April 2, 2015
TORONTO– When it comes to developing future talent, the Toronto Maple Leafs plan to take an approach usually only seen in baseball.
Major League Baseball clubs, for years, have had up to six minor-league affiliates at different levels for their prospects to work their way up through, while NHL teams have typically only used one— the American Hockey League.
That is changing, however, for Toronto as it plans to maximize the ECHL as a place where its players are sent to be developed and introduced to pro hockey, not just cast away.
“I think the perception of the ECHL is that the player is going there for punishment or he’s really struggled,” said Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas.
“We want to use it as entry level to pro hockey for younger players to start out there.”
In the past, sending a player down to the ECHL didn’t bode well for his future. Often the player was seen as already been given up on or not having a future in the NHL.
Dubas hopes with time that train of thought can be altered.
“It’s a slow change,” said Dubas. “We would like to have it where first-year players start in Orlando and graduate to the Marlies and then to the Leafs. That’s going to take time for the buy in and the mindset for how people view pro hockey.”
With NHL organizations being limited to 50 contracts, majority of the players whose rights are owned by Toronto fill out the Leafs and Marlies rosters, although a few have made their way down to the ECHL at some point this season.
To increase the team’s pool of depth Dubas, who holds the title of Marlies GM, started to add extra prospects through AHL contracts at the beginning of the 2014-15 season. This is something that can only now happen because the Canadian Hockey League changed their benefit packages for graduating players. Graduates are now welcome to sign a two-year AHL deal without jeopardizing their scholarship packages that were earned through playing junior.
It’s a new approach to adding young players without having to draft or trade that Dubas hopes he can use to Toronto’s advantage.
“We’re just trying to add more prospects, more darts at the board,” said Dubas.
“If they push themselves to a point that they earn a call up then we’ll look at an NHL contract.”
The Maple Leafs have had 14 players signed to some form of an AHL agreement this season, including amateur try-out agreements. Eight have found themselves on Orlando’s roster at some point in the year. That will most likely expand next season.
Adding another development team to the fold won’t mean a player will be restricted or held back to pay his dues if he’s earned a chance at the next level.
It’s about expanding options that Dubas and company believe will benefit the Leafs as they try and rebuild the club into a contender through a youth movement.
“It’s not conventional to become a three-tier organization,” said Dubas. “(But) we’re really trying to use Orlando as a Double-A affiliate.”
Toronto is currently in the first year of a two-year agreement with Orlando.