Toronto Maple Leafs: Five prospects to watch with the Toronto Marlies

WINDSOR, ON - MAY 28: Forward Jeremy Bracco
WINDSOR, ON - MAY 28: Forward Jeremy Bracco /
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With the Toronto Maple Leafs making the transition from a rebuilding team to a contending team, the pressure on prospects to be ready when called upon has never been greater especially those playing with the Toronto Marlies.

When Kyle Dubas was brought in as an assistant general manager the Toronto Maple Leafs were starting to show their commitment towards developing young players to lead a team that had no clear future outlined. Dubas would become the general manager of the Toronto Marlies while also leading the the Leafs’ player development, hockey research, analytics and development departments.

The team was already featuring a younger roster but it was not until Dubas’ took over during the 2014-15 season that the team started to see their vision come to reality with the help of head coach Sheldon Keefe. His first season in charge saw Connor Brown lead the team in scoring with 61 points in 76 games as a 20-year old rookie. William Nylander would join the team halfway through the season socring 32 points in 37 games.

Jump ahead to the 2015-16 season, Nylander and Brown took significant steps forward in their development which made them prime candidates for call-ups late in the season with the Leafs. Add a supporting cast of Josh Leivo, Zach Hyman, Kaperi Kapanen, Brendan Leipsic, Nikita Soshnikov and many more, the Marlies were the most exciting AHL team to watch, even more than the Leafs who finished in 30th place that season.

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Looking at last season, the Leafs roster had eight rookies in the lineup at some point with Kapanen,  Nikita Soshnikov, and Frederik Gauthier playing only part of the season. Of those eight rookies, five spent time with the Marlies the three who did not were Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev.

The team was starting to see the benefits of the work Dubas was putting in with the AHL club. He laid down the groundwork for the Leafs to have a sustainable system for prospect development, one that is seeing a quicker turnaround than most expected. It also led to the speculation that other NHL teams were looking to hire Dubas away from the Leafs.

Now this season, the Marlies will feature another young roster but this crop of prospects could be more valuable to the Leafs success. As the team sees their competitive window opening, having young players ready to step in and play significant roles in the NHL will be crucial.

Former Marlies video coach Justin Bourne wrote in a recent article with the Athletic that he has started to see the impact AHL players are having on NHL lineups.

"Time and again I watched Marlies players get a shot with the Leafs (particularly during their flailing 2015-16 campaign), and time and again I found myself surprised at how seamlessly our guys fit in. The reality is the difference in speed between the AHL and NHL isn’t that monumental, in terms of pure skating (it’s also more patient and structured, so it’s less of a track meet than the minors). There’s a gap, obviously, but it’s really the other speed jump — making decisions faster, moving the puck sooner, making your reads earlier — that makes it tough. Some guys may not have the prerequisite talent to keep up over the long term, but while they’re running on adrenaline from an NHL opportunity, you’d struggle to single them out as AHLers without the name bars. -Justin Bourne"

The Leafs priority to supplement their AHL team with talented players in a structured system that mirrors the one Mike Babcock has in the NHL is a big reason why the team has been succesful. Now they will rely on another group of prospects to take them to the next level.