TORONTO – The Marlies have officially taken over the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ dressing room.
With forwards Frederik Gauthier and Josh Leivo recalled for Saturday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres, it brought the number of Toronto players who started this season playing in the American Hockey League to 11.
The majority of them helped turn the Marlies into the AHL’s best team before getting a promotion, but it’s taken a comical number of injuries at the NHL level for so many to be here at the same time. It’s certainly created a youthful enthusiasm around the league’s 30th-place team.
“Obviously three years from now we don’t want to be doing this,” said coach Mike Babcock. “But right now this is what we’re doing and it’s a lot of fun.”
Gauthier will be the 11th player to make his NHL debut with the Leafs this season, and the ninth to do so in the last three weeks alone. The big centre was the organization’s first-round pick in 2013 and has put in a lot of hours with skating coach Barb Underhill to improve his speed.
“Working with her helped me a lot,” said Gauthier. “I think it helped my skating. It’s paid off so far.”
Babcock believes the 20-year-old is about a year away from challenging for a regular roster spot with the Leafs, but is open to the player changing his mind about that timeline if he performs well.
“Every time I looked at him today he was six-foot-five, so I liked that,” said Babcock. “The question’s always going to be pace: Can he get up and down the rink? Every coach that coaches him plays him all the time, so that must mean he’s good defensively and he’s got a good hockey IQ.”
In an effort to ease his transition, Babcock pencilled him in as the centre of an all-Marlies line with Connor Brown and Leivo, who has played 25 previous NHL games.
There were a lot of smiles when Gauthier joined the team for Saturday’s morning skate. He’s a dressing room favourite in the AHL – Nikita Soshnikov said “Freddy the Goat’s here!” when he saw reporters crowding around Gauthier’s locker – and had teammates discussing some of the quirks that usually keep those around him laughing.
“He’s a very hungry man usually,” said goalie Garret Sparks. “Loves Chipotle, loves puzzles, loves RollerCoaster Tycoon. But overall he’s a very kind-hearted soul and he’s a great addition to any locker-room.”
Based on the injury report given by Babcock, it’s reasonable to assume that at least a couple of players will be returned to the Marlies in the very near future.
Tyler Bozak is nearly ready to return after missing six weeks with a concussion while Leo Komarov and Brad Boyes are close to being ready as well. Babcock labelled Peter Holland’s status as “day to day, to 10.”
The young Leafs have competed hard – going 3-2-1 in the last six games – but aren’t quite scoring enough for the coach’s liking.
“We’ve been in the games, we’ve given ourselves a chance,” said Babcock. “I think we’re getting just as many chances (as the opposition), but we’re not as good offensively. We don’t shoot the pill.”
The Leafs will dress 11 players under the age of 24 against Buffalo. That’s highly unusual.
It’s an even younger team that the Cincinnati squads Babcock coached in the AHL 15 years ago, and he says the Leafs’ current makeup requires a more hands-on approach than he’s used to.
“You need five or six hands when you change lines, you’ve got to have a hand on every sweater,” said Babcock. “It’s different that way, but I think part of the reason it’s different is because they’re not quite as calm, you’re not quite as calm, so then everything’s more erratic off the bench.”