Dubas: Maple Leafs prospects must ‘master’ AHL first

Maple Leafs assistant GM Kyle Dubas says the club’s top prospects, like William Nylander or Mitch Marner, will control their own fate, when they prove to be NHL ready, they’ll be there.

The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be done taking shortcuts as they rebuild their hockey club.

Under the watch of team president Brendan Shanahan, the Maple Leafs are bringing a new approach to their farm system as they try to avoid the trap of bringing prospects up to the big club too soon.

Appearing on Dean Blundell & Co. Tuesday morning, Maple Leafs assistant general manager Kyle Dubas explained the organization’s approach to development at their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.

“We made the decision as an organization to go forward [with the Marlies] with our youngest prospects,” Dubas said on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “It’s changed our philosophy when building the Marlies.

“When we did that last year, it started to become very exciting and fun to watch. They caught fire and made the playoffs last year. This year, we continued on with the same strategy — going with younger prospects rather than stacking veterans. We still have a few of those guys, but the core of the team is made up with our young prospects that we hope one day will fill the core of the Maple Leafs.”

Under previous regimes the Leafs have had issues developing their young players and one consistent problem has been mixed messages being sent to players at the NHL level and those in their minor-league system.

However, Dubas and the current Maple Leafs front office have drastically altered that approach he says they can already see the benefits of having all levels of the organization on the same page.

“That starts with Brendan [Shanahan] and his vision for the team in wanting the Marlies [players] to learn everything so when they come up to the Maple Leafs, Mike [Babcock] doesn’t have to spend weeks and months teaching them his system and his language and the way he wants them to play,” Dubas explained. “It’s tasked for Sheldon [Keefe] and Gord Dineen to be in constant communication with the Maple Leafs staff and have them – it’s nothing ground breaking – but we try and push them to be in constant touch with each other.

“Sheldon spent all of September with the Leafs and their staff so Sheldon could take those lessons and transfer them to the Marlies so that when they’re called, there’s not a lot of lag time to re-program the players. It’ll be a seamless transition.”

One Marlies player that has stood out early this season is 2014 first-round pick William Nylander, who has seven goals and seven assists in 12 games.

Nylander’s progress is one of the most intriguing aspects of the Marlies, but Dubas is preaching patience, saying the 19-year-old forward, along with all other young players, need to prove they can be complete players for a consistent period of time before being seriously considered for NHL promotion.

“I think he [needs to] continue to sustain the way he’s played the last week or two on both sides of the puck — his offensive abilities have always been there — and now he’s really starting to become consistent,” Dubas explained. “If he continues to do that consistently he’ll start to force the hand of the team. … We have a patient approach.”

Despite reports to the contrary, Dubas says the Maple Leafs’ brass doesn’t have any hard timelines regarding when young prospects will be promoted.

“The term we use internally is that we want the players to master the AHL level and the minor-league level and not bring them up after one good weekend,” he said. “They have to show us they can do all of the things. …Once our guys show they can master [the AHL] consistently, then we’ll have that conversation. That’s up to the players. Never been a hard and fast rule that no one is coming up this year.”

Dubas mentioned a handful of young players that have shown improvement early in the season, including Joshua Leivo, Nikita Soshnikov and defenceman Justin Holl.

Entering Tuesday, the Marlies lead the North Division with a 10-3-0 record and have won seven of their past 10 games.