TORONTO – Same colours. Same ice surface. Same day.
Yet the two Toronto-based pro hockey teams couldn’t possibly be having more disparate seasons – a fact that was apparent while watching them play hours apart during an Air Canada Centre doubleheader on Saturday.
You had first then worst: A Marlies team that routinely wins without its best game and a Maple Leafs squad perpetually trying to push away the idea that its best isn’t enough.
Having made several trips to Ricoh Coliseum, Mike Babcock is well aware of the talent gap. He came away impressed from the Marlies comeback victory over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Friday night.
“All I know is that they have a ton of skill down there, they have the puck all the time,” Babcock said. “I saw more plays in four shifts than I saw in a week here.”
Harsh, but true.
Even in a Saturday afternoon affair that saw the American Hockey League’s best team get off to a sluggish start, trailing the Portland Pirates 13-2 on the shot clock before the first intermission, the Marlies eventually found their mojo – as they inevitably do – and delivered a 3-1 victory on the strength of two Brendan Leipsic goals.
“(Early on) we were kind of forcing things east to west a little bit, including myself,” said Leipsic. “Then towards the second half of the game we started shooting for rebounds, started getting second opportunities.
“Once we started doing that I think we got them running a bit.”
The Marlies have the entire league on the run with a 40-9-4 record and plus-78 goal differential. They could take the final 23 games off and still probably qualify for the playoffs.
An early power play saw them throw forwards William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Nikita Soshnikov over the boards on Saturday. Each of those players is likely to play in the NHL at some point down the road. On the blue line, Toronto had Stuart Percy and 20-goal defenceman T.J. Brennan, both of whom already have some NHL experience on their resume.
There are plenty of other promising lottery tickets on the roster as well.
Depending on which scouts you ask, there is belief that forwards Zach Hyman, Tobias Lindberg and Connor Brown all have NHL potential. Possibly even defenceman Rinat Valiev, too.
When you add that to Nylander, Soshnikov, Kapanen and Leipsic, there is a lot of potential here. They won’t all make it, of course – it never works out like that – but with so much young skill in one place there’s some hope.
In fact, it’s telling that Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe sounded a little disappointed after Saturday’s win, the team’s 15th in 19 games since the start of January. His situation allows him to critique the process and that’s left him a bit concerned that his game-breaking bunch isn’t being pushed enough.
“We fight that every day,” said Keefe. “I don’t know if it’s complacency, I don’t know if it’s whether you just have skill people that feel confident and comfortable that they’re going to figure it out and find their way through games.”
The Leafs, by contrast, face a talent deficit every night that can really only be made up by hard work. Occasionally they manage to bridge the gap – a 5-2 spanking of the Canucks last Saturday which featured a goal from Leipsic in his first NHL game comes to mind – but more often than not they’re left trying to accentuate the positives.
There were a few of those in Saturday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Philadelphia, but they were overshadowed by a couple defensive miscues and spotty goaltending.
Babcock replaced Jonathan Bernier with James Reimer following the “worst 13 minutes I’d seen in a long time” and produced a spark. The Leafs turned a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 lead, but that lasted all of 32 seconds before Philadelphia tied things up.
Flyers super-rookie Shayne Gostisbehere ended the game 29 seconds into overtime.
“You need competitive people to have success,” said Babcock. “We’re going to end up with lots of competitive people, but we don’t have enough now.”
“I thought we battled hard, I thought we played well,” added Reimer. “You know, head’s up.”
There is some fatigue setting in here. The Leafs are in the midst of a second-half swoon, not far off what they went through last season, and will soon be weakened further with the Feb. 29 trade deadline looming.
They are dead last in the NHL and will be hoping for a good bounce in the draft lottery.
In the meantime, fans and the front office can look down the road for encouragement. A couple Marlies players might still find their way back to the ACC this season – don’t be surprised if Nylander makes his NHL debut in March or April – and the AHL team still has an outside chance to set new league records for wins and winning percentage.
This batch of Marlies is a special group.
“I had some good teams in junior there, but nothing really matches up to this,” said Leipsic. “We’ve got a lot of skill and we’re learning to play with structure. …
“We expect to win every game and we expect to win convincingly.”
You can say that about a hockey team in Toronto?