TORONTO– The way the Toronto Marlies have been playing since the return of the NHL can’t make head coach Dallas Eakins a happy man.
“I could go through this entire list of forwards and there’s not a lot of love for them right now,” said Eakins on Saturday after a 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Admirals.
The loss was Toronto’s fourth in five games and, despite bouncing back on Sunday with a 5-4 victory against the St. John’s IceCaps, the club has seen a heavy decline in its offence since the end of the NHL lockout and are struggling because of it.
Prior to, the Marlies were cruising along as one of the AHL’s top offensive teams, averaging 3.38 goals-for per game with a 22-10-3 record. In 17 games since, they are 6-8-3 and scoring only 2.64 goals-per game. Nine times Toronto has scored two goals or less, going 1-7-1.
They’ve also taken a serious hit on their power play, going 3 for 34 in their last seven contests, and Eakins has tried numerous line combinations to kick start the man advantage. In a 2-1 shootout loss last week to the Houston Aeros, the coach went with a top unit of Mike Zigomanis, Joe Colborne and Ryan Hamilton up front along with Jake Gardiner and Tim Connolly on the point. They were still unable to produce.
“We are concerned,” said Eakins about the power play. “We thought we could put five guys on a number-one unit that could break the ice and it didn’t happen. It was a bad decision by me.”
The biggest change for the Marlies is obvious. The return of the NHL saw Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, Gardiner and Ben Scrivens make the Leafs roster and Keith Aucoin was claimed off waivers by the New York Islanders. You can also subtract Paul Ranger, who has been out since Jan 13th with a concussion. Within that group of names were the club’s top-three scorers, top-four defencemen and an award-winning goaltender.
“Pluck the fruit off the tree with which one you want,” said Eakins. “You just don’t lose players like that and expect to move on at the same rate. Our guys are battling and that’s how we’re going to have to win hockey games now.”
While Gardiner has returned to the Marlies-only because of a concussion-the club has tried to fill the holes with Connolly, Mike Mottau, ECHL free agent defencemen Cody Syvret and Ryan Grimshaw, as well as goaltender Drew MacIntyre. They have also called up prospects Andrew Crescenzi and Jamie Devane from the ECHL.
With the absence of so many of his top players, Eakins has expected other players to step up, however only Colborne has truly seized the opportunity as he leads the club with 15 points in 17 games.
Greg Scott, who is a defensive-minded forward, scored 21 goals last season, but this year he has just three and only one in his last 35 games.
“Scotty’s always going to check and kill penalties, but he showed us last year he can score,” said Eakins. “We would like to see that again. Scotty’s got the ability to score, and I know he’s been frustrated.”
Nicolas Deschamps is also struggling this season and with the skill to be a top-six guy right now for Toronto, he’s produced just two assists in his last seven games.”
“We need more from Deschamps,” said Eakins. “We put him with two very good players over the last little bit and we need him to play harder and (have) more production.”
Greg McKegg, a rookie who impressed early in the season, has also struggled with the extra ice time and needs to do more than score once in 11 games.
“A guy like Kegger needs to play with desperation,” said Eakins. “This is a guy that’s in and out of the line up right now, dying for another shift and another game and he needs to show the desperation right from the start.”
While Eakins didn’t single out those three, they were all healthy scratches in Sunday’s victory against St. John’s.
Toronto’s next contest is Wednesday Feb. 27th when the host the Rochester Americans. With their next eight games at the Ricoh Coliseum, the Marlies have a great opportunity to turn things around as they are the top team in the Western Conference on home ice at 17-6-2.