Maple Leafs AHL/ECHL prospects review

By Scott Mitchell

It has been two years of change for the Toronto Maple Leafs top affiliate. After moving from St. John’s – where the Leafs had developed prospects since 1991 – to Toronto for the 2005-06 season, the Marlies, as they are now known, have had an interesting two years.

Coach Paul Maurice guided the Marlies during the 2005-06 season and it was no secret he was being groomed as the next head coach of the big club. When rumor became fact at the end of the 2005-06 season, Greg Gilbert was hired as the new bench boss of the Marlies. Gilbert came to Ricoh Coliseum with an extensive resume, which included head-coaching stops with the Calgary Flames, the AHL’s Worcester IceCats and, most recently, the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga IceDogs.

While Maurice was able to guide the Marlies to a 92-point season, Gilbert did not fare quite as well this past season. The Marlies totaled 75 points, finishing in 11th spot in the Western Conference and missing the playoffs by 10 points.

While the initial reaction is to blame the coach, a quick look down the Marlies’ roster points to another reason for the struggles — a simple lack of talent, particularly on the offensive end. The top scorer, Erik Westrum, had only 58 points in what is an 80-game season.

Forwards

Gilbert relied, mostly out of necessity, on a glut of journeymen forwards throughout the season. The only prospects of consequence that suited up on the Marlies forward lines were Robbie Earl, John Mitchell, Alex Foster and Jeremy Williams. And each individual’s season was distinctly different than the next.

Williams nursed a knee injury for much of the first half, and then spent time with the big club during the second half of the season. If anything, he has proven that he can score at the pro level, tallying six goals and 15 points in 23 games. He also scored one goal in one game with the Leafs. Foster’s season was the most tumultuous of the bunch. He struggled early on in the season and was sent to Columbia of the ECHL for nine games where he put up 11 points. Foster was a more confident player upon his return and scored 10 points in his final 17 AHL games. He finished the season with eight goals and nine assists in 57 games.

Mitchell’s progress is starting to mirror that of his OHL progression. He took another major stride this past season as he built on his solid rookie numbers – .33 points per game – to score .49 points per game. Like Foster, Mitchell played his best hockey down the stretch, scoring seven goals and 14 points in his final 20 games.

While there were not many top prospects to monitor at Ricoh, there was Earl. Playing the entire season as a 21-year-old, Earl finished with 12 goals and 18 assists in 68 games in his inaugural AHL campaign. Earl is exactly what the Leafs lack — dynamic wingers with top-end speed that can put pressure on a defense and keep them on their heels. With increased ice time, Earl started to show this as the season wore on. He tallied 11 points in his final 20 games, including a two-goal effort against Rochester on March 10.

Martin Sagat struggled through a disappointing sophomore season in the AHL. After scoring 13 goals in 60 games the previous year, he fell back to four goals in 71 games this past season.

Defensemen

The Marlies employed 18 different defensemen during the 2006-07 season. That pretty much says it all. If the big club wasn’t raiding the roster when injuries hit Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle, it was injuries hitting the Marlies. Marc Moro was there for a physical presence and to mentor the younger players. He and Jaime Sifers, who signed out of the University of Vermont and played a solid 80 games in his rookie season, led the team from the backend.

The only prospects that played semi-regularly, thanks to injuries, were Jay Harrison and Staffan Kronwall who played 41 and 47 games, respectively.

At the beginning of the season both were expected to compete for jobs with the Leafs until injuries derailed that notion. When each was healthy enough to suit up again, Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White had already established themselves.

Like most of the Marlies, Harrison and Kronwall both played their best hockey of the season down the stretch.

Chris Harrington, David Cloutier, Dominic D’Amour, and Brad Brown all played over 36 games on the Marlies blueline. A host of other names also wore the blue and white. Notables include Andy Wozniewski, who battled injuries the entire season, and 29-year-old Karl Pilar, who returned from a heart condition to score two goals and five assists in 10 games.

Goaltending

The Leafs top prospect, Justin Pogge, was brought along slowly during his AHL christening this past season. After being treated with kid gloves during the first half of the season, splitting time with J.F. Racine, Pogge handled the majority of the workload when the Marlies were out of contention. Pogge saw time in 15 games from October to the end of December but from Jan. 5 on the crease was his, playing 33 games.

In six March games down the stretch, Pogge posted a 2.13 GAA and a 3-2-1 record. Pogge finished the season with a 3.03 GAA and .896 save percentage in 48 games. As is the case with many rookie goaltenders, Pogge was spectacular on some nights and downright awful on others. He contrasted three shutouts with six games in which he gave up five or more goals. Pogge will be expected to carry the load on what could be a much-improved Marlies squad next season.  Todd Ford and Mikael Tellqvist also played games with the Marlies (five and three, respectively).

ECHL

With the lack of depth within the organization, the Leafs weren’t forced to use the ECHL’s Columbia Inferno on a consistent basis. The only player of consequence to see time with the club was Alex Foster. Goaltender Todd Ford, the Leafs fourth-round selection in the 2002 draft, played well in spurts, finishing with a 16-13-6 record and a 2.98 GAA. His entry-level contract is up this year.

Defenseman Tyson Marsh played 48 games, contributing two goals and 19 assists. He played a robust game with 97 penalty minutes. Diminutive free agent forward Chris St. Jacques scored six goals and 14 assists in 52 games. He also suited up in 16 Marlies games, tallying one assist.

Defenceman John Doherty, who was chosen 57th overall in the 2003 draft, was disappointing in a six-game stint, registering no points or penalty minutes, after leaving Quinnipiac University. He also played 23 games with the UHL’s Port Huron Flags.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.