“They have a ton of skill down there. They have the puck all the time. I saw more plays in four shifts than I saw in a week here. They’re high octane.” — Mike Babcock on Toronto Marlies
All that octane that has fuelled the Toronto Marlies to the best record in the American Hockey League — eight wins clear of their nearest challenger — has been spilling upward, filling in the crevices of a Maple Leafs’ “NHL roster” hacked to pieces, seemingly daily, by its wise and diligent general manager.
The main job of Sheldon Keefe, head coach of the Marlies, is to prepare the reserves. Creating the 2016 Calder Cup favourite has been but a happy side effect.
With the 30th-placed big club leaking oil as intended — farewell, Roman Polak! pack your bags, P.A. Parenteau! — Keefe has now sent six Marlies regulars east along the Gardiner Expressway to the ACC. That number will swell by the time Uncle Lou’s Fire Sale is complete.
“I really can’t remember the last time we dressed the same lineup on back-to-back nights,” Keefe told Dean Blundell & Co. on Sportsnet The Fan 590 Tuesday. “There’s always something happening, be it injuries or recalls.”
There is, as Toronto fans are well aware, a grand organization plan here, and Keefe knows his role within it.
When the AHL schedule allows, the farm club coach attends Maple Leafs practices and games. Keefe frequently speaks with Babcock. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan wants the Marlies and Leafs to be using the same language when devising game plans and systems, thus easing prospects’ transition to the big leagues.
Keefe isn’t just getting the players NHL-ready. He’s specifically getting them Babcock-ready.
“That’s really helped me get a better feel for the system, the finer points of it, and the expectations of the players,” Keefe said. “I like to work with the [prospects] every day and leave the decisions to the higher-ups.”
Three Marlies, in particular, have captured fans’ interest but have yet to be recalled this season.
“He was not a fun guy to play against,” Keefe said of six-foot-three, 215-pound Swede.
Chief Leafs scout Mark Hunter slotted Lindberg high on his list, and Lamoriello said he was the one individual Senators prospect that Toronto targeted.
But the winger’s acclimation to a new system and set of teammates wasn’t seamless, according to Keefe. Lindberg, who has two assists in four Marlies games, is different than the other Toronto hopefuls.
“Bigger guy. Big and strong. Has ability to go real heavy on the puck on the offensive zone. Really, there’s a lot to like there,” Keefe said. “I certainly believe he’s on the path to be an NHL player.”
2. T.J. Brennan, 26, has faith that he’s on that path, too. The defenceman leads all Marlies in goals (20) and assists (29) but has yet to build on his 46 games of NHL experience.
“He’s obviously had a tremendous amount of success in the American Hockey League in producing points. There’s a lot more to the game than just that,” said Keefe.
The coach and his assistants are working on Brennan’s play away from the puck as well as his foot speed in an effort to make him a more complete player. (Read: More of a Babcock guy.)
“He’s getting older now, and despite that he continues to work every day and believes he can be an NHL player,” Keefe said. “He puts in the time. He wants to watch video. He wants feedback. So he’s not comfortable by any means.”
3. And then, of course, there’s the thrilling 19-year-old, William Nylander. Had any other franchise drafted him top-eight in 2014, surely Nylander would’ve already made his NHL debut.
Well, the smart money says he gets a look after the trade deadline, even if Keefe is non-committal.
“I would say that the way things are going,” Keefe allowed, “there seems to be more and more opportunity opening up, and I would certainly think William is a guy at the top of that list.”