As the Toronto Maple Leafs move to a build from within model, a paradigm shift of this magnitude is going to necessitate some growing pains. While the Baby Buds will have some talent on the roster this year, little of it can be considered top end. And the blue line, although peppered with players with NHL experience, is pedestrian at best.
Solid, but not spectacular would be the best way to describe the Toronto Marlies roster. But an infusion of premium talent in net –- and a potential addition up front, may make the Leafs’ AHL franchise one to watch for the coming season.
The bright spot of the Marlies roster is in net, as goaltending sensation Justin Pogge takes up residence between the pipes this season after a superlative final season in Calgary in the WHL. All Pogge did was earn every accolade imaginable at his position: a World Junior Championship gold medal, WJC tournament MVP honors, WHL player of the year recognition, and CHL goaltender of the year honors.
With a pedigree like that and the promise of a bright future, it’s understandable why the team felt confident dealing Tuukka Rask to the Bruins for the immediate help that Andrew Raycroft can provide at the NHL level. And with Raycroft the anointed starter at the NHL level, the Leafs brass correctly decided that Pogge’s development would be better served playing against professional talent on a regular basis, rather than riding the pine for extended stretches in the NHL.
The question remains, who will back up Pogge in the minors? Rumors out of Hog Town indicate that the Leafs may carry three netminders at the professional level for the foreseeable future, which means that J.F. Racine or newly-signed Robert Gherson could see limited action spelling Pogge. Conversely, the team could decide to send down either J.S. Aubin or Mikael Tellqvist (assuming either would clear the waiver process), to serve as a mentor for the first-year pro.
Last year, many of the Marlies’ blueliners were pressed into NHL action due to a rash of injuries to established starters. With the addition of proven NHL-caliber defensive talent to the Leafs roster this season, the opportunities for a young blueliner to crack the NHL ranks seems slim.
Going into the pre-season, all signs pointed to Carlo Colaiacovo being handed the fifth defensive spot on the roster. But, much like last year, the best laid plans were felled by injury. A pre-season concussion has put the much-ballyhooed but oft-injured blueliner on the shelf, meaning a pair of spots remains there for the taking. And with five players vying for those two spots, the competition should be fierce – although it leaves the Marlies’ blue line situation a little convoluted.
Brendan Bell, Jay Harrison, Staffan Kronwall, Ian White, and Andy Wozniewski are all in the running for those coveted two spots, with Kronwall and White the nominal leaders talent-wise, but they also are the only two that don’t need to clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL. Regardless, whoever returns to the AHL franchise will bring with them a modicum of NHL experience and an understanding of what it takes to get to the next level. Also expect Colaiacovo to spend some rehab time with the AHL club prior to reclaiming his NHL spot. Dominic D’Amour, Tyson Marsh, and Justin Sawyer round out the bottom of the Marlies defensive depth chart.
Up front, the team has a complement of young, speedy-but-smallish forwards looking to take their game to the next level. Robbie Earl comes to the club after a national championship year at the University of Wisconsin. He will be expected to use this year to adapt to the professional game and show the kind of consistency needed to make the jump to the next level. Also expected to provide offensive punch this season will be Jeremy Williams, who has the requisite speed to make him an attractive NHL commodity, but needs more seasoning at the AHL level before making that jump.
The biggest question the Leafs brass is facing is what to do with first-round draft pick Jiri Tlusty. On Sept. 25, the club sent the player down, but the team has yet to decide whether he’d be better served playing in the AHL or in the OHL. As a European drafted first by an NHL franchise, Tlusty is eligible to play in either league. General Manager John Ferguson Jr. indicated on his blog that he’s still considering the question, but added the caveat that “it’s probably rarer for a player to play in the AHL as an 18-year-old than it is in the NHL.” If he is sent down to the OHL, the Soo Greyhounds are coached by Canadian National Team coach Craig Hartsburg, so Tlusty will be in a positive environment for his development.
Other additions to the roster may include Alexander Suglobov, who was acquired by the club last season. He, along with John Pohl, Ben Ondrus, and even Kyle Wellwood – whose position is being challenged by the superlative play of Pohl, could find their way back on the Marlies roster, further boosting the club’s experience and depth up front. Returnees expected to assume a larger role in the club’s fortunes include Martin Sagat, John Mitchell, and Alex Foster.
Other recent free agent signees include Jeff Corey, Brett Engelhardt, Owen Fussey, and Colin Murphy. The club has also acquired NHL veteran Bates Battaglia who is expected to being the season in the AHL.
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