After missing the playoffs last year with a dreadful 34-39-2-5 record, a year in which the team’s leading scorer (Erik Westrum) managed a meager 58 points, the Marlies have turned it around this season and are one of the top teams in the American Hockey League. While many would point to pro veterans David Ling, Derrick Walser and Scott Clemmensen as the reason for the quick turnaround, the continued development of prospects Justin Pogge, Robbie Earl and John Mitchell has greatly aided the Marlies as well.
With injuries tearing apart the big club’s blueline and depth up front, the Marlies newfound depth has come in handy this season. The Leafs’ nine AHL prospects have found themselves on different ends of the success spectrum this season. While the aforementioned Pogge, Earl and Mitchell, along with Alex Foster, have seen their respective stocks improve, Jeremy Williams, Brent Aubin and Phil Oreskovic have struggled to find their way this season. Blue chip prospects Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman also contributed to the Marlies early on before being summoned to the Air Canada Center to play for the injury-ravaged Leafs.
Justin Pogge, G, 21
Drafted: Third round, 90th overall in 2004
The club’s top prospect has been handled with kid gloves early in his pro career. After playing 48 AHL games last year while splitting time with JF Racine, Pogge has found himself in another time-share this season – this time with Clemmensen. While many thought Clemmensen would mentor the young Pogge only until Andrew Raycroft was traded, that has obviously not been the case as the veteran has started 26 games to Pogge’s 29. With the team’s record sitting at 37-13-1-4, both goaltenders have been very good.
In 20 fewer games than last season, Pogge matched his shutout total, blanking the opponent three times. The Penticton, BC native has surpassed last season’s win total of 19, now with 20. Pogge was terrific during December and January, posting a 1.85 GAA in eight December games, and a 2.00 GAA in six January contests. At 6’3 and 190 pounds, Pogge is an intimidating presence between the pipes and seems to have found his mechanics again this season after he admittedly tried to do too much last season. He currently sits eighth in the league in GAA with a 2.32 mark, which is ahead of other top prospects such as Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Howard. It will be interesting to see which goaltender carries the load down the stretch and into the post-season but Pogge has cemented himself as the team’s No. 1 prospect and goaltender of the future.
Robbie Earl, LW, 22
Drafted: Sixth round, 187th overall in 2004
Many were wondering when the real Robbie Earl would show up. In 67 games in 2006-07, Earl showed few flashes of the dynamic winger with game-changing speed and quickness who patrolled the University of Wisconsin flank for three seasons. Surrounded by better talent this season and gaining confidence with each shift, Earl has come around and was rewarded for his improved play with a five-game stint at the ACC. After scoring 12 goals in 67 games last season, Earl has 12 in 48 games to go along with 23 helpers for 35 points, surpassing last season’s point total of 30. Importantly, he’s also a solid +14.
One of the only prospects in the Leafs system with speed and creativity from the wing, Earl has shown he can handle the pro game and could even crack the Leafs roster next fall.
John Mitchell, C, 23
Drafted: Fifth round, 158th overall in 2003
Mitchell is one of the more intriguing Leafs prospects in that no one really knows what to expect from him. Blessed with good size at 6’1 and 200 pounds, Mitchell provides size down the middle as well as good defensive instincts and is considered a solid faceoff man. But the question is still, is he a pro prospect or simply a solid AHL performer? While he still hasn’t received a shot with the big club, Mitchell has progressed nicely in the offensive end in his third AHL season. After scoring five goals in 51 games in his first AHL campaign and 16 goals in 73 games last season, Mitchell burst out of the gates with 16 points in his first 20 games this season. In 54 games he has already surpassed last year’s goal total of 16. He has 17, along with 20 assists.
Alex Foster, C, 23
Signed as a free agent in 2006
Simply put, Foster’s 2006-07 season was awful. The playmaking center struggled to find his way after signing with the Leafs late in the 2006 season out of Bowling Green State University. Last year Foster spent some time with the club’s ECHL affiliate, the Columbia Inferno, and scored only eight goals in 57 AHL games.
Coming into this season, Foster was in tough to crack a bolstered Marlies forward unit but Foster put doubts of his ability to play the pro game with six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in his first 20 games. With good vision and speed, Foster has lined up at center and on the left side this season and now sits tied for third on the team with 23 assists in 46 games. In overall scoring, he’s seventh with 33 points and is +14.
Jeremy Williams, RW, 24
Drafted: Seventh round, 220th overall in 2003
Williams is a mystery to many Leafs observers. A player who once scored 52 goals in the WHL, he looked like he would continue to score at will in the AHL with 23 goals and 56 points in only 55 games in 2005-06, his second AHL season. But since then injuries and inconsistency have dogged the talent right winger. Two separate one-game NHL callups have produced goals in each game, but that is the extent of the look Williams has received. Perhaps with the bad taste in his mouth from once again being sent back to the AHL in training camp, Williams slumped his way to only six goals and 12 points in his first 25 games this season, exacerbated by an 11-game drought through the month of December in which he registered only one assist. Since breaking out of the horrible slump on Jan. 2, Williams has 12 goals and 21 points in 23 games while finally earning top six minutes.
He will no longer be considered a prospect by HF criteria at the end of this season, and it’s hard to exactly know where his status within the organization sits beyond this year. The talent is there to score goals at any level, but to this point in his career he has left everyone wanting more.
Brent Aubin, RW, 21
Signed as a free agent in 2006
It has been a tough season for the former QMJHL scoring sensation. After scoring 192 goals in 345 QMJHL games over his five-year junior career, Aubin has struggled this season while playing limited minutes on a veteran Marlies club. The diminutive right winger started the season off well, scoring in the first game of the year but that was the only celebrating the 5’9 185 lb winger would do for a while. After scoring in the Oct. 12 game, he would wait until Dec. 15 to notch his second of the year, a span of 21 games. He would then hit a 25-game dry spell before scoring two goals Feb. 15. With only four goals in 51 games, it’s safe to say 2007-08 has been frustrating for Aubin. However, all is not lost, as he has shown he won’t back down from bigger players in accumulating 55 minutes in penalties after showing a penchant for tough play in junior.
Aubin will need to improve his skating to post numbers anywhere close to his junior days.
Phil Oreskovic, D, 21
Drafted: Third round, 82nd overall in 2005
A four-year OHL veteran, rookie Oreskovic was thought to be the odd man out when the Marlies were bolstered by the addition of veterans Walser and Bryan Muir. But once Stralman was summoned to the Leafs’ blueline, it was Oreskovic who made the most of Stralman’s vacated minutes along the Marlies back end. The 6’3 220-pound behemoth is at his best when he is able to keep things simple. When he is playing a physical game and going high and hard off the glass if the first pass isn’t there, Oreskovic can be a valuable defender. When he tries to play outside his skill set, he can get into trouble.
Since the beginning of January, he has been a plus player and fought some while playing a regular shift. Overall he has nine points in 38 games and is +9. Oreskovic has also played 13 games for the ECHL Columbia Inferno, scoring four assists.
While he needs much more seasoning at the AHL level there have been players with less talent who have carved out long NHL careers by playing a simple, physical game.
Jaime Sifers, D
Signed as a free agent, 2005
Sifers has fallen off significantly in scoring this year, with just six points, all assists, in 54 games. This is compared to 25 points in 80 games last year. The 25-year-old is a depth player in the organization.