (surprisingly so) season from Andrew Nielsen, he remained unranked. Like with Dermott, I worry about how Nielsen’s skating will translate as a pro (his shot and physicality aren’t a problem). Still, his season has been extremely impressive and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down as the WHL’s highest-scoring defensemen. There’s a good chance, if he keeps it up, that he climbs into next summer’s ranking (though the Leafs could have 5+ picks in the first three rounds this summer that will factor into that discussion).

My February Ranking

Just missed: Andrew Nielsen, Zach Hyman, Jesper Lindgren, Nikita Korostelev.

Remember: Neither of these rankings are the overall, conglomerated PPP ranking but simply my personal list. Morgan Rielly finished first on the overall list.

Source: Wheeler's mid-season Top 25 Under 25 ranking update

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

Fighting in the AHL and Drouin watch: Marlies host the Crunch

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.):

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.

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

Drouin Watch

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:

And then the countering statement:

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.

Lineup Changes

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

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.

Viktor Loov, on the ice with T.J. Brennan and the Arcobello line, got an opportunity to take a beautiful pass and put it right past Gudlevskis. They looked like they were on the power play.

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.

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.

Source: Fighting in the AHL and Drouin watch: Marlies host the Crunch

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