TORONTO– One of the most difficult parts of coaching at the AHL level is keeping your club a consistent contender with all the roster changes that happen throughout the season.
And right now Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins is drastically shuffling his blue line for a second time since the NHL resumed play in January.
Eakins started the season with a Top-8 that included Jake Gardiner, Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, Paul Ranger, Simon Gysbers, Dylan Yeo and Jesse Blacker.
The team was so strong at defence that Gysbers, Yeo and Blacker were often left to rotate in and out of the lineup.
Then, when the lockout ended, Eakins dealt with the losses of Gardiner, Fraser, Kostka and Holzer to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Holzer had a quick demotion back to the AHL, but was recalled and stayed until being sent back down again on Tuesday Mar. 19th. Gardiner didn’t have a quality start with the Leafs and was sent back to the Marlies to recover from a concussion he suffered back in mid-December. But, he was summoned back to the Leafs the same day Holzer was reassigned his second time.
Between the end of the lockout and Mar. 19th, Eakins went to battle with a very different lineup most nights.
Veteran Mike Mottau was added along with Ryan Grimshaw and Corey Syvret, whom were each brought up from the ECHL on Pro-Tryout contracts.
For much of February, Eakins would ice Gardiner, Blacker, Yeo, Gysbers and Grimshaw as his every day players. Syvret saw very little action and Ranger missed 14 games with a concussion during this time, so the bench boss chose to go with five D-men most nights and let Gardiner make up the difference in ice time.
Just days before the Holzer-for-Gardiner swap, Leafs GM Dave Nonis made a minor-league deal that brought in fourth-year defenceman Kevin Marshall from the Hershey Bears for forward Nicolas Deschamps.
Factor in junior prospect Morgan Rielly, who is expected to make his Marlies debut Friday Mar. 22nd against the Chicago Wolves, and now Mike Komisarek, who was waived by the Leafs and could be assigned to the Marlies on Thursday, and Eakins has another core of defencemen he will need to place into positions that bring success to his club as they gear up for the Calder Cup playoffs.
With the additions of Rielly and Komisarek, the Marlies will have 11 defencemen on their roster; Ranger, Blacker, Yeo, Gysbers, Holzer, Marshall, Mottau, Grimshaw, Syvret, Rielly and Komisarek.
Mottau is currently injured and not expected to play for a couple of weeks, and Grimshaw and/or Syvret could be released any time the club pleases, so that gets the club down to eight viable options.
Ranger, Holzer, Rielly, Komisarek, Gysbers and Blacker make up a solid Top-6, which may mean Marshall and Yeo rotate in when Eakins decides.
Ranger has been one of the Marlies best players all season, when healthy, and said at the beginning of the season that returning to the NHL wasn’t part of this season’s plan.
Holzer is a quality AHL player who the club will want to play and perhaps see him regain some confidence he lacked at the NHL level.
Rielly is a prospect that the organization will want to see at the pro level, and depending on how well he does could be a major factor for the rest of the season.
Komisarek will be playing for his future and the Leafs would not have waived him unless there was an agreement that he gets a role with the AHL club and an opportunity to play.
Gysbers has a surprising upside offensively and has been part of the team for three years, so he will have to play himself out of the lineup.
Blacker had a slow start this year because of injuries but has been solid since January and is a Leaf prospect from the 2009 draft, so they will want to develop their own before giving time to guys with AHL contracts.
Marshall fills the role of a shut-down blue liner, but he was brought in before the return of Holzer and potential addition of Komisarek, so he could be the odd man out in that role. However, in three games with the Marlies he’s proven that he can be inserted anytime the club needs him.
Yeo is one of the guys on an AHL contract and faced a similar situation in the beginning of the season, so he will likely practice and bide his time.
Eakins has been clear in the past that this time of year is only driven by results, so sticking with one group of players and not seeing the others is unlikely to happen if the Marlies stumble at all.
The Marlies are first in the North Division and third in the Western Conference. They hold a six-point lead over the Rochester Americans, who sit second in the North and are the only current team that could knock Toronto from third in the West as the Top-3 seeds go to division leaders.