If the Leafs want to know what winning looks like they don’t need to look very far. The Toronto Marlies are the class of the AHL and they’ve been built with the future in mind. Weighted by ice time, their roster is the fourth-youngest currently playing in the AHL, yet with 75 points through 47 games, they have a 14-point lead on the next best team in the AHL standings. At 36-8-3 they have a point percentage of .804, which is on track to give them one of the best point percentages in AHL history.
With Kyle Dubas overseeing the operation is Marlies GM, he has brought in key figures to help develop the young talent. Sheldon Keefe, Scott Pellerin and Darryl Belfry all have successful track records working with young talent before coming to Toronto and what they’ve been able to accomplish so far bodes well for the future of the NHL team.
In fact that future could be closer than you think. The age makeup of the Marlies roster, and their up-tempo, puck possession game could lead to NHL promotions in short order.
As we can see by examining the results for some of the top AHL teams over the past decade in terms of goal and shot differentials, the Marlies are on track to produce elite level results. The most comparable team in this cohort appears to be the juggernaut 2009-10 Hershey Bears team that posted a 114-point season in front of the dominant goaltending of Braden Holtby, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth.
While the Marlies leadership is being provided by the likes of 27 year olds Andrew Campbell, Mark Arcobello and Matt Frattin along with the AHL's top scoring defender, 26-year-old T.J. Brennan, the true future stars are all 22 or younger.
Josh Leivo, Stuart Percy, Scott Harrington, Viktor Loov and Garret Sparks are all 22. Last year's leading AHL rookie scorer, Connor Brown, is 21 along with Nikita Soshnikov, Antoine Bibeau and Brendan Leipsic. Hulking first-rounder Frederik Gauthier is 20, as is Rinat Valiev. Meanwhile, the two most noteworthy players on the club from an outside perspective, William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen, are both only 19 years of age.
Arcobello, Leivo, Harrington and Sparks have all already spent time with the Leafs this season, and had he not been derailed by a concussion and appendicitis, Nylander also looked to be on the verge of contributing at the NHL level. When he left for the world juniors Nylander was leading the AHL in scoring, posting an estimated 3.83 points per 60 minutes of play. He picked up an assist in his first game back against Grand Rapids, and has easily been the most consistent offensive producer at the AHL level all season long.
Connor Brown also looks ready for prime time, though the club may be reluctant to have him make the jump because he’s missed most of the season with an injury. But he was the Marlies’ leading scorer last season with 61 points. He scored two goals in his first game back and his three generated shots per game trails only Arcobello and Nylander. Brown plays a solid all-around game and would likely slot into a mid-tier role on the Leafs as a secondary-scoring option reasonably well.
The most likely candidates for promotion post-trade deadline beyond the aforementioned headline group are probably going to be from the Marlies’ middle-aged cohort. Anticipate seeing the likes of 24-year-old left winger Jeremy Morin, who was recently acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks and has six points in 11 games with the Marlies. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see 23-year-old forward Zach Hyman, a leading scorer in the NCAA with Michigan last season and former linemate of Detroit Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin. Hyman is sixth on the Marlies in scoring.
Those are the players we could realistically see in the NHL this season after the trade deadline. But the promise for the future is even brighter when you consider players such as Jeremy Bracco, J.J. Piccinich, and Martins Dzierkals – all rookies in their major junior leagues – are scoring at better than point-per-game paces. Not to mention Swedish sniper Andreas Johnson and the highly touted Mitch Marner.
The talent in Toronto’s pipeline is blossoming at an accelerated pace, and Leafs fans may not need to wait long to see the organizational shift to a proper draft and development model bear fruit. Things should ramp up after the trade deadline. The window to a bright future is about to open.