TORONTO– Just because the Marlies are turning their focus towards developing its younger prospects in the system, it doesn’t mean the club is giving up on the winning culture it has built over the past two seasons.
“We haven’t given up on that concept at all,” said Leafs VP of Hockey Operations Dave Poulin. “Six playoff rounds in the last two years, we are not giving up on that at all, absolutely not.”
The past two seasons under former head coach Dallas Eakins, the Marlies won back-to-back North Division titles and made their first appearance in the Calder Cup final in 2012.
Under Eakins, the belief was that winning was a key component to development and age of a prospect didn’t matter. Winning often came from relying on the veterans of the club, which meant the younger players ended up either as healthy scratches or sent down to the ECHL.
Most of the team’s recent success came from the likes of Ryan Hamilton or veterans on AHL contracts such as Mike Zigomanis or Paul Ranger. And even the depth of the team consisted of older players, including Mike Komisarek, Tim Connolly and Jeff Finger.
But with Eakins and an abundance of veterans gone from last year’s club, plus up to 17 players expected to make the 2013-14 team who are on entry-level contracts, turning to experience is no longer an option.
“If we think the team needs something on or off the ice we will address it,” said Poulin. “We can supplement at any point we choose deemed on what we see and need. This is not a closed door on what the roster will be.”
The biggest reason for turning the AHL club’s attention away from veterans and towards youth development is because for the first time in ages the Maple Leafs will have a farm team made up of their own draft picks.
14 players are expected to be on the Marlies that the Leafs drafted between 2008 and 2011. Each of them has an expectation to one day push for a spot on the Leafs. In comparison, the Leafs had only five draft picks on the Marlies in 2008, the year before Poulin joined Toronto.
“We didn’t inherit a high number of draft picks, that’s just fact. We’ve concentrated on keeping ours,” said Poulin. “You need to develop your own players from a cost stand point.
“I believe from 2003 to 2007, that time frame, there’s only one player playing for the Leafs who was a first or second round pick. That’s Nikolai Kulemin. Those picks by our predecessors were traded before or after they were drafted by the Leafs.”
In charge of developing the young talent, while also keeping the club competitive, will be new head coach Steve Spott.
Spott, who spent the past 14 years coaching in the OHL including the last five as head coach of the Kitchener Rangers, won’t have an easy job in Toronto. But the organization believes he’s the right guy to get the most out of the younger players.
“I think his track record speaks for itself with developing players,” said Poulin. “Look at the players that went through his systems. A number are playing pro hockey, and a number were prepared at 18, which is highly unusual.
“From a development stand point he’s worked with that young group of players before.”
With development being the club’s main focus, Spott will be commended for how many skaters he’s able to groom into NHL-ready players, not for the amount of wins that show up in the stats column. However, Poulin has made it clear that if the team is not competitive with its core of youth players then changes will be made.
“We feel a winning culture is very important.”