With a consistent push of drafted prospects graduating to the American Hockey League this past summer, the Toronto Maple Leafs farm team has seen an overhaul to its core and is sporting a more youthful look.
Under Dallas Eakins, the Toronto Marlies won two consecutive North Division titles, and made it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals in 2012. When Eakins took a head coaching job with the Edmonton Oilers, the Maple Leafs brought in fresh blood in Steve Spott, who had a strong reputation in junior hockey and was seen as the right fit for a youthful 2013-14 Marlies squad.
Spott has the Marlies currently sitting atop the North Division again this season at the half-way point with a record of 22-11-2-2. Expectations have been exceeded so far with this young group, and should they sustain their current level of play, the Marlies will be looking at their third straight division title and playoff appearance.
Morgan Rielly, D, 19
The Maple Leafs fifth overall selection from 2012 has made a solid debut in his first NHL season. Morgan Rielly has been as advertised – a quality offensive defenseman with high-end skating and questionable defensive play. The 19-year-old has fit in quite well on the Maple Leafs blue line and has played primarily with veteran Cody Franson.
Head coach Randy Carlyle has sheltered Rielly against tough defensive competition and has used him primarily in offensive situations. In ice time, he is averaging just under 18-minutes per game and usually sees some time on the second unit powerplay.
Rielly had an opportunity to represent Canada at the 2014 World Junior Tournament, but Maple Leafs management thought his development was best served staying in the NHL. In 41 games this year, he has scored two goals and added 12 assists. His play this season has offered a taste of his potential, and between Rielly and Jake Gardiner the Maple Leafs could possesses two of the league's best skating defenseman.
Carter Ashton, LW, 22
It has been a curious season for 22-year-old Carter Ashton. On the Maple Leafs, he has been a depth winger on the fourth line playing with the likes of Jay McClement and Colton Orr; encouraged to crash, bang, and agitate. He averages less than seven minutes of ice time and only has one assist to show through 24 games.
The other side of Ashton's season has been his play with the Marlies. On the farm team, Ashton has been the club's go-to sniper. He has shown much more confidence this season with the puck and is scoring at a very high rate. In 14 games with the Marlies, Ashton has scored 10 goals and five assists. His shooting percentage is currently hovering at 25 percent, which is much higher than his career average. While Ashton is unlikely to be a big point producer at the NHL level, he should be given the opportunity to produce with better linemates. Unfortunately for him, he has some stiff competitions on the wings.
Peter Holland, C, 23
The 23-year-old Peter Holland was acquired in a trade that sent defensive prospect Jesse Blacker to the Anaheim Ducks on November 15th. Dealing from a position of strength, the Maple Leafs looked for Holland to fill a void at center thanks to lengthy injuries to Tyler Bozak and David Bolland. He has been a very strong addition to the Maple Leafs system and has already showed his ability to score if given the opportunity at the NHL level.
In 25 games with the Maple Leafs, Holland has five goals and five assists. He has averaged over 11 minutes per game playing almost entirely in even strength situations. He also recently played two games in the AHL, where he managed three goals.
Jerry D'Amigo, LW, 22
When Jerry D'Amigo was recalled to the NHL on December 5th, it was not a case of him dominating the AHL level and earning a call-up. He was brought in to shake up the Maple Leafs bottom-six who were lacking speed and depth scoring. D'Amigo didn't know it at the time, but a second suspension to David Clarkson on December 14th allowed him to set a career milestone. Against the 2013 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks, D'Amigo tallied his first NHL goal and first NHL assist. He was unable to add to his point totals after that and was re-assigned to the Marlies in mid-January.
Despite his lack of production, D'Amigo's fiery style of play won him over with the NHL coaching staff and he arguably outplayed a few players in the Maple Leafs bottom-six. He was returned to the AHL because of his waiver exemption, but should be a fixture in the NHL in the not-too-distant future.
Greg McKegg, C, 21
Benefitting from the lack of depth down the middle on the farm team, Greg McKegg has seen time as the clubs top line center. Unlike last season, he has seen a more consistent role in the top-six and was called upon to be the club's top center when Trevor Smith was recalled to the Maple Leafs.
After managing 23 points in 61 games in 2012-13, McKegg is already close to passing those totals this year, with six goals and 13 assists through 29 games. He missed time earlier this season with an upper-body injury suffered at the end of November.
McKegg should settle into a second-line role when Holland eventually returns to the AHL.
Andrew Crescenzi, C, 21
The hiring of Spott played into the favor of a few former Kitchener Rangers and Andrew Crescenzi was no different. The 21-year-old played under Spott for three seasons in Kitchener through 2009-2012.
After splitting time between the Marlies and the San Francisco Bulls of the ECHL last year, Crescenzi has been able to hold down the teams' fourth line center spot. His role is to provide a physical presence and defensive responsibility for the Marlies. He also sees time on the Marlies penalty killing unit due to his ability to cover a lot of the zone with his wing span. On the year, Crescenzi has one goal and one assist through 30 games.
Sam Carrick, C, 21
One could argue that no player has benefitted more from a large role this season then Sam Carrick. With a number of call-ups and injuries to their centers, Carrick has seen time as the clubs top center between Josh Leivo and Spencer Abbott before the addition of Holland to the depth chart. While top-line center is likely stretching his ability a bit much at this point in his career, Carrick has showed strong progress over the last two seasons after playing 50 games in the ECHL last season. This year, Carrick has scored six goals, assisted 10 times, and has been a plus-10 through 35 games.
