April 24, 2015
TORONTO– Top-end prospects like Connor Brown and William Nylander will play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But only when management believes they’ve done all they can in the American Hockey League.
Team president Brendan Shanahan and his crew have continuously stressed that patience is mandatory as the organization undergoes a rebuilding process.
Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas is the first to tell you that taking the extra time to not rush developing players with the Toronto Marlies, making sure their game is well rounded and ready to be transitioned to the next league, is part of that discipline.
“My philosophy is that we need to bring the players up when they’re ready to be regular contributors to the Leafs, not when we need them to fill spot duty and various things like that,” said Dubas.
“I know every player wants to be brought up, media calls for players to be brought up, I enjoy the banter, but it’s not going to deter us from staying with the course we set out.”
When Nazem Kadri broke into pro with the Marlies as a 20-year-old in 2010, he played 14 minor-league games before the Leafs summoned him for the first time. He was sent back down within six weeks.
Over his first two seasons he would be re-called and returned to the minors five times – something that Dubas doesn’t want to see happen with the new core of developing players.
“We don’t want to shuttle them up and down all the time, worry about their confidence being shaken, playing minimal minutes on the fourth line and coming back down and wondering where they fit in,” said Dubas.
This past season forwards Greg McKegg and Sam Carrick, as well as defencemen Andrew MacWilliam and Petter Granberg – all restricted free agents this summer – were given time with the Leafs, but not because they were seen as ready to make the full-time jump. There’s always an exception to the rule.
“Third-year, entry-level (contracts), you bring them up because it’s valuable,” said Dubas.
The time spent with the big club, however, won’t make or break final decisions made by management.
Carrick, a 22-year-old centre who dressed 16 times this season for the Leafs, was the player discussed when Dubas explained.
“Those minutes add to his sample,” said Dubas. “We won’t make calls based on his future just off those games (with the Leafs). It goes into the greater sample at large when we’re evaluating.
“(NHL games) are good to measure progression, but it’s not great to measure overall effectiveness or potential.”
Brown, 21, finished his first season with the Marlies as the AHL rookie scoring leader with 21 goals and 61 points in 76 games. He was Toronto’s most consistent player from opening night.
Eighteen-year-old Nylander, who’s been playing left-wing since coming over from Sweden mid-season, produced 14 goals and 32 points in 37 games with the Marlies – the second best point-per game output of anyone his age in the AHL since 1998.
But those numbers won’t be everything that dictates when it’s time to bring them up. There are still boxes that the organization wants checked off on each player’s report card before believing it’s time for them to join the Leafs.
“Increase his responsibility late in games, protecting leads, working his way onto the penalty kill,” were some of the examples Dubas used when discussing what else the club wants to see specifically from Nylander.
Despite Brown and Nylander’s success as rookies, the organization feels there is still more to prove before deciding when they’re ready to be everyday Maple Leafs.
Starting another season in the AHL isn’t out of the question for either player – especially considering Nylander doesn’t even turn 20 years old until May 2016.
“To me I think being patient with prospects is easy as long as you believe in what you are doing,” said Dubas. “There’s always going to be noise around the Maple Leafs, if you allow that influence then we’ll start rushing guys.”
The Marlies open the post-season Saturday when they host the Grand Rapids Griffins in Game 1 of a best-of-five first-round series.