Toronto Maple Leafs: Marlies Midseason Recap

Sep 21, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (62) skates against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Ottawa 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 21, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (62) skates against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Ottawa 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

With a younger group of players and a new head coach, the Toronto Maple Leafs AHL affiliate will be the team to beat in this year’s Calder Cup playoffs.

The Toronto Maple Leafs affiliate was seen as a side with a lot of potential heading into this season. However, like any sports team, there were various questions as well for the Toronto Marlies.

They brought in Sheldon Keefe – who GM Kyle Dubas has worked with before in the OHL – to mentor the youth movement. Although, just because a coach has success in one league, it does not guarantee the same results in another.

They traded away former number one goalie Christopher Gibson, along with Greg McKegg, Carter Verhaeghe, Taylor Beck, Tom Nilsson and Matthew Finn. All were seen as promising young players.

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However. their performances last year and at the rookie tournament made management decide to cut bait. To replace those players they added Kasperi Kapanen, Casey Bailey, Zach Hyman, Nikita Soshnikov, and Rinat Valiev.

After a slow start to last season, William Nylander and Connor Brown helped turn things around. In 76 games, Brown led all AHL rookies in scoring with 21 goals and 40 assists for 61 points (also good enough for the team lead).

Nylander joined the Marlies later in the season, after spending time with MODO in the Swedish Hockey League. In 37 games last season, he had 14 goals and 18 assists for 32 points.

Nylander and Brown combined to give the Marlies some much-needed offence, to earn a spot in the Calder Cup playoffs. After a first round loss to the Grand Rapid Griffins (the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings), there was optimism about some of the prospects on the team.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Sep 21, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Connor Brown (61) carries the puck against the Ottawa Senators at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Ottawa 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Marlies have not had many young players (those under the age of 24) play pivotal roles on the team, let alone lead them in scoring. With players like Ryan Hamilton, Keith Aucoin, Mike Zigomanis, and Trevor Smith, the Marlies were a competitive team at the AHL level.

However, these players were not viewed as top-notch NHL talent or even consistent players. Now, looking at the Marlies roster, there are more players who could make their way onto the Leafs than at any point we have seen in the past – Nylander, Brown, Josh Leivo, Brendan Leipsic, Nikita Soshnikov, Stuart Percy, Rinat Valiev, Garret Sparks, and Antoine Bibeau.

Nylander has taken a big step this season with his dominant play. He leads the team in scoring with 14 goals and 20 assists for 34 points in only 27 games.

Veteran T.J. Brennan, who won the award for best defenceman in the league last season, is second on the team in scoring, with 34 points in 38 games. Leivo has been working on getting himself back into the conversation as an NHL-ready forward, which has paid off after been chosen to take James van Riemsdyk‘s spot on the roster.

Hopefully with time, Leivo can prove to be a player who can provide scoring in a bottom six role, especially because the Leafs are struggling to score. Then there are players like Soshnikov, who has been excelling in a lesser role, but hopefully can show he is capable of still performing with more playing time.

Led by Brennan and captain Andrew Campbell, the Marlies defence is still a work in progress. However, with the Leafs blue line being one of its weaker positions, there is a chance that a young player could make a case to join them next season.

Viktor Loov has made strides defensively, with better decision-making and improved skating. At the age of 20, Valiev will be a defenceman to watch out for with his quickness, strength and steady play.

Stuart Percy has worked on being a calming influence with a strong outlet pass, but still needs to work on his consistency. With promising prospects like Andrew Nielsen, Travis Dermott, Jesper Lindgren, Cody Donaghey and Steven Desrocher, it benefits the Leafs to have Keefe and role model veterans on the Marlies to help them in their development.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Dec 8, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Antoine Bibeau (30) congratulates goaltender Garret Sparks (31) after a win over the New Jersey Devils at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated New Jersey 3-2 in an overtime shootout. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Goaltending has been an interesting storyline for the Marlies this season. They traded away former number one goalie Gibson to the New York Islanders, putting their faith in Sparks and Bibeau to be a dynamic duo.

So far that gamble has paid off, expect for a stretch where Toronto needed to get some help and went to unconventional means to do it. After Jonathan Bernier struggled out of the gate for the Leafs, they sent him down to the Marlies on a conditioning stint, while Sparks was called up to play behind James Reimer.

However, when Reimer suffered a groin injury, Bibeau was called up to backup Sparks, leaving the Marlies without cover for Bernier. Luckily, they were able to get David Ayres, a building operations manager for the Mattamy Athletic Centre, to come in on an emergency basis.

The Marlies have had six goalies start a game this season, and yet the team has only lost a combined seven times in regulation and two in overtime over their 40 games. In 11 starts, Sparks has an 8-2-1 record with a .938 save percentage and a 1.90 GAA.

In 18 games, Bibeau has a 13-4 record with a .895 save percentage and a 3.03 GAA. Sparks has been sidelined with an injury he suffered with the Leafs, so it has been Bibeau getting the regular playing time.

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It was a tough go at the start of the season for Bibeau, especially in November when he had a 5.21 GAA and a .839 save percentage in a five-game stretch. Since then, he has come a long way in improving his numbers.

In five games during December, he had a 2.35 GAA and a .923 save percentage, and so far in January he has a 2.24 GAA and a .928 save percentage. If Bibeau can continue his strong play, then he could make it tough for Sparks to regain the starter’s job, but consider that Sparks was one of the top goalies in the AHL before getting called up to the Leafs.

What will be important for the Marlies in their remaining games is to have as much momentum going into the playoffs as possible. Once Brown comes back from his ankle injury which has sidelined him since October, and Nylander gets cleared from his concussion, this Marlies team will be a tough team to contain.

It will be important for veteran players like Matt Frattin, Mark Arcobello, Brennan and Campbell to help the young players during any adversity they might face. Kapanen is another player to watch after scoring the winning goal for Finland at the World Juniors and maybe that can give him something to build on.

Seeing all the pieces the Marlies have, there is not doubting how strong this team is from top to bottom. It has allowed Keefe to balance his lineup and not force players into roles they are uncomfortable with.

Hopefully this allows the Marlies to go on a long run in the playoffs. Overall, there is enough talent on the team to push for a championship run.

Next: Leafs - Early ranking of top 10 2016 draft prospects

How do you think the Marlies have played so far this season? What do you expect from them moving forward? Let us know in the comments section below.