Tyler Biggs, RW, 20
Tyler Biggs has been a depth player for the Marlies in his rookie season. His lack of scoring is noteworthy for a former first-round pick, with four goals and one assist through 33 games, and he has even been a healthy scratch at points this season.
Biggs is a polarizing prospect among Maple Leafs fan. Optimists say he has been put in defensive situations with little opportunity to produce, while pessimists argue he has not proven himself enough to warrant increased ice-time. The truth likely falls somewhere in between as he is not seen management as a player with future scoring potential, so he is being groomed as a physical defensive forward.
Kenny Ryan, RW, 22
Ryan missed the first chunk of the 2013-14 season rehabbing from a sports hernia injury and did not make his AHL until November 16th. When he has been in the lineup, Ryan has been a heavily relied on checking forward, specifically on the penalty kill. He has also been a versatile utility forward for the Marlies and filled in at the center spot on several occasions.
In 14 games this season Ryan has two goals, three assists, and 25 penalty minutes.
Josh Leivo, LW, 20
It has been a season of peaks and valleys for the first year AHL forward. Leivo started the year slowly with two assists through five games in October, but turned up his game in November scoring five goals and five assists in 12 games. He tailed off in December and even found himself a healthy scratch, but the 20-year-old has looked refreshed and more confident since the start of the New Year. He has four goals and four assists in January games, including three multi-point affairs.
Leivo's a top-six player with the Marlies and arguably one of the clubs most talented players and top prospects. He has nine goals and 11 assists through 30 games which puts him behind only Spencer Abbott and T.J. Brennan in team scoring. He had a brief stint with the Maple Leafs earlier in the season appearing in seven games and scored his first NHL goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on October 17th.
Brad Ross, LW, 21
A bigger opportunity this season has yet to be seized by second-year forward Brad Ross. The 21-year-old has yet to establish himself as a full-time player with the Marlies despite several opportunities to carve out a role. He has been a healthy scratch at various points throughout the season and went pointless through his first 13 games.
Physically, Ross needs to add more bulk to compete at this level as he is not dictating the pace of the game like could in junior. Like many Marlie wingers, the window to make an impression is small due to the depth at the position. With a new wave of forward prospects coming next season, the competition will be even stiffer for seasoned pros looking to cement roles in the AHL. To his credit, Ross did come on stronger in the month of December looking more dangerous offensively and showing more confidence in his game.
David Broll, LW, 21
A player who has been a favorite of Spott this season, rookie David Broll has been a jack of all trades for the Marlies. He has been an enforcer when needed (five fighting majors), a power play option due to his size and ability to work the boards, and a top-six forward. Broll has three goals and eight assists for 11 points through 34 games.
Like Leivo, Broll also had a short stint in the NHL earlier this year when Clarkson sat for his 10 game suspension. He played in five games and averaged eight minutes while seeing time all over the lineup.
Jamie Devane, LW, 22
After making his pro debut last season between stints in both the ECHL and AHL, Devane has played a similar role this season as a depth forward. One of a few resident enforcers for the Marlies, Devane has been a semi-regular in the Marlies lineup this season as a fourth line forward. He has scored only once and added a single assist through 24 games. He has six fighting majors which leads the Marlies. Devane looks to be a future fourth line replacement for either Colton Orr or Frazer McLaren at this stage in his career.
Petter Granberg, D, 21
After a tough start to the season, Granberg has become one of the Marlies most dependable defensive players. He has played in all but one game this year for the Marlies and has two goals, two assists, and an impressive plus-14 rating. Granberg has great reach and a strong defensive stance which makes him a tough defenseman to evade down low. His stature also makes him an imposing physical specimen. Although he is not necessarily a bruiser, his physical game stands out from an otherwise quiet and consistent style of play.
Stuart Percy, D, 20
Another impressive first-year player for the Marlies, Percy's methodical approach combined with his strong composure makes him look like he has been playing in the league for years. He is a smooth skater and while not necessarily a speedster, he is able to slip out of sticky defensive situations with poise and a couple quick shuffle steps. On the year, Percy has not scored yet, but has added 11 assists and 38 shots on net.
With the recent departure of veteran John-Michael Liles, Percy has the opportunity to take a bigger offensive role on the primary power play unit with T.J. Brennan. He is a player who could make an NHL roster push sooner rather than later.
Andrew MacWilliam, D, 23
The older defensive prospect of the group, MacWilliam has played consistently this season. A hard-nosed, defensive defenseman, MacWilliam is similar to current Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Fraser, though he seems to have a bit more skating ability and quickness with the puck. He has missed time with minor injuries at points through the first half, but overall MacWilliam has been a warrior for the club. He is a willing combatant and will be the first one to dive head first to block a shot. He only has three assists on the year through 28 games.
Garret Sparks, G, 20
Currently holding down the backup spot behind MacIntyre, Sparks has appeared in six games with the Marlies this season. He holds a 2.84 goals against average and a .897 save percentage. With the Orlando Solar Bears, his play has been impressive through nine games and he has a 2.55 goals against average and .924 save percentage.
Since his stellar stint in the ECHL, Sparks has performed very well. He has allowed only five goals in his last three starts, all of which were wins, and sports a .947 save percentage.
Christopher Gibson, G, 21
With two rookie goaltenders at their disposal, the Maple Leafs have rotated backup duties behind Drew MacIntyre. Christopher Gibson was a free agent signing this past summer after having his rights relinquished by the Los Angeles Kings. The 21-year-old has appeared in three games with the Marlies positing a solid 1.68 goals against average and a sparkling .946 save percentage. With the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL, Gibson has played 13 games posting a 3.08 goals against and a 0.887 save percentage.