After a solid first season, it would appear that the Toronto Marlies are suffering from a sophomore jinx in compiling a less than stellar 10-14-2-2 record in the competitive AHL North Division. However, to find the cause for this downturn one has to look less at the mystical and more towards the practical – namely a lack of organizational depth, injuries, and a lot of change.
Due to injuries with the parent Maple Leafs, many of the Marlies’ projected top players have spent a fair amount of time at the NHL level. The Leafs have also claimed another major reason for the Marlies’ success last season – head coach Paul Maurice.
A new coach, rookies playing key roles for the franchise, and an injury bug that continues to impact the club’s line-up – it equals a challenging season for the Baby Leafs under new coach Greg Gilbert.
Between the pipes
This season was supposed to mark the arrival of the much-ballyhooed Justin Pogge (3rd round, 2004) who finally graduated from the CHL to the pro ranks. Pogge arrived with pomp and circumstance, but has thus far split time with the unheralded Jean-Francois Racine (3rd round, 2000).
The 24-year-old Racine is enjoying his best performance in this, his fourth professional season. Entering the season, Racine was expected to spell Pogge. However, Pogge’s transition to the professional game has been slow and Racine has made the most of his opportunity, posting a 2.69 GAA and .901 save percentage in 14 games worth of work, along with a 5-6-2 record.
Much was expected out of Pogge, the 20-year-old Penticton, BC native, coming into this season. He was riding a wave of momentum from a stellar 2005-06 season that saw him garner CHL player of the year honors, as well as a gold medal at the World Junior Championships – not to mention being named that tournament’s MVP. He enjoyed a solid rookie camp this year and progressed to the Maple Leafs’ main camp, and his play had some people considering whether he could start the season at the NHL level.
However, like many players making the jump from the junior ranks to the pros for the first season, Pogge hasn’t exactly set the world on its ear in the same way that he did in Calgary. He’s posted a passable 3.01 GAA and a better than average .908 save percentage in his 12 games of work. But his three-win, nine-loss record has not been what was expected from the club’s marquee prospect.
On the blue line
It’s a good thing that the Leafs and their affiliate share the same general postal code because due to injuries, many of the Marlies’ projected top blueliners have either spent their entire season or significant chunks of it at the NHL level.
In total, 10 different players have patrolled the Marlies’ blue line since the beginning of the season. And from that number, only a quartet has appeared in more than half of the club’s games to date. Leading the pack – and at opposite ends of the prospect spectrum are greybeard blueliner and team captain, Marc Moro, and 23-year-old rookie Jaime Sifers, out of the University of Vermont. Both players have appeared in all 28 games to date and are amongst the team’s defensive scoring leaders with six and nine points respectively.
Moro continues to be a steadying presence both on and off the ice, and at 29 years old with a handful of NHL games under his belt, he provides that veteran leadership and perspective so important for the development of the Leafs’ prospects.
Sifers, for one, has benefited from that example. The Stratford, CT native enjoyed a brief two-game taste of AHL action last season once Vermont’s season was completed. Enjoying that taste, he’s taken a full bite this season. He’s one of the few Marlies who have taken to the ice in every game and he’s posted nine points during his time. With player movement and injuries wreaking havoc on the Marlies’ blue line, Sifers has stepped up and made the most of it.
And, oh how the injuries have affected this blue line. Jay Harrison (3rd round, 2002), Staffan Kronwall (9th round, 2002), and Carlo Colaiacovo (1st round, 2002) have all missed significant time courtesy of the injury bug.
The oft-injured Colaiacovo has been hardest hit. In the five AHL games for which the blueliner has been able to suit up for, he performed well, earning six points and a +5 rating. Unfortunately, that brief glimpse of promise is all that the 23-year-old defenseman has been able to show. He’s was on the shelf indefinitely with a head injury, which is particularly concerning to Leafs’ brass as the hometown boy lost the final 34 games of last year to a concussion. Colaiacovo has been on the disabled list twice this season — last recalled from the AHL on Dec. 4, but he was immediately sidelined. He earlier spent time on the sidelines with a hand injury. On a promising note, Colaicovo has returned to practice with the Leafs and is scheduled to play tonight.
Kronwall was felled earlier this season by an ankle injury, but has returned to the Marlies’ lineup and performed well in his return. In 12 games to date, Kronwall has accounted for two assists and owns a passable -2 rating. Much was expected from the Swedish blueliner, especially in light of his performance last season in his 34 NHL appearances. In fact, Kronwall, prior to his injury, was in a dogfight for one of the last Maple Leaf roster spots. Unfortunately, Kronwall’s dreams were dashed by the injury and now he’s slowly working himself back into condition.
The last of the injured trio, Harrison, enjoyed a five-game stint at the NHL level in which the stay-at-home blueliner was held pointless and earned a less than stellar -5 rating. An injury to his right hand cost him 10 games and the blueliner was able to clear waivers and be sent down to the AHL club. There his fortunes have not changed for the better. In his 13 games Harrison has accounted for two assists, but he’s continued his downward descent into the minus category, currently presenting with a -7 rating. At 6’4, Harrison displays all the size and strength that you want from a blueliner, but he’s shown that he needs to work on his speed and skating to remain competitive at the professional level.
The Marlies blue line has also been populated by names such as Dominic D’Amour (3rd round, 2002) and Brad Brown, but both have also been sidelined by injuries for extended periods this season. D’Amour, in his brief six-game stint, has shown a bit of offense this year, accounting for one goal and two assists.
The story of the Marlies’ blue line can be summed up in one word: injuries. However, with Kronwall and Harrison rounding into shape, joining Moro, Sifers, and Chris Harrington things appear to be looking up for the Marlies defensively – as long as they can stay out of the trainer’s room and on the ice.
On the Front Lines
Up front, things have been a little better for the Baby Buds – at least when it comes to staying out of sick bay. Unfortunately, presence hasn’t equaled production as few of the Leafs’ prospects have been tearing up the league. Instead, the club has relied on its free-agent signees to pace the offense.
Jeremy Williams (7th round, 2003) made a one-game cameo with the Leafs last season and he certainly made it count, scoring a goal on his first NHL shot. Back on the farm, Williams has continued displaying that offensive flair, with 10 points in 14 games this season.
The Regina, Saskatchewan native is in his third full season at the AHL level and he continues to hone those offensive talents that he’s displayed since his days back in Swift Current.
John Mitchell (5th round, 2003) is in his second season at the professional ranks. And while his scoring numbers are not stellar, with four goals and five assists in 24 games, he’s at least on the positive side of the ledger with a +3, a total that leads the team (excluding Colaiacovo’s +5 in five games).
The Leafs have made a solid effort to mine the collegiate ranks and some of their work appears to be paying off as former high-scoring collegians Robbie Earl (6th round, 2004) and Alex Foster have made a fairly smooth transition to the professional ranks. Earl has managed to score three goals and 11 points in his 25 games to date, while Foster has chipped in with six points on four goals in 14 games. Foster began the year with new ECHL affiliate, the Columbia Inferno.
Unfortunately, Earl and Foster – like most of the Leafs’ forwards – aren’t providing the offense that’s expected of them. And the best representative of this phenomenon comes in the form of Martin Sagat (3rd round, 2003). With the graduation of players like Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Ben Ondrus, and Alexander Suglobov, this was the season when players like Sagat could step forward and take a more offensive role. Unfortunately, he’s not come through, accounting for only five points in his 25 games.
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