The Toronto Marlies success last year was a bright light in an otherwise dismal Toronto Maple Leafs season. The Marlies finished second in the AHL western conference and fourth overall in the regular season. Their loss in the western final to eventual champion Chicago Wolves did little to diminish a breakthrough campaign for the four-year-old franchise.
Unfortunately, with the big club rebuilding this year and the loss of key veterans David Ling, Colin Murphy, Scott Clemmensen, Derrick Walser, Jay Harrison and Andy Wozniewski, the Marlies will have a tough time following up their previous success.
With Ling’s departure to EHC Biel in the Swiss Elite League and Murphy signing with Buffalo, two of the Marlies top-six scoring forwards are gone for sure. After an extremely strong NHL training camp, it’s likely No. 2 scorer John Mitchell will make the Maple Leafs, leaving the Marlies without last season’s top two scorers.
Mark Bell was placed on waivers Oct. 6, making the Marlies his probable destination. Whether a veteran of almost 450 NHL regular season games will stay for long in the AHL is questionable, but if he does stay, Bell will dominate. Other possible Marlie forwards include Jiri Tlusty or Boyd Devereaux, who have had uninspired NHL training camps. Either Devereaux or Tlusty would provide a huge injection of talent, especially Tlusty who scored seven times in 14 games for the Marlies in 2007-08. Devereaux might find work elsewhere if put on waivers, but Tlusty would be a good candidate for the Marlies if his NHL competition (Mitchell, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin) all produce for the Leafs. Tlusty is at least two years younger than any of the other three prospects.
Two possible substitutes for Mitchell and Ling are Jeremy Williams and Tim Stapleton. Williams, 24, was up and down between the Leafs and the Marlies last season and although he was cut by the Leafs, scored three times in three Marlie pre-season games. With 33 points in 49 AHL games in 2007-08, he’s a proven scorer at the AHL level.
Stapleton, 26, is a 5’9, 170-pound center from Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish elite league. Signed in the summer, Stapleton scored 29 goals and 62 points in 55 games to finish second on Jokerit behind Detroit prospect Ville Leino. Stapleton scored twice in a 4-3 overtime loss to Hamilton in the Oct. 6 final of the Iceberg Cup, a three-team AHL mini-tournament played in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Other promising Marlie forwards include late cuts Robbie Earl and Kyle Rogers. Earl, 23, has improved consistently since joining the Marlies two years ago. In 2007-08, he notched 14 goals and 47 points in 66 games after scoring 30 points in 67 games the year before. Earl’s ticket to the NHL is his speed which he uses primarily in a setup role. Leaf injuries may allow him to see a few NHL games, but he’ll likely bulk up and fine tune his game in the AHL this season.
Rogers, 23, had a great NHL camp and was a surprisingly late cut. The 6’3, 210-pound former Niagara University winger will be given every opportunity to play for the Marlies. Other Marlie regulars include Kris Newbury, Ben Ondrus, Alex Foster and Bates Battaglia, Darryl Boyce and Brent Aubin. Newbury, 26, is a point-per-game player in the AHL but doesn’t seem to be able to take his minor league production with him to the NHL.
The loss of veterans Walser (KHL), Harrison (Swiss A league), Bryan Muir (Russia) and Wozniewski (NHL) will be big. The Marlies have signed veteran replacements, but it remains to be seen if they’ll play up to last year’s seventh-best defensive record.
The biggest loss is Walser, who successfully quarterbacked the Marlie power play. To replace Walser, the Marlies signed veteran Josef Boumedienne, who scored 42 points in 52 games for Hershey last season.
Other veteran replacements include late cut Richard Petiot and veteran AHL defenseman Andy Schneider. Petiot, 26, is a 6’4, 210-pound injury-prone defenseman who spent the last three seasons in the LA Kings organization, mostly with the Manchester Monarchs. Schneider, 27, played 57 games with Portland.
With more Leaf cuts still to come, it’s likely Staffan Kronwall will be back to fight the injury bug that saw him play only 140 pro games (47 per season) in the last three seasons. Kronwall, 26, has NHL talent but his injuries have hurt his development. His lack of development may help the Marlies this season if Kronwall stays healthy.
Experienced regulars Jaime Sifers, Phil Oreskovic and Chris Harrington will be back to provide solid defensive play. For depth, the Marlies signed Scott Langdon, 23, a defensive defenseman from Niagara University, Juha Uotila, a 22-year-old slick-skating Finn from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Todd Perry, a 6’3 defenseman who spent most of last year in the ECHL.
It’s Justin Pogge’s team this season. After splitting time with veteran Scott Clemmensen last year, Pogge has merely to battle AHL backup Scott Munro for starts.
Munro, 26, a 2001 Chicago Blackhawk first-round pick has played in the NHL, AHL, ECHL and in Europe, but has improved his AHL play over the years. His .913 save percentage and 2.42 GAA in 25 games for Syracuse shows he’s a capable minor-league goalie.
Pogge has to prove his 26-10-4-4 record and .908 save percentage last season was the real thing. He was embarrassed in the postseason when Clemmensen was given the nod as the No. 1 playoff goalie. Pogge has to prove the organization made a mistake going with Clemmensen. He now has the opportunity, especially if the new Marlie defense gels and the team has another run at a title.