April 13, 2015
TORONTO– With a full-blown rebuild already under way, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be taking a different approach to developing their prospects than in years past.
Under previous management Toronto had been using its American Hockey League squad in a way that could potentially limit the growth of its up-and-coming players in the system. Former decision makers preferred to focus on a “winning culture” at the minor-league level — even if it meant a prospect became a healthy scratch over a veteran.
That way of thinking, however, is in the past and the new philosophy being brought on by team president Brendan Shanahan and his crew is very much in stark contrast compared to the old way.
“I believe that the American league team, especially ours in our situation, should be a team for young players to have a chance to develop to their max potential in every single regard, put them in situations where they can establish themselves as leaders of the team and begin to push the team forward,” said new Leafs interim general manager Kyle Dubas, who also serves as GM of the Toronto Marlies.
“The American Hockey League team should be comprised of young players, give them a chance to see what they’re about, not have their minutes locked out by your prototypical quadruple-A players.”
This season the Marlies have already started placing more attention on prospect development over veterans and its evident when you look at who has been leading the club statistically.
Prior to this year, Toronto’s most relied upon skaters and point producers were more experienced players that were not drafted or developed by Toronto and signed from somewhere else — from T.J. Brennan and Spencer Abbott last season under previous Marlies GM Dave Poulin, or Ryan Hamilton and Mike Zigomanis when recently fired GM Dave Nonis ran the AHL club as assistant to Brian Burke. That doesn’t even include many older players who were shipped down to the minors to clear cap space and mistakes over the years, such as Jeff Finger, Tim Connolly, Mike Komisarek or Colton Orr to name a few.
This year, though, Toronto has a homegrown draft pick in 21-year-old Connor Brown leading the team — and all AHL rookies — in scoring with 60 points in 72 games. Twenty-year-old Brendan Leipsic, although acquired from the Nashville Predators midseason, is showing potential and has produced 51 points in 70 contests split between the Marlies and Milwaukee Admirals. And right behind them is Toronto’s top prospect, 18-year William Nylander, who has 27 points in 33 games since joining the Marlies mid-season from Sweden.
Another major change in approach is developing players will no longer be drafted or bred for specific roles with the big club.
During the time that Poulin was in charge of the Marlies, the organization was often trying to put prospects into set places rather than letting the players prove their value to the club.
“I think a player’s play and make up determines his role and we simply help him develop it and understand it,” Poulin said in 2013. “Certain skill sets define a role.”
“I think there’s a vision that starts with Dave Nonis that each of these players have an area that they can contribute to the Maple Leafs and it’s our job to bring those traits out,” said Steve Spott while serving as Marlies head coach last season.
While it’s clear some players are never meant to be scoring threats, and most are better than others in certain areas, Dubas sees development for the future of the Maple Leafs in a another way.
“I think to pigeonhole a player with the Marlies as a bottom-six forward or bottom-pair defenseman, my personal opinion is that that would only serve to limit their development,” said Dubas. “We may be blocking out a player who has a lot of promise.
“What we’re trying to become is four lines, six defensemen who can play in all situations. We want to roll out teams where every player in the lineup is not blocked into one position, they can be versatile.”
The average age of an AHL roster can fluctuate daily based on call-ups, demotions and injuries, but this year the Marlies have been one of the league’s youngest teams at around 23.4 years old.
Along with Nonis and Spott, there were other personal shown the door on Sunday that played a role with the Marlies in recent time. Chief pro scout Steve Kasper, director of player development Jim Hughes and goalie coach Rick St. Croix, as well as many scouts were let go. Steve Staois was kept and will be in a player-development position.
The changes made by Shanahan on Sunday proves that his faith moving forward right now is in Dubas and Mark Hunter — two of his own recruits that are in charge of who Toronto adds to its depth pool at this summer’s NHL Draft.
What they are able to accomplish with the proper use of the Marlies could ultimately define the future of hockey in Toronto.
There may not be pushes for a Calder Cup during the rebuilding process that Toronto is setting up, but developing prospects to make an impact with the Leafs will more than make up for that down the road if Shanahan and company are successful with their new vision.
“The winning is great but when I say success with the Marlies, it’s players maximizing their development,” said Dubas. “If we’re drafting good players and they’re maximizing their development then we’re going to have success in the (AHL) standings. Those guys who have success there will make it easier to move on to the Leafs, they’ll come up more confident and hopefully that will keep rolling on.”